Earlier this week while watching a news item that featured children with disabilities, on screen came a young girl with cerebral palsy. The six-year old girl’s physical appearance was one that piqued the curiosity of my son. The girl, who was confined in a wheelchair, was drooling and had a floppy posture.
As the news item went on, my four-year-old son turned to me and asked: “Mum, what’s wrong with that girl? Why is she sitting like that?”
As I responded to my son’s question, it sent me into deep thought. If my son had loudly asked me that question in the presence of that little girl and her parents, how would I have responded?
Now, my mother worked at Kenyatta National Hospital for over three decades. A significant chunk of that time was spent in the children’s ward. From time to time, it would happen that my siblings and I would find ourselves at her workplace for one reason or another. Many times at the children’s ward and along the hospital corridors, we would meet children who appeared ‘different’ — mainly those with physical disabilities.
The most outstanding related memory I have is when I once saw a young boy with an enlarged head — in what I now know as a condition called hydrocephallus. Even though he appeared to be my agemate — around eight years old — he was being carried on the back by a woman, his mother I assumed. When I saw him, I stopped and stared, shocked, scared.
When we got home, I asked my mum about the boy. She told me that he was unwell and had come to see a doctor. Many times my siblings and I would ask our mum such questions and, perhaps, aided by her medical background, she always took the time to help us understand the concept of disability and special needs children.
And now my son had put me in the same situation. He wanted to know why the girl he had seen on television appeared ‘different’. I answered him in the best way that I could, just like my mother had always done, in the language of a four-year old.
It also made me think of other parents. How do they react in situations where their children stare, make loud unpleasant comments or utter snide remarks about people, especially those who appear different from them? I have seen some parents ‘shush’ their kids, smack their heads or pinch their ears. Some ignore the child and pretend they didn’t hear what he said. But in such reactions, what message does this parent send to his child?
And more importantly, what can a parent do in such a situation? For starters, the parent should not ignore his child’s comment. He can apologise for the rude comment as he introduces himself to the other child’s parent. He can encourage his child to say hello to the ‘different’ child, perhaps ask his name, shake his hand or even share a toy.
Later on at home, the parents can hold a family conversation where they help their children understand that some people are born differently, or that some occurrences in life — such as accidents or illnesses — can cause us to become physically different from others. Using a language and descriptions that are age-appropriate, the parents should allow their children to ask as many questions as they can to help broaden their understanding.
In addition, parents should encourage their children to diversify their friendship circles to include other children who are different from them — either in physical stature, race, religion or social status.
Remember, children are curious by nature and will many times ask questions or make statements that are uncomfortable.
But it is your reaction and how you handle the situation that ultimately matters. If caught up in such a situation, use it as an opportunity to teach your child some of life’s important lessons.