Talking To Your Children About Disability

The beauty of children is that they plainly see a simple truth: My son’s disability really doesn’t impact them much. Bobby is just a kid in their school, in their class, in their neighborhood.

As a lesbian mama to a 7-year-old with Down syndrome, I am grateful that we live in a relatively open time. Compared to my own childhood where homosexuals were locked in the closet and people with disabilities were segregated in special schools, children today are exposed to all sorts of people and situations from a very early age.

However, as refreshing as the openness is, it can be a lot for parents to manage. Witness the thousands of “How to Talk to Your Children About…” articles on the internet.

My opinion about talking to your children about differences between people is that you should let your children lead the conversation wherever possible. By and large, young children are naturally accepting of my son. Bullying and meanness only come once they have been exposed to negativity from an outside source. In fact, when discussing differences, if you let children speak first, they may well disabuse you of some of your ingrained biases.

When my son was in kindergarten, a girl in his class approached him and me during morning drop off one day, saying “Hi, Bobby.”

He did not respond. Feeling awkward, I intervened, urging him to say “hello” and explaining to the girl that Bobby did not talk yet.

I was immediately reprimanded. “I know Bobby. We do music together. He talks. Just in his own way.”

I was the only person who felt awkward in the moment, wanting Bobby to match a social expectation. She accepted him for who he was. Perhaps felt a kinship with his silence. The little girl greeted him most days after that—sometimes with a “hi” and sometimes by approaching him and wordlessly looking into his eyes. My sense was that they understood one another better than I understood either of them.

That same year, Bobby spent part of his day in a general education classroom with typical peers. I knew many parents who did presentations to introduce the class to Down syndrome but I procrastinated, not sure how to talk to children that age about what for me was such a huge topic.

A few weeks in, I asked the teacher how the other students reacted to Bobby. After watching him a couple of days they had concluded that “he was still learning things they already knew,” like talking and using a pencil. They encouraged and even sometimes nagged him about doing his work. But there was nothing monumental in his Down syndrome for them. I was relieved I hadn’t done the presentation—I would have mucked things up.

Children are even accepting even when their curiosity is jarring. Once when Bobby and I were walking in our neighborhood, several young girls surrounded us, wanting to know:

“Why are his eyes slanted?’

“Why does he talk funny?”

“Why doesn’t he ever stop to play with us?”

The last question was not dependent on the first two. They did not see his appearance or slurred speech as cause for alarm or for ignoring him. They just wanted to understand some obvious differences.

I admired them. When Bobby was born I could only see his Down syndrome, but over the years he taught me that he is so much more than his diagnosis. He has a mischievous sense of humor. He loves and knows how to capture attention. In a family of neurotic mamas, he lives in the moment.

His life is no tragedy. Other children get that intuitively.

It’s not that his peers are deeply insightful, able to “see past” his disability. It’s certainly not the case that young children are little angels, somehow “above” the bullying and shunning that older people fall into. The beauty of children is that they plainly see a simple truth: My son’s disability really doesn’t impact them much. Bobby is just a kid in their school, in their class, in their neighborhood.

He is a playmate. Quick to laugh.

He is a classmate, working toward the same goals as his peers, albeit at a slower pace.

He is a touchstone for a little girl on a playground who feels misunderstood and just wants some silent understanding from a boy in her music class.

Unfortunately as they get older, they may unlearn this easiness of acceptance. They will learn about social hierarchies and may make him a victim of their insecurity by bullying him. They will absorb social conventions and feel uncomfortable with a boy who doesn’t speak much. As their lives become busier they may lose patience with a classmate who moves slowly, whose speech is not always clear.

This is where parents can help. You can help by working to unlearn your own biases about people who have differences. You can help ferret out the insidious pieces of our culture that teach and reinforce mistrust. If you hear your child making fun of someone with intellectual disabilities, don’t emphasize the differences by teaching that people with disabilities are unfortunate souls who deserve charity or pity. Instead, find out what has compelled your child to degrade another human being. Remember that our rejection of another human being is more a sign of inner turmoil than of any external cause and effect. Get below the surface.

The payoff is an adult who benefits from the great diversity of people who live in this world. Who reacts to newness with curiosity instead of fear. People who accept my son into their world are not “doing him a favor.” They are gaining a new perspective for themselves. A new perspective and a new friend.

And if this seems like a big change from the things you were taught and you start to lose your way, talk to a 4 year old. They have been some of my best teachers.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in Chicago with her partner and son.

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