My 3-year-old son said this to me while we were eating lunch at a Panera Bread restaurant. He was looking at a server who was walking with a limp, his spine curved and was captivated in that innocent way toddlers are by anything new. To my horror, before I could even respond to him, he got up and started mimicking the man’s walk.
I was, as you can imagine, mortified and pretty sure the server was aware my son was fixated on him. But I also immediately recognized that my son’s comment and movements were not done maliciously. He was genuinely fascinated and ultimately I came to find out he thought the man’s walk was really cool. I mustered up my courage and rather than simply shush him and say something like “that’s not polite!” or “don’t do that!” I pulled him quickly into my lap. Here’s what I said:
Me: “Honey, you shouldn’t call that man crooked. He is a regular man, just like daddy. He just he walks differently. ”
Son: “But when I get bigger and bigger, I want to walk like the crooked man!”
Me: “Well, I’m not sure why he walks that way, but right now you don’t walk like him. When you pretended to walk like him he may have thought you were teasing him. It doesn’t feel good when someone teases you, does it?”
Son: “No, it doesn’t.”
Me: “We have to remember everyone is different and that differences are what make us special. Let’s go say hi to him.”
Thankfully, I had read several articles that had suggestions on what to do when kids bring up physical differences. Check out this and this for inspiration. The take aways are similar to talking with kids about race: consider moments like these as opportunities vs embarrassments; don’t sweep your child’s comments under the rug with a “that’s not very nice” type of comment; provide opportunities for your child to interact with people with disabilities. Sounds familiar, right?
This was the first time my son commented on a persons differences in public but I can assume it will not be the last. I’m hoping the next time we go to Panera and encounter the same server he will fixate less on his gait and focus more on him as a person. This raising kids stuff is hard work. I realize more and more how much effort it takes to intentionally try to raise a socially conscious kid. But it’s worth it.
Has your child ever commented on another persons appearance or disability before? How did you handle it?