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It’s Not Nice to Stare! Helping Kids See Past Disability

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Responsibilities & Values

Have you been in this situation? You and your child are walking along and there on the sidewalk is a person with a distinctive appearance. An appearance so distinctive that you feel like staring – but, of course, you don’t. Just then, in a carrying voice, your child pipes up with “Mom! Look at that man!”

If you try to hustle your child along, you’re certain to hear, “But, Mom, wait! Don’t you see him? That man over there – what’s wrong with him?”

What next? Besides wishing you could disappear, of course.

Well, let’s re-imagine the situation a bit. Let’s make the man not some unknown person with an appearance that makes your child shout but a known person – a celebrity. Let’s imagine that you’re walking with your child and there, on the sidewalk, is Justin Bieber. Now what?

Of course you recognize that even celebrities use the sidewalk and they don’t want to be accosted by fans when they’re just walking down the street. So when your child shouts, “Mom! Look! It’s Justin Bieber!” you will say, “Yes, I think so too,” and continue on. If your child says, “No, I want to stop and watch him,” you’ll of course say, “That’s not polite. Come along with me and let’s talk…”

Naturally, it would be different if you knew Justin from your days when you were his family’s babysitter or if Justin had stopped to give autographs. You might, in such a case, pause to say “hello” or let your child ask for a signature. But if you don’t know Justin Bieber and he’s not already surrounded by fans, you let him be, understanding that he hears everything you and your child say to each other. You will discuss his career and what he’s wearing and why he might be in your town out of earshot, privately.

Back now to the distinctive-looking person who is not Justin Bieber. Of course even distinctive-looking people use the sidewalk and they don’t want to be discussed by their fellow citizens when they’re just walking down the street. So when your child says, “Mom! Look at that man!” you will reply with “Yes. Come along with me and let’s talk…” If you know the person or if he is giving sidewalk interviews, you may stop. But otherwise, carry on, just as you would for someone famous.

Later – further along the sidewalk and at home – or earlier – as soon as your child is old enough to notice individual differences and shout about them (about age four), have a heart-to-heart with your child. Talk about the fact that it’s not polite to talk about people in their presence, as if they wouldn’t notice or didn’t have feelings. It’s not polite anytime, with anyone, not even Justin Bieber.

Children understand this. While they might love to imagine that you’re discussing with somebody what you’ll be buying for their birthdays, children hate to think you’re talking about their faults and shortcomings behind their backs. They are outraged if they think you’re laughing at them. Even four-year-olds realize that feelings can be hurt and that it’s unjust to be talked-about over things that are no fault of your own.

So, help yourself and your child avoid having a Justin Bieber-moment. Model polite behavior. Talk about individual differences and courteous behavior before an incident comes up.

Or just after. Whichever comes first.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.