Navigating differences, diversity, and disabilities with our kids

1. Education and preparation

I always imagined the distinction between kids being raised “in the home” and kids being sent “into the world” to be a much cleaner break. Much more defined and separated. But the reality is that from a very early age, children are ever coming and going. A healthy child’s life is an ongoing intermingling of being carefully sheltered and abruptly exposed, intentionally equipped and utterly unprepared, knowing the answers and coming with all the questions. Because of this, we will never fully prep our kids for all they will encounter.

So while we know there is no possible way to teach our kids every facet of “different” that they may interface with, it is always worth finding ways to intentionally educate them and strategically prepare them to the best of our ability. Because it starts as an innocently curious toddler in the grocery store asking an all too loud question and one day turns into a teenage clique of clones giving those on the outside an all too condescending sneer.

Education and preparation can start at a young age. It can be naturally incorporated into the books that lean on our shelves, the toys that fill up our boxes, the movies that play through our screens, and the food that sits on our plates. As they grow we are the ones who can fill their eyes with all sorts of colors and capabilities, flood their ears with varying accents and impediments, and stuff their tummies with differing cultures and communities. We can go to stores in different parts of town for the sake of exposure and we can visit hospitals and nursing homes for the sake of interaction. We can learn by going outside of our homes and we can also learn by bringing differences and diversity into our homes. As much as we can help it, we shouldn’t let our kids most teachable moments be forced out of us by their own stopping and staring and shouting out questions. But sometimes that’s the way education will unavoidably come, and that’s okay too.

2. Distinguish rudeness vs awareness

Even with an adequate amount of information and preparation, the truth is that kids are uncomfortably curious. They are loudly observant. They are unashamedly honest. And it doesn’t take long to realize that these things can lead to humorous comments but that they can also produce really hurtful ones too.

This is where we can decide what kind of momentary reaction is appropriate to give and what kind of follow up response we may need to bring back up later. When a child makes a remark that is unkind the result can be and should be, correction. Here we can simply and sternly tell them no. Here is where it is right to whisper that we will talk about it later. Where it is necessary to set a rule or a standard or an expected consequence. Where, depending on the context, an apology may be required for their hurtful words. Some examples of what might fall into this category are words like weird, dumb, ugly, or fat. Under no condition can these words possibly be kind, and therefore they are always worthy of correlated correction.

Certain words and descriptions should be locked and linked to sadness and shame. They always only cause sadness and shame in other people and lead to sadness and shame in ourselves. Curiosity, on the other hand, should be welcomed. It should be listened to. It should be answered. There is a place for teaching appropriate voice volume and informing where the best context for curiosity might be. But when neither are applied very well in the moment (particularly at a more unaware age), we should not resort to ignoring and dismissing. We should not react big. Our eyes do have to bug out and our feet do not have to scurry off.

3. Acknowledge differences

In these experiences that feel uncomfortable and awkward, we can choose to take a deep breath and embrace a teachable moment. We can exemplify before our children what it means to stay. It might be appropriate to explain to the other person that our child isn’t very familiar with whatever is probing their curiosity. It might be genuinely welcomed that we ask themselves to explain to our child what something is called or how it works or what their experience has been like in their own body and skin. Or it might be best for ourselves just to confidently answer out loud in a way that is true and positive and informative. For all parties involved, even by standers, to be reminded that acknowledging differences isn’t mean or embarrassing or shameful.

We can use these circumstances to show our kids that mean words lead to isolation but that acknowledging our differences can actually bring us together. It can help us be more aware of others and how they function in the world, and what they uniquely bring to it. They can learn to appreciate what is different and connect in what is the same, if we take the time to let them do so. Kids who see adults run from other people’s differences turn into adults who run away too. We have to teach our kids that differences aren’t dirty. It’s not something they should be taught to avoid or ignore or fear. Of course a person is more than merely what makes them different. But they are also no less than. Differences are not defining, but they are distinguishing.

As Amy Web (author of When Charlie Met Emma) says “different isn’t bad, sad, or strange– different is just different and different is okay!”

4. Celebrate differences

Trillia Newbell, who wrote my favorite kid’s book on diversity, is notable for emphasizing that differences aren’t just something we should acknowledge as true, they are something we should celebrate as good. This is not to dismiss that some differences are indeed marred by sickness and suffering and sorrow, and will one day be wiped away. This is not to naively heroicize or over glamorize the trials and challenges some may have endured due to what makes them different. But it is to ultimately remember that differences are deliberate and therefore differences should be delighted in. The fact that not all variety and variance will be done away with in heaven shows that differences are not a punishment for what we’ve done but that they are a proclamation of who God is. They are, as Trillia so simply and beautifully states, God’s Very Good Idea.

“We live in God’s world. We are all different, and we are also all the same. They might look different or speak different or play different. But they are all made in God’s image, and so they are all valuable. …This is God’s very good idea: lots of different people enjoying loving him and loving each other. God made it. People ruined it. He rescued it. He will finish it.”

And even today, we can begin celebrating it. We can stay and acknowledge differences in front of our kids, and then we can stop and verbally celebrate them. Our kids should hear us say things like “isn’t that cool they were made like that!” Or “yes! God is uniquely reflected in them just like He is in you!”

5. Emphasize asking not assuming

Amy Web who is quoted above (who is also the mind behind 90% of this conglomeration I pieced together) writes that “the line between pity and empathy is razor thin. My general rule to differentiate between the two is that empathy stems from listening to another person’s perspective and reacting accordingly. Pity, however, assumes. Assuming that a person with a disability automatically has a harder, sadder life because of their disability.”

Once again some differences are hard, emotionally or relationally or physically, for the person embodying those differences. But instead of pitying or assuming, we should teach our kids to listen and to learn and to empathize. To respond based on another persons actual experiences and not what our child perceives those experiences to be. We can teach our kids to see others not as just “disabled” but “differently-abled.” We can teach our kids, whether as a child in the store or a middle schooler on the bus, to ask good and kind and clarifying questions. To engage. To listen. And to learn. To not dismiss the differences of others but also not to define them solely by those differences. To know when to say “I don’t know what that’s like, maybe you can help me understand.” And to also know when to say “yeah, I feel that way sometimes too.” We can teach our kids that others may enjoy the same exact things that they do, they just might have to go about enjoying them a little differently. But they can enjoy them differently, together.

6. Teach more than kindness

Amy also so powerfully points out that the goal we are aiming to teach our kids is about more than kindness. It is about friendship and inclusion. Kindness smiles, nods a head, and keeps passing by. Friendship walks towards, puts out a hand, and invites in.

When our kids see us grit our teeth and hear us threateningly whisper to “be kind” they begin to see that person as someone they must obligatorily sacrifice a minute of their time for. Pay their dues to. Check off their nice-things-I-did-today list. When the base line requirement is quick kindness we teach them that they are the only one who has something to give. And we beg of them to give it, if even only for a moment. Of course we do not want our kids to shout at someone shamefully or ignore someone intentionally. But in the end is it really so much better to instruct them to pity someone politely? Who really wants to be othered and ostracized, even if it’s done “kindly” or belittled and bemoaned even if it’s attempted at “sweetly.”

But this is where we must do more than just insist and instruct. We must exemplify. We must show that we are willing to act on the sometimes scary and often vulnerable initiative that inclusion takes. We have to show our kids the lengths that we ourselves will go to, to include and invest and invite. So we call the mom. We admit that we don’t exactly know what the play date or party could look like for them to be included, yet we emphasize that we want their child’s presence and participation, in whatever way might be. We humbly open ourselves up to not having the answers but wanting to work alongside another parent who will work hard to get the answers with us and for us. The same parent who has always worked hard to modify and make ways for their child to be included and befriended. If we are not willing to include and invite, how can we expect our children to?

The results of not teaching them, both by word and by action, how to do this touches us all. As parents, as children, as teachers, and as care givers, we are only robbing ourselves and the world of the unique kind of beauty and joy that being in relationships with those that are different than us can bring. We are choosing to let our kids buck against a way in which they were created to live and to love and to learn.

And in the end it is likely our own child who will miss out on the fruit of inclusion that often bears fun and formative and long lasting, friendship. The real kind. The kind we all need.

6 tips on vacationing with kids

1. Stop calling it a vacation

I’ve heard it said that vacationing with kids is really just normal life picked up and put in a different location. And I would add with potentially more tantrums and tiredness. Parents included.

Despite all our hopes and dreams, kids do not hear the word vacation and decide to put their own needs aside for a few days so that their beloved mom and dad can get some rest and rejuvenation from all the hard work they do day in and day out. Yeah, pretty inconsiderate.

While changing the word “vacation” to something like “trip” clearly hasn’t and couldn’t change everything, it can definitely begin the work of eliminating the potential for so many unspoken assumptions and unmet expectations. Personally, it has helped me to see that my glamorized version of vacation is not the only way to have fun and to make memories. And that vacations can be reserved for my peaceful kids-out-of-the-house future, where I’m on a carefree cruise with no earthly idea of what time it is because there are zero schedules to keep (or arguing with my husband about directions to the resort, either way) instead of toting 7 large beach bags towards the water and yelling at small humans to stop complaining about the hot sand and hurry up because we don’t have long before nap time.

2. Give grace

Often as parents we shame or punish our kids for feeling the exact things we do, but dealing with them in their own child-like way. We resent them for not handling change and stress and overload in the very adult and mature ways that we ourselves are not even handling it all in. Family trips can be fun, but they can also bring on a lot of new emotions. And kids feelings are no exception to this.

My own mom reminds me faithfully, in word and in action, that mamatudes are contagious. We can think we are being silent and subtle, but our expressions and demeanor are potent and powerful. When we are snappy and stressed or anxious and insecure, it spreads. Knowing this reality can lead to a lot of pressure to appear perfect in front of our kids. So that our families then look perfect. Especially on what is supposed to be a care free family vacation. But the surprisingly freeing news is that there will never be a perfect trip enjoyed by perfect people. So instead of setting tense tones or plastering on a fake smile, we can acknowledge to our kids and spouses “we’re all feeling lots of things, and we all need to show each other extra understanding and grace right now. Mom needs it too.”

3. Chill out and let it be

I don’t know about you, but having someone tell me to “chill” is just about the surest way to make me throw off every last chill that was still hanging on. But finding ways to whisper to myself that “it really is fine” is often that small but vital shift in perspective that I need. While life doesn’t stop when you leave town for a getaway with your family, it undoubtedly looks different. Life outside of our home, or town, is never going to look exactly like life inside of it does. It sounds obvious but I think we forget that. I know I do. Things are just simply going to look and feel and be, different.

Maybe recognizing that location change lends itself towards all sorts of other change will help us to relax a little. Maybe it will help us stop pushing against the inevitable. Maybe we will be prone to say yes a little more. To later nights and to sleeping in (or to waking up earlier to get going on the fun). To bigger feelings. To different screen time usage and more treat consumption. To risks. To stretching ourselves. Maybe we can restrict a little less and fudge a little more. Maybe we can prioritize fun over formality, for a short time.

We can take from trips what they have to offer each time. This time it may be adventure and laughter. Next time it could be quality time and growth. It might even give moments of rest and nuggets of rejuvenation. It could be utterly exhausting. Whatever it offers though, it’s a blip on the radar of a life filled with ruts and routines. We can learn to take it for what it is instead of projecting all of life onto it. Our kids aren’t ruined. Their teeth aren’t falling out. Their attitude isn’t locked in forever. Bed time isn’t eternally shot. We can chill out a little.

4. Don’t forgo all boundaries

While I’ve learned the importance of “loosening up” when traveling with kids, I’ve also equally learned the importance of setting and keeping clear limits. My own personality prefers a very slow transition from one thing to the next. I, to an annoying extent, get disjointed when I feel like I am abruptly throwing myself from one thing to the next. I crave time to mentally prepare before something and time to decompress/debrief after something. My husband has to lovingly remind me to die small deaths to myself by being more ready and flexible. But, we’ve also together learned the importance of “naming what matters” to us before we go into any given situation. Especially big ones. Like family trips. To verbalize our expectations, our hesitations, and our goals. Even as simple or silly as they might be sometimes.

I think we all need this sort of prep-work to some extent. Especially kids. They need to be told explicitly what is expected of them and reminded plainly what will happen if they do not meet that expectation. We have found that it works best for us all when we set some sort of rule or requirement and follow up with some sort of if/then statement. As in, “if you choose not to show gratefulness while we’re at the water park today then you will sit out for a while.” Etc.

Family trips should have a noticeable separation from normal life but they cannot be totally divorced from it. We have seen that when kids lose all sense of boundaries they lose a sense of safety and stability. And that they actually deep down crave it. Even during, and maybe especially during, the most unordinary times.

5. Check in with each other

Each trip has its own pace and so sometimes regrouping as a family just means turning natural down-time moments into more intentional ones together. Other times though, it takes creatively carving time out of a busy day to separate from other people or activities and check in with yourselves.

As our kids get older we have begun to see the touchy yet necessary balance of “sending out” and “reigning in.” Our kids want to feel independent and free, especially when they have new options of what to play with and who to sit beside. But they also need to be reminded who their home base is. And to have some sort of semblance of regrouping. That could be as small as asking them to run over and give you hugs or high fives. Or all praying together first thing in the morning or singing together last thing before bed. It could also be bigger, like sneaking away for a few hours as a family to make a memory. Or sitting across each other at a table and asking how everyone is doing and what each person is feeling. Checking in. Getting on the same page. Reunifying.

There are many ways to accomplish it, but I think the most important thing is communicating to our kids a family value that will prove to stand firm in the midst of everything else being out of whack: you belong. It will remind them that they are not just to behave like one of us, but that they belong as one of us. This is about reminding them where authority lies, but also who their main team is and always will be. In good times and in bad, whether they like it (or us) or not, we are each other’s. Given by God.

6. Enjoy yourself

As moms especially, I think it’s easy to be so busy trying to make everyone else happy that we forget that time away, whether in a cabin or on a boat or at an amusement park, is ours too. We, too, can adventure and rest and laugh and play. We can make and take time, too. We can allow ourselves to take a step away and breath or to take a step back and observe or to take a step in and experience.

We want to be able to look back at pictures of a happy mama. Not an exhausted one who was busy trying to force everyone else to smile. But one who couldn’t help but smile herself, as she chose to embrace and enjoy the chaotic and imperfect beauty that was all around her.

Our family, not so, vacation.

Why I want to do foster care

Because God has put it in my heart

Because it is one way to reflect his own heart

Because filling in for parents for a period of time and temporarily doing a job they cannot, gives them the space and time to make what is broken more whole. Kids need whole families. Hopefully they will find health and wholeness with us in the meantime. And ultimately, hopefully they go back to find it with their own families

Because I am for kids

Because parents love their kids and kids love their parents, and they should be together in a way that will best show and share that love

Because kids desperately need safety and stability and trustworthy touch and kind words; they need what has been tainted and twisted to begin to be untainted and untwisted

Because these aren’t “bad kids” …they are traumatized kids

Because I want to see my kids recognizing the needs of others and being willing to give of themselves, even down to their very own hearts, in order to let someone else in

Because foster homes are often worse than the very homes these kids are being pulled from

Because I want Christ in us to be a bright spot of someone’s story they retell someday

Because God chose to enter into my brokenness and not to stay out

Because I can’t unread the statistics

Because I look around and see so much space, space these kids are supposed to fill. Space that already has love and safety and laughter that isn’t being used up

Because being pro life means finding ways to care for that same life we fought for being born

Because God says our religion is worthless to Him if we do not care about widows and orphans. I think this includes those needing a temporary home

Because I care about the flourishing of human beings. The flourishing of both parents and children, and ultimately the flourishing of them together as one family if at all possible

Because these families might have a total of zero Christians who know them. Zero Christians who have walked into their story. Zero Christians who have joined them in their pain. Zero Christians who know what it feels like to love and to lose the same kids they do. Zero Christians who are praying for them

Because these kids need to know someone is fighting for them

Because these families need the same Jesus that I needed. The same Jesus I now have because someone else took the time to take me to Him

Because if I don’t, they will still be there. In need. Turning a blind eye in my own life does not change the dark reality in someone else’s life

Because I have been given too much grace to waste it on hoarding

Because abundance causes overflow

Because no time is really ever convenient

Because Christians are called to build longer tables not higher fences

Because I did not choose the environment I grew up in, nor can they

Because me getting too attached is worth the cost of a kid never getting to attach at all

Because the culture cycles of adult poverty and homelessness often start with a once-little boy or girl who never attached to another human being in healthy ways

Because I see in these kids the next generation and I want to help raise them up in any ways I am given the opportunity

Because I’m afraid I can only care as deep as something touches me personally

Because empathy grows when we know their names and look into their eyes. Especially when their innocent little faces sleep peacefully on our own pillows at night

Because compassion doesn’t stay put, it acts

Because I’ve seen my foster-parent friends and family with tear filled eyes and broken hearts say “it’s all worth it” and then do it again and again and again

Because our losses are worth their wins

Because I want to be involved in people’s messy lives. And that is always going to get complicated and it is always going to hurt. No matter the avenue we take to do so

Because I would want someone else to do the same for my own kids

Because I think the world needs Christ followers who simply say “I’m here” and then prove it

Dear mom, now I get it

Dear mom,

The other night I snuck into my own kids room while they were sleeping to spy on them. After doing the nightly crib search of “where is he at underneath all these stuffed animals and blankets?” I looked over into the corner and saw the pajamas of a little girl who asks to wear them nightly but ends up sleeping in her undies any way.

They don’t know I’m in there.

He doesn’t know that regardless of which side of the bed his feet end up on, his hands will be clutching a lovie, his bottom will be in the air, and his cheek will be smooshed against the mattress

She doesn’t know that her blanket she isn’t able to sleep without will inevitably end up flung off of her or that her body will be sprawled out in every direction with no pjs on it.

But I do.

I get to know these things about them that the rest of the world doesn’t know.

That they don’t even yet know.

Like the way their skin felt when it was first laid on mine.

Like the pitch their voice squeaks out when they feel really proud of what they’ve done.

Like the shape their face takes when their eyes are about to well up with tears.

Like the warmth of their morning cuddles or the stench of their dirty diapers.

Now it makes sense, mom.

All those times you knew something was wrong the moment I answered the phone.

When you knew you needed to knock on my bedroom door and check on me.

When you knew what the light in my eyes, crack in my voice, and quiver in my lip meant.

When you knew I felt afraid even though I thought I was hiding it so well.

When you were cooking dinner and already knew exactly which foods that night I would pick around and which ones I would devour.

When you knew the words I needed to hear.

When you knew the space I needed to sit in.

When you knew the consequences I needed to face.

When you knew how hard I tried, how badly I failed, or how far I’d come.

When you knew the hug I needed to embrace.

Because you knew me, mom. You knew me even before I really knew myself.

And now I get it.

From one mom to another

I have seen a picture of the well known Katniss-Everdeen-salute floating around with the caption, “this is me when I see another mom with her screaming toddler in the store.”  Well, I am here to tell you that I am currently her.  I am another mom navigating the same store aisles as you while our toddlers attempt to completely unravel us in front of other, once peaceful, shoppers.

I’m in these trenches with you. I do not have much to look back on and I do not really know where I’m headed. I’m just right beside you speaking solidarity. And it is from here that I am going to share a short list of life-giving phrases that have been infused into my mama-brain by many others that have gone before me. These aren’t deep theological truths or even necessarily practical to-do’s. I’m not trying to give a pep talk or ensue a guilt trip. Rather, I wanted to share some simple sayings that continue to free me up when I’m tempted to cower in fear and shame or puff up in pride and judgement. I hope they give some life and liberation to you as well:

Breathe it in

I know this is the most cliche one in the book and border line obnoxious. I know it can tend to have a reverse effect and bring about similar negative feelings (like guilt) I just mentioned above. At times though, these words have been spoken into my situation in such a tender and timely way. I’ve realized those times are not typically an antidote to long days- and certainly not long nights- but rather as a sweet reminder in the still moments. I now try to whisper this kind cliche to my own still moments. Moments where my legs are tingling from both my kids dozing off on them. All squished on the same sofa. All feeling the same sunshine beating through the big window. There won’t be very many more moments where I’m wrapped in the same fuzzy blanket as my Buddha-belly baby wearing only his diaper and my pig-tailed toddler wearing every color and pattern imaginable. And I tell myself to breath this very moment in. Every little bit of it.

This too shall pass

While I have found it freeing to speak over these moments with words about one day missing things like this, I’ve also found very different words necessary in the moments that I need to just be, well, kept alive. I’ve found that it’s not only about kindly whispering to myself, but sometimes assertively shouting at myself, “this is not forever!” Because if it were, I’d be done. Gone. Count me out. Mom fail, at life. But seriously. Some parenting days are really really hard. And I’ve had to give myself permission to say that and to stop there. I think it’s okay to admit if we don’t drool over the smell of our new born baby or jump for joy over our toddler’s first real birthday party.  We like some phases more, or less, than others. Certain milestones have more, or less, significance to us than others. No one says to enjoy every single moment of anything else in life. Some minutes we are just trying to make turn into hours. Some days we are just aiming to get through. And even some seasons, we are literally just surviving. Don’t worry mama, there will be more than enough good to remember.

Everyone is different

I know this sounds both vague and obvious, but it’s been crucial to me in so many ways; particularly in times of grasping for easy answers. I think one messy thing about parenting, like all relationships, is that as human beings we have a hard time heeding godly wisdom and accepting general life principles that produce likely consequences or benefits. Yet we want seamless formulas and seek after quick solutions where there are no text book answers. There are no textbook answers because there are no textbook kids. There is no magic number for an amount of sleep a child must get or an amount of veggies a child must eat. No doubt our impact is significant on our kids’ well being. But our gauge should be our own kid and not everyone else’s. This frees us up to love and parent our kids for who they are: with their very own tendencies and idiosyncrasies and struggles and strengths. We don’t always have to make sure our kids are “on par” with everyone else’s. Kids develop at different paces and need different things. And that’s really okay.

You have nothing to prove

A competitive nature mixed with an insecure spirit is breeding ground for performance driven parenting. Don’t ask me how I know. But the life-injecting reality is that there is no other human being, not even that mom that we most want to esteem us or simply accept us, that we have to give an account to. We do not have to have the approval of anyone. We do not have to live up to their standards or do things their ways. We can promote other’s from the crowd without needing to step on stage and be recognized with them. Our worth as a mom is not measured by other people’s perceptions and opinions of us. We can be free to lean on and learn from each other, without competing and comparing with one another. We can be both teachable in who we’re becoming and stable in who we already are.

There’s grace for that

Honestly this phrase is just my whole life theme. But it has guided and guarded me as a mama, too. For all my worst mom-fears, there’s grace for that. When I’m in a season of survival, there’s grace for that. When I fail my kids. Again and again and again. There’s grace for that. Grace for winning and grace for losing. Grace for learning and grace for longing. Grace for striving and grace for resting.

So much grace.