I write young adult novels, and in the writing community, there is an ongoing discussion about needing more diversity in the books that are published for children. A lot of these discussions have informed more than just my writing.
Kids are open and accepting in ways we have perhaps learned not to be. I’ve heard people say that kids are born colorblind. That is to say they won’t notice differences. In my experience, this isn’t really true. They notice differences, they just don’t equate one thing as being “normal” and another as being “abnormal.”
And as accepting as kids might naturally be, they are also blunt. They might loudly ask questions that we find embarrassing. It’s because they acknowledge differences. Sometimes very loudly. I was lucky to find advice for these circumstances within children’s literature in the beautiful book Wonder by RJ Palacio. Nothing was more hurtful to the main character, a middle-schooler named Auggie who was born with facial anomalies, than when kids pointed and their parents hurried them away in an attempt to diffuse the situation. As if Auggie didn’t know his face looked different. As if it wasn’t natural for kids to ask questions.
Reading this book really started me thinking how I would handle this with my kids. I’d probably say it isn’t polite to point, and I might encourage my kids to say “hi” just like I do when my kids are staring at other kids in the coffee shop or grocery store.
We should be open to these discussions, but we needn’t make a bigger deal out of these questions than they need to be. Our kids guide us. They ask the things they wonder about and accept the rest.
I had a well-meaning friend very proudly say that she had explained homosexual couples to her kids, pointing out examples in her own family. And while it’s great that she was saying: “they are just like us and an equally legitimate kind of family” I would argue that having a formal discussion about differences makes it more of an issue than it needs to be.
I handled this difference another way. When my son asks about when his dad and I got married, I tell him it’s because I loved Dad and wanted him in my family and getting married was how we did that. My son asked about if he would get married one day. The most inclusive way I could answer that question was to say that “one day you might meet someone you love and want to be in your family and then, yes, you can marry him or her.” This answer was acceptable to my son.
Another well-meaning discussion I’ve heard is how grateful parents are when their child’s class has a special needs child. And someone pointed out, the kids are not there to be a lesson for your typical kid, they are simply there to learn.
That really got me thinking. Especially because my son is fortunate enough to go to public preschool. He is in a class for deaf/hard of hearing students. As a hearing student, he attends to be a peer model. And, yes, I had thoughts of: how wonderful! He’ll learn that these are kids just like him despite their hearing devices and the fact that they used cued speech. But the truth is, this is such a small part of his schooling experience.
We’ve talked about it, and the discussion goes like this:
Son: Mom, do I have a hearing aid?
Son: Why not?
Me: Your ears don’t need any help hearing.
Son: Can I have a cookie?
So I do think our kids can teach us a lot about acceptance. And I think we need to merely model it to our best ability. When our kids notice differences, acknowledge it, discuss it as much as your kid wants. But, likely, they don’t need a whole speech about differences and what they mean, and that even though the other kid is different they still have feelings like we do and how great is it that the world is so diverse and…
This is all just my take on this new wonderful world in which we get to parent. Acceptance and equality is something we all strive for. And surely, there are other approaches to modeling acceptance. I want to hear them! I want my kids to grow up to be accepting, compassionate, and kind people. And the best I can figure, the way to teach them this, is to be that way myself, the best that I can.