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.