Have you ever tried to lead by example with your kids and totally failed?
I sure have!
While on vacation recently, we attended a breakfast to meet an esteemed colleague of my husband’s. They have an adult daughter with significant disabilities. After speaking with the mom for a while, I called my 5 year old daughter over to say hi.
But the minute she saw this woman in the wheelchair, she hid behind my legs. I tried to pry her fingers from me and make her say hello but she refused.
You could see the fear in her eyes. And I was mortified.
Here her father and I have devoted our lives to loving people with special needs and their families. To encouraging their parents and siblings. To spreading awareness about their abilities versus their disabilities.
And my own daughter was scared.
All she saw were the differences. The wheelchair. The drooling. The erratic movements.
I thought I was a decent role model and was leading my daughter by example. That she had watched me interact with all the students with special needs at my job and the way we accept and love all the kids with special needs at my husband’s work. I thought that our strong example would set the tone for her own response when it came to interacting with people with special needs.
Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as parents? Lead by example?
Maybe. But sometimes just being a role model is not enough.
Sometimes it’s the conversations that make the difference. That drives home the point. That allows the other person to ask questions, to explore their own doubts and fears and judgments. To bring to light topics that might otherwise remain hidden.
Thankfully, there are practical ways we can teach our children how to be more open-minded and choose to be inclusive. Here are 4 that have worked for me –
1. Acknowledge the Curiosity, Don’t Ignore It!
Last week in the preschool parking lot, my 3 year old asked LOUDLY, “Why is that girl in a wheelchair, Mama?”
She is always asking questions (a little too loudly) about people that she deems as different from herself.
Why can’t he walk? Why does she look like that? Why does he talk like that?
Kids are naturally curious and naturally unfiltered. Sometimes that can lead to embarrassing situations but our job as parents is to choose the teachable moment over escaping the situation.
As Dr. Greene, pediatrician and renowned writer, says, when a child asks ‘why’, what he is really saying is “This is interesting to me. Let’s talk about this together. Tell me more, please.”
The child is actually looking for connection more than a specific answer. What’s important here, Dr. Greene goes on to say, is that we don’t have to feel the pressure to answer every ‘why’ – which is good because often we don’t know it!
We don’t know why the sky is blue, or why she was born with no arms, or why gravity exists. But since the child is looking for connection, we can engage in the conversation.
In the case of my daughter asking about the wheelchair, I could have told her not to stare. Or that asking those questions was impolite.
But that would have sent a message to not look at people different from us. A message that there was something shameful about being different.
So when she asked why the little girl was in a wheelchair, I answered, “I don’t know but look how cute her pink shoes are! They look just like yours.”
In this way, I was able to engage her curiosity while guiding her past the differences towards something they have in common which is the next step.
2. Find the Commonalities
In order to teach our kids how to be more open-minded, we need to take it a step beyond simply embracing differences and towards helping our kids learn to find commonalities.
We all have things in common with each other and when we help them learn how to find those, we are one step closer to raising inclusive children. This means looking past the differences (a diagnosis, a wheelchair, a skin color, a birthmark) and seeing the person.
By helping our children learn and choose to see the things that we have in common with people, the results are connection rather than division.
Recently one of my daughter’s friends began to cry when she saw a woman with Cerebral palsy. I asked her why she was crying and she said she was scared.
Just as I was about to give her all the reasons why she shouldn’t be scared, I decided instead to share about the things they have in common.
When asked why the woman couldn’t talk, I explained that she uses an ipad just like yours for her voice and isn’t that so cool?
When asked why she couldn’t walk, I showed her that she uses wheels as her legs and I bet she’s super-fast!
The neighbor girl immediately perked up and said “I have an ipad! And I’m super-fast too!”
By choosing to focus on similarities, things we have in common, the differences become less pronounced.
3. Engage and Connect with Diversity
This is where practicing what we preach comes into play. We are talking to our children about differences at home but out in the real world, we also want to be engaging with diversity and showing our children that it’s not scary.
Christopher Metzler, Ph.D., an authority on issues of diversity and inclusion, says that, “For all the talk about diversity, Americans still segregate ourselves into fairly homogenous communities. Teaching our children to accept differences may require that we use the power of the Internet to learn about differences, that we seek out cultural activities that are out of our community and explore the strength and value in diversity.”
In order to experience the connection with people different from ourselves, we have to engage with them.
When my daughter asked about the girl in the wheelchair, I went over to the little girl and we began talking about her pink shoes. From there, I was able to start a conversation about how old she is, where she goes to school etc. It was a perfect opportunity to model for my daughter the value of connection.
Instead of moving away from a situation where you have an opportunity to engage with diversity, choose to stay in it.
Dr. Metzler also reminds us that our goal is “…not to be ‘difference-blind.’ This is both unrealistic and misses the point. As parents, we must help kids appreciate and learn about those differences, not pretend that they do not exist.”
4. Teach Empathy
Empathy is a quality –along with compassion – that we all want to develop in our children. It is a key step to raising children to be open-minded.
Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, who runs the Making Caring Common project, says that often we quantify empathy rather than expand its’ reach.
In other words, we often measure how much empathy our children have which perhaps is the wrong focus.
Dr. Weissbourd explains, “The key is who they have empathy for. For most of us, it’s not hard to have empathy for our family members and close friends. But the real issue is whether children (and adults) have empathy outside that circle. As parents and caretakers, it’s not only important that we model appreciation for many types of people. It’s important that we guide children in understanding and caring for many kinds of people who are different from them and who may be facing challenges very different from their own challenges.”
We can do this by engaging our children in various conversations about how others might be feeling in various situations.
When someone is hurt, or bullied, or has a diagnosis or a disability – these are all opportunities to develop empathy in our children.
Circling Back to Leading By Example…
As parents, we’re not off the hook yet. We still have to be the role model for our children. They are always watching! How can we model what true acceptance looks like?
Our goal here isn’t to show tolerance – it’s to model acceptance.
How can we be sure we are authentically leading by example?
1. Review our own attitudes
The truth is, we all have our own ingrained ideas, stereotypes, judgements and misconceptions about others.
If we want to lead by example, we need to first see what preconceived notions we are bringing to the table – and identify which ones need to change.
What racism is carried over from generation to generation in our families? How do I approach people with special needs, or from different cultures or races? Do I let the differences stop me from developing relationships or engaging them in conversation? How can I change that?
2. Be willing to have conversations
A conversation is the step that bridges the gap between ourselves and others – often by dispelling or rendering ineffective an outdated stereotype or judgement. Creating a safe atmosphere allowing for open conversations will help create open-minded children.
3. Use positive and diverse representations through books and other mediums
“Children’s literature can be a powerful medium through which we can explore a non-tragedy understanding of disability and move forward with embracing diversity and living life together,” says Dr. Cologon, professor at the Institute of Early Childhood in Australia. “Finding engaging stories with well-rounded characters that experience disability is therefore a great way of normalising difference for children.”
There are many resources/books that can be used by families to spark the conversations about inclusion, various types of disabilities, or differences in general. It’s important for our children to see characters that look, talk, and act different than themselves.
This is becoming more common in various television and other mediums with the most recent being the popular show, Sesame Street, which has a new initiative called Being a Friend | Sesame Street and Autism where they are introducing a new character with Autism. Part of this initiative includes ways to include this new friend, and an entire campaign called Keep Amazing Going.
In conclusion, leading by example is important, required even, in order to parent well. But engaging in conversations – especially those awkward ones – are vital to raising inclusive and open-minded children.
Many of these tips are based on including individuals with special needs but they translate to any and all differences.
The important thing to remember is that underneath the skin color, the disability, the cultural differences etc. is a person who, based on that alone, is worthy of being included.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Consider the example you lead for your children when it comes to inclusion. Is there anything you want to change about it?
- When is the last time you listened to that voice inside you telling you to do something? Did you listen to it?
- Are there times you have seen your kids listen to their internal voice of compassion? Did you acknowledge it openly?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Check out an age appropriate book from the library about differences and spend some time talking to your children about it.
- Think about some of the stereotypes or fears you may have around people that are different from you. Where did they originate? What truths can you replace those stereotypes with?