Kids who look different know they look different, they don’t need to be told. Or stared at because they have a brace on their leg or sit in a wheelchair or have a facial deformity. They can hear you and they can see you.
As parents, our kids look to us to know how to act. And according to Julie Zielinski, M.D., of Carilion Clinic Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgery, who often works with children with physical differences and their families, knowing how to act toward people with differences starts at home.
“Different doesn’t mean bad,” she said. “If parents point out other kids as being weird or different, or they gasp, stare or point, their kids are going to pick up on it and act the same.”
It’s not always easy to know how to explain things to our kids. Follow these tips from Dr. Zielinski to help your kids know how to act when they see someone who is a little bit different.
- Use language they can understand. Try to think the way a child thinks and use basic words and sentences to explain the appropriate way to act. For example, they may not know what the word disability means, but they can understand what it means to look different or need a little extra help.
- Educate them and be honest. Not everyone is the same and it’s okay to recognize that. What’s not okay is being hurtful toward someone or labeling them because of it. Talk about what’s on the inside of a person—their feelings and thoughts and sense of humor—not just what you can see on the outside.
- Explain the bigger picture. It’s not just about how to treat people who are different, it’s about how to treat people in general. It’s always a good idea to think about how others feel and try not to do or say things that would make them feel badly.
- Tell them what they should do, not just what they shouldn’t do. Kids aren’t always able to figure out what the right thing is to do, they need guidance. Sometimes it helps to ask them to think about how they would feel in a situation; if there was something that made them look different, how would they want people to act toward them?
- Give examples. It’s a lot easier for kids to understand what they’re supposed to do in a new situation if you give them examples. Even better, practice with them before the situation arises. If they see a child who is different from them, what could they say and do? How could they make that child feel comfortable or how could they help?
- Encourage questions. Let your kids be curious. Make it okay for them to ask you any questions they may have about a topic or a person (quietly, though, if it is when the person is nearby). Also, most people who look different aren’t going to mind if kids ask them questions, as long as they don’t feel like they’re being made fun of. If your kids are able to ask someone questions about their difference in a positive and friendly way, let them!
- Be positive. Kids respond to your tone of voice and your attitude when you talk to them. If you speak matter-of-factly about the topic, and in a positive way, they will feel more comfortable when they encounter people who are different. For example, if your child points out a child with a leg brace, instead of feeling bad for them, you could say “Remember when you hurt your ankle that time?” or “I bet they have a really interesting story!”.
- Practice what you preach. Kids learn best by watching the adults around them. Be aware of how you are acting, because your kids will be watching you for cues on how they should behave. If you point, gasp or pity a child who looks different, that’s what your kids will do, too. Look for opportunities to talk to, or help, people who look different so your kids can learn from you.
Unfortunately, kids who look different are often the target of bullying. It’s important to also talk to your kids about bullying, and teach them what to do when they witness someone being bullied.
If your kids see a child being picked on, let them know to find a trusted adult to tell—a teacher, a police officer, a parent—and to stand up for the child whenever possible.
For more information on kids and bullying, visit StopBullying.gov.