You’re hanging out at the park with your little ones, when a girl arrives to play. Some of the adults and children who notice the new playmate pause their conversations, and eyes turn to see. Filled with curiosity, your little one innocently asks “Mommy, what’s that?” While your child points toward the new child, who is excitedly making her way to the slide, you fill with embarrassment and eagerly push your child’s hand down.
“Honey we don’t point and stare. Go play on the swings.” You try to turn your child’s interest away from the question you don’t know how to answer. Confused, and now frightened by your hush-hush response, your child ambles away, perhaps feeling as if something is wrong with other child. They begin to form a concept around this interaction, one where difference is something to be feared. Hushed. When we refuse to talk about something, the unspoken message is “It’s wrong to be that way. It scares me. It’s to be ignored.”
This is no way to help children learn about difference and disability.
Let your own anxieties over “saying the wrong thing” or calling attention to the child with disabilities go. It is always better to speak with open honesty than to shut down conversation with confused reserve. So how can you answer the question?
“That’s the little girl’s walker, honey. It helps her walk.” Sometimes people need a bit of help at something. Actually, we all need a bit of help with something. We all have strengths. We all have weaknesses. We’re all learning. “Remember how you need a bit of help to reach the tap, so we got you a step stool? This little girl needs a bit of help to walk, so she has a walker.” We are all different. That’s what makes us all special, and what makes the world a wonderful and interesting place to live in.
Of course, maybe you honestly don’t know the answer. Perhaps you were wondering the same thing. So, who knows the answer? If not the other child, her parent or caregiver certainly will. Instead of squashing your child’s curiosity, and creating fear, create an opportunity. “I’m not sure, baby. Why don’t you go ask her?” If the child is old enough to converse, she will likely be working with her family and her team to be able to answer these questions, and interact with her peers. This may be a welcome way to practice. This is the kind of question that will be coming to her over and over again. Being able to answer with understanding and confidence will be important to feeling included and making connections that are beneficial to all children.
Of course, it may also be a new situation for the other child, so keep an eye and ear on how the conversation develops. If you can tell that the other child is uncomfortable, you can suggest to your child that “She might not want to talk about that right now. Did you ask her what her name is?” There is so much more to a person than what they are or are not able to do. Encourage your child to get to know the person, rather than just the situation.
When investigating something with children, I often turn to books for help. Literature is such a soft and powerful means of helping children learn about and relate to concepts that can be hard to teach. Letting a child explore a topic through a story with pictures and characters that are recognizable, but somewhat removed from their personal situation, often gives just enough space for processing without overwhelming.
I would like to share with you my larger collection of fantastic books about difference for young children, but I’m currently trying to figure out how computers work so I can get into the file that’s stuck in my old laptop.
In the mean time, here are a few of my very favourite and most memorable
CHILDREN’S BOOKS ABOUT DIFFERENCE.
The Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear
by David Bruins
This is by far my favourite book about difference. The three characters – Ninja, Cowboy, and Bear – start comparing strengths and try to find out who is the best by competing against each other in different tasks. Everyone becomes confused because there is no clear winner. In each competition a different character had the upper hand, so they take time to think, each in their own different place of happiness and comfort, and come back together to decide that no one can be the best because everyone has their own talents.
The pictures are great, the language works wonderfully, and this book has always received a very eager welcome from my preschool classes. I’ve had a lot of success opening up conversations and considerations of difference, strength, skill, and competition through this book (especially with boys). I just love it!
I would recommend this for children 3 and up. You can buy it from Amazon here.
The Octonauts & the Only Lonely Monster
When I first started sharing this book with my class, I wasn’t aware of the Octonauts TV show. It’s actually likely that I would have bypassed this book if I had, and would have missed out on another fantastic children’s book on difference.
In this story, the Octonauts (a group of undersea explorers, I gather) meet a scary sea monster, who actually turns out to be friendly and sad that there is no one like him in the world. The Octonauts search the 7 seas, meet a lot of other creatures who speak different languages and live in various environments, and everyone learns about individuality and the value of friendship.
Again, the pictures are fantastic, with quite a bit of detail (I could look at each of the pages of the different environments for quite a while). On some of the pages you need to turn the book around to a different orientation, and I found that a pretty interesting feature to add to a concept about different points of view.
This is another one I would read to a child of at least 3, as the language is a little advanced for someone with a shorter attention span and less language comprehension. You can buy this book on Amazon here.
Me and You
by Geneviève Côté
This book is super cute, and reading it with two distinct voices for the two characters is really what makes it. A pig and a bunny are friends, and become sad when they notice that there is a lot that is different about them. They try to make themselves look and act like the other one, but just end up laughing at themselves because they look silly. The book ends with “I like you because you are you. I am me, and you are you. That’s why we love each other, me and you.”
A younger audience (2 and up) would be successful with this simple story, depending on the attention span of the individual child. You can buy the book here on Amazon.
Wherever You Are
This is a beautifully put together book that brings children around the world to get a glimpse of how different and similar the world and all the cultures in it are. It sends a lovely message, through thoughtful language and colourful imagery. “Joys are the same, / and love is the same. / Pain is the same, / and blood is the same.”
This is another book that would be suitable for very young audiences, as there is so much to look at, and the wording is short. Find it here for sale on Amazon.
Let’s make a point to keep lines of communication open with our children, and help them develop positive thoughts around similarity and difference.
What are YOUR favourite children’s books or other ways you use to discuss difference?
Disclaimer* This post contains affiliate links from Amazon.ca. If you use one of these links to purchase a book, I will receive a small portion of the profit made. However, all of the above is straight from my heart and reflects my true and honest opinions of these stories.