You’re at the grocery store with your toddler when they point at a fellow shopper in a wheelchair and ask you about it—loudly. While your initial instinct may be to shush them, don’t get embarrassed or dismiss your kid, say experts. Instead, use this opportunity to turn your child’s seemingly cringe-worthy faux pas into a teachable moment. Here’s exactly how to talk to kids about disabilities, according to a parenting coach and a psychiatrist.
Read books and watch shows with characters that have different abilities
When it comes to raising empathetic and accepting human beings, inclusivity comes up a lot and for good reason. It’s important to make sure your child absorbs the message of inclusivity from an early age so they can be more accepting of differences they encounter in real life. According to Kristene Geering, parenting coach and content director at ParentLab, one of the best ways to accomplish this is by exposing your child to books and TV shows that feature diverse characters, including representations of people with varying abilities. “The more your child is exposed to people with differing abilities in typical scenarios, the more they'll come to know the true diversity of being human, and how beautiful each of us can be,” says Geering. Not sure where to look? Sesame Street, for example, depicts a muppet named Julia who has autism, and this list of recommended books from the Free Wheelchair Mission has plenty of reading options for different age groups.
Encourage your child to have a social circle that includes kids of varying abilities
Books and shows with positive messages about diversity are an excellent resource to have at your disposal, but nothing compares to the real-life experience of playing and socializing with a diverse group of friends. Bottom line: Try to make sure your kid’s social circle is as inclusive as the books they read.
Have conversations with your child about disabilities
From characters in TV shows to individuals your child encounters in daily life, there is no shortage of occasions that might prompt a conversation about disabilities; and a heart-to-heart on the topic is a valuable opportunity to impart a healthy perspective on diversity. We spoke to Dr. Gail Saltz, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?" podcast from iHeartRadio, to find out her take on the best talking points. Per Dr. Saltz, the objective of the conversation is to banish judgment and encourage empathy: “Help your child understand [that] a disability can co-exist with intelligence, deep feeling, ambition….basically all the things they may have and feel.” So how do you accomplish this? For starters, she suggests drawing comparisons (i.e., this person with one arm can paint just like you) as this allows your child to empathize by seeing the other person as not so different after all.
That said, Dr. Saltz tells us that these differences shouldn’t be completely glossed over either. Instead, she recommends acknowledging that “people have differences [and] sometimes these differences might make certain aspects of living more difficult for them,” while explaining “that having a disability does not mean one can't have a wonderful life.”
It’s also important to make sure your young kid has the facts straight—namely that a person can be born with disabilities or acquire them later in life, but either way, they aren’t contagious.
Respond with a neutral tone when your child points out a disability in public
A child pointing and gawking at a stranger is every parent’s nightmare...and it happens all the time. Still, both the parenting coach and the doctor agree that this behavior is entirely innocent in almost every case. In other words, your child isn’t judging, they’re simply observing, which happens to be how kids learn about the world. As awkward as the situation might feel for you, it’s important to avoid shutting your kid down because you feel momentarily embarrassed, as doing so communicates that there’s something taboo about a person with disabilities. Remember, the goal here is to normalize the notion that people are different in all kinds of ways.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the random person in the frozen foods section necessarily wants to be used as a prop in your lesson plan. As such, both experts agree that the best approach is to be brief, neutral and matter of fact in your response to the observation.
Geering compares it to how you’d respond if your child noticed a motorcycle with three wheels: “Oh, that's a special kind of motorcycle called a 'trike.' Isn't that interesting how motorcycles look in all different kinds of ways?”
Here’s how that might play out at the grocery store: “Why does that lady have a wheelchair? Because her legs aren’t working the same as ours, so she needs a chair to move around instead of walking.” Aim for a response that’s both nonchalant and accepting—and once you’ve done that Dr. Saltz says you can avoid making a spectacle out of the stranger by smiling at said individual and simply telling your child you’ll answer any other questions back at home.
Teach your child to ask before helping
“Kids like to help but they may accidentally harm or do the wrong thing without meaning to if they don’t ask,” cautions Dr. Saltz. (For example, your kid may try to hug a child with autism who is feeling upset but the child might actually need some space in that moment.) So teach your child to ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?” first, in order to give the other person an opportunity to say whether assistance would be appreciated.
Avoid shaming your child for pointing out a disability
We touched on this already, but it bears repeating: Your child hasn’t done anything wrong by observing a difference in another person when you’re out and about. However, if you turn red and shush your child because of your discomfort, you are communicating a strong message that the observation the child made is embarrassing to the other person. In reality, a disability should not be a source of shame or embarrassment for anyone, and you certainly don’t want your child to view it as such. What’s more, shaming your child for their curiosity will also discourage them from asking questions in private and participating in important conversations about diversity.