I was walking around the mall with my kids the other day when my toddler started pulling on my arm and saying loudly, “Mom, look! He has his own bike! Why is he riding a bike inside?” Confused, I looked around and saw she was pointing to a man in a wheelchair about 15 feet from us. There’s no way he didn’t hear her. My first reaction was probably the same as yours might have been—embarrassment. Worry. Shame in how she was acting. My toddler was yelling about a disabled stranger and pointing at him openly! Hadn’t I been taught my whole life that pointing was rude? That drawing attention to a disability was rude? I bent over to tell her it was called a wheelchair and to hush. But typical toddler, she wouldn’t hush. She kept asking me questions and saying it looked fun. That’s when it dawned on me: this was an opportunity to teach her about people who might look or act differently from her. This was my chance to raise her without awkwardness when getting to know someone new, even if that someone has a handicap.
As parents, its our duty to teach our children right from wrong, answer their questions as best we can, and basically just try not to screw them up for life. We all have moments of doubt, wondering if we handled a situation correctly. So on this day in the mall, when I decided to allow attention to be drawn to us as I explained why someone might be in a wheelchair, instead of running from the scene with my eyes lowered, I wondered if I was handling the whole thing correctly. Fortunately, the man was very kind and came closer to show my daughter his chair better. He answered her questions about his not having legs and even offered to let her push him around the store. From that day forward, I decided that whenever I am out with my kids and they see something they have a question about, I would let them point and ask their questions.
“We don’t say those things.”
“Shh please, child.”
“Put your finger down. It’s rude to point.”
“Stop asking questions.”
How many times have you heard these statements? Maybe your mother said them to you when you were a curious little girl or maybe you’ve said them to your own child when he showed interest in someone who looked or seemed different than him? We are so worried about offending or embarrassing someone (or ourselves) that we hush all questions and squash all curiosity. In doing so, we unintentionally teach our children that to be different is to be shamed, judged, ignored or apologized for. But how are we supposed to teach our children respect, no matter our differences, if we won’t ever let them ask their questions and learn the whys?
Children, especially young children like my three-year-old daughter, are usually quite innocent in their curiosity. My toddler meant no mockery when she pointed at the sweet man in the wheelchair. As most little children’s pointing, it was not to tease or and she didn’t mean to draw unwanted attention. In her mind, the pointing made sense. How else was I supposed to see what she was looking at and asking questions about? And her questions weren’t meant to intrude on his personal business. She just had never seen someone with his specific disability before and she thought his chair with wheels was cool!
At what point does this innocent curiosity become an embarrassing thing? At what point have we stopped wanting to learn more about something or someone, just because society has told us not to intrude? Why is showing interest in someone’s life, problems, victories and way of living something to be avoided, if they are willing to answer?
Of course, there is the chance of rudeness when someone is pointing at you or asking too many questions that are none of our business. But I believe this rudeness comes when the pointer does so with no intention of introducing him or herself. When hushed whispers and quick sideways glances make the “different” person feel uncomfortable, like the butt of a joke, that’s when the pointing becomes rude. So how to avoid this? Teach our growing generation that it is okay to ask questions. It’s okay to learn about a disease, how a car accident can alter your life, how some of us are born with fiery red hair or go bald because of cancer treatments. Teach our children that everyone is unique but unique does not mean wrong or bad. And we must do our best to teach our kids when questions are appropriate and how to be polite about personal things.
It is still scary to face my toddler’s loud, personal questions about a stranger near us. It’s scary to answer her questions instead of hush her and slink away to social safety. It’s scary to face the very real possibility of someone taking offense, even if no offense is meant. But I’ll do it. I’ll let my kids point and ask their questions because I want to teach them honesty, respect, kindness, what makes us unique and how to be polite. I don’t want my kids growing up thinking they have to tip toe around someone with Down Syndrome because they “don’t know how to act around people like that.” I don’t want my kids to feel uncomfortable when speaking to someone with a stutter but to, instead, not even hear it. And I really don’t want my kids to ever think that teasing is okay.
So when my daughter yells out, “Oh, that baby is crying, is it because she has that thing on her face?” I’ll teach her that “thing” is called glasses. I’ll explain what glasses are for and I’ll address her concerns of why the baby might be crying, because none of her curiosity or my honest educating comes from a mean spirited place. That way, she will respond with empathy and decide to go make a new friend, feeling comfortable interacting with anyone around her.