Babble contributor and writer Jill Robbins, of the blog Ripped Jeans and Bifocals, has penned an emotional Facebook post this week that’s resonating with parents everywhere. It features a photo of one of her children, and begins with a mother’s plea: “People, please teach your kids not to be jerks. Please.”
Robbins’ 7-year-old son Zack was born with a limb difference, after his right hand never fully formed. “We call it his little hand,” she explains in her post, “because … well … that’s what it is.”
Robbins says Zack is typically confident — gregarious, even. But as the mother and son prepared for a meet-and-greet with his new teacher this week, Zack expressed that he was afraid to go back to school. And it wasn’t the first time he’d voiced this worry lately.
After further prodding, Zack finally admitted the reason why: He’d been taunted at summer camp by other children, and now was fearful new kids at school would ask him questions about his “little hand.”
“I’m honestly not sure what was said,” Robbins now tells Babble. “My gut tells me that it wasn’t much more than the reactions of kids who hadn’t seen someone built like Zack before. [But] he did ask me ‘Mom, what’s a freak?’ which kind of led me to wonder … ”
“It’s okay if they ask questions but I get tired of saying ‘this is the way I was born,'” her son asked her. “Is it okay if I’m tired of answering questions?”
That statement sat with her, and after their conversation, Robbins took to Facebook to share a photo of her son, and a few of her thoughts on the matter.
“Here’s my take-a-way,” she wrote in her August 24 post. “Ask questions and be curious about people who look different that you look. But before you stop to ask questions, consider that there is a living, feeling person on the other end.”
Though I don’t have a child with the same disability as Robbins’ son, I do have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder. I know what it’s like for people to point and stare. People tend to have high expectations of how a child should act and speak based on their size, which can be incredibly problematic for children, like my own, who are tall for their age and appear much older than they actually are. A child who is 6 or 7, as my 4-year-old appears to be, is expected to use their “indoor voice” and “keep their hands to themselves.”
In my experience, it’s usually the adults who tend to be the most judgmental and condescending towards children who are “different.” I’ve received unsolicited advice on how to better discipline my son more times than I care to count. (Newsflash: you cannot discipline a disorder out of a child.) We’ve been the subject of many second-glances and side-eyes. And once, an older woman at the library shushed and glared at my little boy when he excitedly asked me (in his usual loud voice) if he could go downstairs to the children’s library to choose a book. (It’s a library, lady, not a funeral home!)
But just like Robbins, my concern is not the noticing of difference. Curiosity isn’t bad. But it’s how the curiosity is manifested. And adults have the responsibility to not only keep themselves in check when they notice someone who’s different, but to teach their own children how to respond respectfully and kindly. Even the subtle judgments — such as frowning at a parent and child who are perhaps trying to navigate an epic tantrum — speak volumes to the other children who are watching and learning.
“I think how parents instruct kids to respond on both sides is important,” Robbins tells Babble. “I think as kids get older, [saying things like] ‘Hey, why are you made like that’ is less appropriate and it’s up to parents to stress diversity and inclusiveness. A 7-year-old child might be curious about why someone doesn’t have a limb, but that’s getting to the point where parents need to teach proper ways to handle that situation.”
At the end of her post, Robbins leaves those of us who are parenting kids with special needs, or any child who others may deem as “different,” with some sage advice: “Keep paying attention to what they’re experiencing, thinking, and feeling. Their perception of being taunted or ostracized MATTERS.”
I honestly couldn’t agree more.