Preschoolers rarely have the gift of discretion. They will frequently make observations about topics that many grown-ups avoid, including disability. I still remember the looks of shock when my two-year-old daughter had blurted out in the park, “Mama, that man is in a wheelchair! That’s because he can’t walk!’
Although her blunt observation might have been less tasteful than one generated by an adult, it was far less rude than a slackjawed stare and a whisper from Mom. The man who had caught my daughter’s attention smiled and gladly engaged her in conversation. He told her about his granddaughter, who adores his wheelchair. He showed her a few of the buttons. He asked my daughter her name, age and favorite color. She adored every minute of this conversation, but puzzled-looking bystanders seemed confused that he was not offended.
My preschooler encounters many people with disabilities– several of her family members and many of her best friends have disabling conditions. Because of this, it’s been important for me to frankly discuss disabilities with my preschooler. If your preschooler has begun asking questions about disabilities– or you simply feel it’s time for an important discussion– here are some guidelines for talking to your preschooler about disability.
1. Don’t discourage curiosity. A friend of mine, who is disabled, once told me that she feels extremely uncomfortable when parents tell their children “Don’t stare,” or “Hush,’ when the kids observe that she is wheelchair-bound. She will gladly show kids her wheelchair and explain why she needs it– and is never offended by preschoolers’ natural disposition toward curiosity. Additionally, the one-on-one discussion helps the children to understand the challenges associated with disability.
Although some disabled people may feel differently, it’s almost always preferable to explain a potentially awkward situation to children, instead of instructing them to avoid the topic. Avoidance teaches them that disability is taboo and that you can’t have a conversation with someone who has special needs– and this is certainly not the message that you want to send your children.
2. Emphasize similarities. My toddler took speech therapy for several months. However, because she was very expressive, she often had little in common with the severely delayed children she would sometimes encounter in the waiting room. At one point, she tried to engage a much-older child in conversation, and the girl responded by grunting and giggling. My daughter looked confused at the reaction, so I simply explained, “It looks like she has trouble talking. She has speech therapy just like you. I’ll bet she knows Miss Rachel!”
The point of connection– that the girl had speech therapy and knew Miss Rachel– automatically made my daughter’s emotions turn from uncomfortable to friendly.. My daughter instantly accepted the differences and began comparing their homework folders and reward stickers. Both children enjoyed themselves– much to the relief of myself and he girl’s mother– because I found a common point. When you discuss a child with disabilities with your preschooler, make a point of finding something that the kids share in common– a teacher, an interest, a movie, or even a hair color– and it will make both your child and the disabled person much more comfortable.
3. Have zero tolerance for bullying. There are several misbehaviors that I will sometimes tolerate from my preschooler. I may give in to the occasional tantrum, accept up-all-night extravaganzas, and even look the other way when I hear her slip a curse word. However, when it comes to bullying of other children, I know I will always put my foot down.
Bullying can take so many subtle forms that parents may not always recognize it. It doesn’t just involve taunting and name-calling. It can involve leaving a disabled kid out of preschool games, refusing to share more than usual, or observing that someone walks or talks “funny” because of a disability. More severe forms of bullying have their start in the preschool years, so it is critical to nip this serious misbehavior as early as possible.
Teach your preschooler the importance of respecting those with special needs. If you ever notice your preschooler engaging in bullying or discriminatory behavior, firmly explain that the disabled person has feelings, just like everyone else, and that your child is fortunate to be able-bodied. As always, the golden rule remains key in teaching respect and tolerance for people of all shapes, sizes, and levels of ability.