Ignoring Differences Isn't All That Helpful
I volunteer in my son’s classroom once a week, and the other day one of the kids was really surprised to find out our son takes gymnastics classes. I asked why, assuming we were about to devolve into a boy-stuff-versus-girl-stuff discussion. He said, “Oh … because I thought his legs were still broken. He still wears those braces.”
So this turned into an entirely different conversation, but one I was happy to have. I talked about how cerebral palsy is one of our son’s things that make him different, something that he has to live and deal with every day. I said that we all have differences, and one of the kids said, “Yeah, like I’m allergic to shellfish.” Another kid mentioned that she has celiac disease, and a third said, “Oh, I’m allergic to eggs.” It turned out the kid who asked the original question has a cow’s milk allergy. This turned out to be a mutually satisfying conversation, and everyone seemed to have at least a slightly larger understanding of what I was getting at.
I emailed the mother of the kid who originally brought up the “broken” legs, just in case her son came home and continued the conversation there. I wanted her to have context. She emailed me back and said that she was thankful I had explained and that they’ve been teaching their kids not to notice differences with the hope that the differences won’t be a big deal.
I get this attitude—I really, really do. In fact, before I gave birth to my son, I was on board with it. Why notice differences when you could emphasize not noticing them? It makes sense that if you’re talking about differences, then your kids will notice them, and then they might have more questions. They might even walk up to the person they’re talking about and ask about the difference, which could be mortifying … or could be great.
In fact, I think it’s fantastic to have discussions about differences with your kids, and everyone should be doing it.
I think it’s awesome to notice and discuss that some people walk differently or think differently, that some people need extra time to process their feelings.
Some people can’t eat certain foods, or don’t like to feel tags on their clothing, or can’t cope with certain sounds or volumes.
I think it’s fantastic to notice and discuss that some people are missing limbs or other body parts, that some people can’t see, that some people can’t hear. I think it’s even more worthwhile to discuss that these differences don’t make these people any worse or better than ourselves—because everyone has something that makes them different.
I was a weird kid growing up. I think it’s easier to be weird when you’re a girl because you don’t have to deal with bro stuff. No one is expecting you to want to blow things up or talk about zombies or climb tall things and jump off. I mean, there are tons of expectations forced on girls by other girls, too, but at least in my case, it wasn’t that hard to shirk them. I had a small number of friends, but I was still incredibly comfortable spending a lot of time alone, in my head, making up stories. So, that sometimes made me different.
I was also really skinny as a kid, super small, and people liked to comment on that. During puberty I realized I’d never have big boobs, and I didn’t wear a real bra until well after a lot of other girls started wearing them. I started wearing one because we had to change in gym class, and I got teased for not having one on. I still bought underwear at Limited Too in ninth grade because I didn’t realize, until someone saw the band and teased me, that I apparently shouldn’t. So, this was something else that made me different.
I mean, what else? I have a big nose. I have crazy hair. Growing up with these various things caused me different amounts of grief, but now I’m totally cool with myself, inside and out.
My differences aren’t the same as some—my son, for example, has a much more obvious difference and it impacts much more in his daily life. He’s always going to be “the kid who has CP” to some people. But if I had to choose between other families telling their kids to ignore the CP and his braces, and telling their kids that he has CP, I’d choose the latter. I’m not saying I want it discussed all the time, or that I want him treated differently, but it’s totally fine for other kids to know he has CP and ask him questions if they want to. I have no problem with kids asking me why he wears his braces or why his brain tells his feet to walk on his toes, and I have no problem asking the other kids if they have something about themselves that is different. Most of the time, they do—they just haven’t heard it framed that way.
Differences are cool, and more importantly, whether or not you ignore them, differences are a fact of life. Differences aren’t going anywhere, and if you have to choose between acting like it’s there and acting like it’s not, go with the truth.
The dominant mentality has been to ignore a difference because that’s allegedly the polite thing to do, but that hasn’t got us anywhere. Ignoring a difference means you’re not acknowledging it, and not acknowledging and celebrating difference is what leads to the segregation of kids based on skin color or physical ability, what leads to classrooms with teachers who can’t handle a kid who has sensory processing issues because they have never met one before.
It leads to schools, like my son’s, who wouldn’t be able to accommodate a kid in a wheelchair because no one in a wheelchair has previously gone to the school.
I am so grateful this mother said this to me because it sparked something in my mind. I know not everyone will share my perspective—and that plenty of people with obvious differences don’t want to talk about it all the time—but it’s the one I have. It seems to be working for us so far, and in our specific case, it’s not like his CP is going anywhere. We’re not hiding it, and he’s not ashamed of it. In fact, some days it doesn’t even bother him. It will always be one component, one part of his life that he has to deal with, and hopefully the more we mainstream it within his circles, the more mainstreamed it will be for him in general. I guess we’ll see.
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