Jackie Bruns and her family were enjoying a vacation day at an amusement park when a five-year-old boy approached her young son, Trae. The boy pointed his finger in Trae’s face and exclaimed, “He looks scary!” Just as Jackie bent down to the boy’s level to intervene, the boy’s dad ran up and dragged the boy off.
This wasn’t the first time, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Ever since the Bruns family adopted their son when he was an infant, they witnessed children pointing out Trae’s physical features, staring at him, and saying he’s scary, ugly, and different.
Trae was born with Apert syndrome, a genetic, rare form of craniosynotosis. The syndrome also affects how the child’s face, hands, head, and feet appear. Children may have webbed toes and fingers, struggle with sleeping and chewing, and have developmental delays in gross and fine motor skills and speech. Like Trae, some children with Apert syndrome need a brain shunt and suffer from seizures. Trae has had thirty-two surgeries since he was born–and he has more in his future.
Bruns told Scary Mommy that at first, she was furious when children would point at Trae and exclaim an observation about his looks or ask a question that wasn’t appropriately phrased. But then she came around to realize that it wasn’t the kids she had the problem with. It was the parents.
Author and mother R.J. Palacio can relate. Her bestselling book-turned-movie Wonder was inspired by a situation she encountered with her own family. Palacio told NPR that inside an ice cream shop, her three-year-old son noticed a girl with a facial deformity, and started crying in fear. Palacio regretfully and quickly ushered her children out of the store. From that incident, she created Auggie, the Wonder protagonist who has craniofacial differences.
Like Palacio and the parents of children who approach Trae, many parents face the uncomfortable dilemma of what to do when our kids point out another person’s differences. Bruns encourages us to stop shushing our kids and dashing away. She also says we shouldn’t ignore our children’s questions and comments—because the child only grows increasingly loud and insistent—making the situation even more uncomfortable.
And we certainly shouldn’t chirp something cliché—and frankly, meaningless to a child—such as “God makes everyone different.” Children crave literal, solid answers to their questions. Vague, fluffy, or wordy responses are confusing. They also discourage children from seeking the truth from the people they trust the most–their parents.
Why are parents so uncomfortable and over- or under-reactive when their children point out another child’s special needs? My theory is that my generation and older generations were conditioned for separation from people with disabilities. In every school I attended, children in special education were relegated to one classroom at the end of a hallway. My peers and I would occasionally interact with those students at recess or in the cafeteria—but that was it.
My mom was attuned to this separation and would take us to visit my grandparents’ neighbors. The family of five had three daughters, one whom had cerebral palsy and was non-verbal. My mom would visit with the girls’ mom, and my siblings and I would play with the three girls. This exposure to a person with a disability taught me she was a real person with feelings and a personality—rather than someone to be stared at and avoided.
Today, the law requires that children with special needs be placed in the “least restrictive environment”—meaning, they need to be with their typically developing peers as much as possible and given appropriate accommodations to make sure they have access to a free and appropriate public education. And IEPs–Individual Education Program–and 504s are in place to protect and assist children with documented disabilities. Children today are far more likely to learn alongside children with special needs.
Because parents who are my age were raised in a time when special needs were taboo and stereotyped, many of us don’t know how to act when our children choose to point out obvious differences. And what Bruns and other parents of children with special needs—including myself—want others to know is that difference isn’t bad. Noticing difference isn’t some sort of unforgivable sin.
So what is a parent to do when their child loudly proclaims that another child looks different? Bruns suggests it’s as easy as 1-2-3.
1. Introduce yourself.
If your child points out another child’s differences, fight the urge to escape the situation. Running away only teaches children that they should be ashamed for making observations about the world around them.
Instead the parent should take their child by the hand and approach the family. And then do what any person should when you meet someone new—introduce yourself. It’s really quite simple. “Hi, I’m Kate. This is my daughter, Lily. She was telling me she noticed your son, and we wanted to introduce ourselves.” Don’t presume it’s OK to touch the child–or any equipment such as their wheelchair–since that child doesn’t know you and you don’t know his or her needs or immunity to illness.
2. Ask questions.
Bruns says she isn’t offended when people ask questions, and in fact, she encourages it. Assumptions are harmful, but questions render accurate, educated answers. A great question to ask is, “Can you tell us more about your child?” This allows the parent to decide what they want to share—or their child might share themselves. If the parent discloses their child’s diagnosis, you might ask follow up questions, as appropriate. Families of children with special needs face a lot of scrutiny and othering, so the more empathetic responses–but not pity–you can bestow, the better.
Bruns has even been proactive. When Trae started kindergarten at a new school, she knew that kids would be curious about Trae. She typed a letter about Trae and his syndrome, attaching a photo. The school distributed the letter to every parent in Trae’s class. Bruns offered to answer any questions they had so they could educate their kids about their new friend Trae. Trae’s school experience has been so overwhelmingly positive. For example, last Halloween, Trae was recovering from foot surgery and was utilizing a wheelchair. His peers at school made him a homemade Catboy costume that fit over his wheelchair.
3. Find commonalities.
Differences are not bad, as we’ve established. Noticing them, verbalizing them, and discussing them. But there are also commonalities. Bruns told Scary Mommy that Trae may look different, but he’s a typical six-year-old boy. He’s in first grade and is active, smart, and silly. He likes to swim, buy new toys, and play on his tablet.
The parent is welcome to tell their child, “Oh look! Trae wears glasses, just like you!” Or notice Trae’s PJ Masks tee and discuss the kids’ similar adoration for the characters. During the conversation, the parent will likely discover that their own child and Trae aren’t all that different.
The goal is to treat one another with kindness and respect rather than pretend or ignore. After all, our classrooms and world are more diverse than ever before—and it’s time we embrace difference rather than run from it.