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Kids Learn By Example to Meet the Unexpected

Use Child's Curiosity to Open Talk About Those Living with Differences

Anyone visibly different knows about the stares--and the occasional comments--they attract when out in the community. For Phil Crowson, it's when he rides the bus and kids spot his guide dog, Faith. "They're always asking their parents 'What's the dog for?'" says the 61-year-old intake and referral officer at Victoria's CNIB.

Artist Mark Heine's 15-year-old daughter Charlotte has cerebral palsy. Someone always looks a little too long when she's out in her wheelchair. Heine finds the youngsters are "pretty much the most blatant."

That's to be expected if the child hasn't been exposed to those with differences through family or a classmate, according to Donna McGhie-Richmond of the University of Victoria's education faculty. "Of course, you might stare because you're trying to understand. You can't figure it out," says McGhie-Richmond, a special-education specialist.

Kids being kids are not shy about reacting vocally--possibly to a parent's embarrassment--about what they are seeing.

"There's always going to be situations when the child stops, stares and asks questions," says Linette Baker, program director of Community Living Victoria, which assists those with developmental disabilities.

That's understandable, according to Michael Lax, vice-president of the B.C. Association of People Who Stutter. For children, there's the uncertainty, particularly when encountering those such as himself without any noticeable physical differences. They don't readily understand what's happening and why, says the Victoria chiropractor.

Kids are not being rude but curious, McGhie-Richmond says. Crowson agrees their questions are sparked by curiosity. "They're just not used to seeing dogs on a bus," he says.

Use the child's curiosity as an opportunity to talk about those living with differences, Baker says. She has stepped in to help a floundering parent answer a child's questions about her clients.

Some parents hesitate to ask directly, as they worry about invading the individual's privacy, Baker says. If they do ask questions, they are more likely directed at the individual's companion. Baker's care workers know always to include the client in any conversation in public.

"Quite often kids with special needs get talked around," Heine says. If they ask "what's wrong or why the wheelchair," parents should encourage them to ask those such as Charlotte. She is quite capable of answering questions, he says.

If Charlotte sees kids staring, she'll say "hi." Often this isn't a conversation-starter. "When she says 'hi,' they get scared and turn away," Heine says. Those who do respond usually do so only with prodding from a parent.

Lax thinks parents should defer any explanation until later. "I think it's hard to say something to the child in front of the person stuttering," he says.

McGhie-Richmond suggests parents quietly acknowledge the child's curiosity with something such as, "I see you looking at that person. What are you thinking?"

"I'd encourage them to talk," she says.

Over the last 20 years, society has become more inclusive, McGhie-Richmond says. Crowson agrees, finding youngsters are much more aware than when he was young.

Crowson knows his guide dog is an ice-breaker when out in the community. Perhaps too much of one, as kids are always asking to pat the dog when it's on the job. He's not always as stringent as some are about keeping kids away from their guide dogs. It depends on the situation, he says.

Parents can help broaden a child's perception by the way they respond to those with differences. Something as simple as offering assistance at a street corner shows the child what's acceptable. Small kids learn by example, Crowson says.


Tips for Parents When a Child Encounters Those with Differences:

- Most often your child is curious and not intentionally rude. If the latter, nip it in the bud by saying, "We don't talk to people like that."

- Use your child's reaction, whether vocal or staring, as an opportunity to talk about physical differences. Read the situation to determine if the talk should start immediately or be deferred until later.

- If the subject of your child's curiosity speaks, encourage your child to respond. Your child initially may be wary around someone with an obvious difference.

- Don't talk around or over the individual. Speak directly to the person, if possible. Encourage your child to ask any questions directly if the individual seems amenable.

- Set an example for your child by offering, for example, to assist those with challenges to cross the street.

- Explain that guide dogs are not pets. Your child must always first ask if it's OK to pat the dog. Often it isn't.

Reprinted from the Times Colonist, Victoria, July 31, 2010.