Young children sometimes wonder aloud why someone on the playground or at the supermarket is in a wheelchair or looks or acts differently than they do. Parents often think it’s best to not call attention to differences between people. But children as young as toddlers notice and have questions, whether or not we want them to.
When your child asks these questions, don’t dismiss it or quickly change the subject. That suggests they’ve brought up something shameful that shouldn’t be talked about.
Instead, use the opportunity to provide empathetic, appropriate and accurate information about developmental differences. The details you share will be more useful than the ideas they may invent on their own or things they may hear from other kids.
Through conversation, you can help your child understand we shouldn’t assume things about others, and we should recognize that people with developmental differences are individuals rather than part of a group. Your words will help to shape your child’s opinions and future interactions with people who are different than them.
When you discuss developmental differences with your child, keep these helpful tips in mind:
- Talk about similarities, as well as differences. It’s fine to mention differences, but also find ways to identify similarities. You can say, “Johnny may need to use a wheelchair, but he likes Pokémon, just like you do.” Finding similarities keeps you from “othering” people with developmental differences or suggesting the disability is the whole of that person.
- Discuss different types of differences. Sometimes, people talk about “visible” versus “invisible” disabilities. With autism, for example, you can’t always notice a difference until you interact with someone. When you talk to your child about an invisible disability, you can say, “Johnny has autism, which means it’s sometimes hard for him to express his emotions,” as opposed to, “Johnny has cerebral palsy, so he needs to use a wheelchair to move around.”
- Encourage questions. Your child’s initial question may be followed up by others, so be willing to answer any questions that may arise. If you don’t know something, saying “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to get back to you about that” is better than making something up. If your child’s questions were inspired by someone they saw, it might be possible to engage that person in conversation. Sometimes, people with developmental differences (or their parents) are open to discussions, even with strangers, to share their experiences. They may realize children recognize differences and aren’t being rude. They have the right to say no, so ask before questioning.
- Support interactions. Encouraging kids to respect others as individuals and be accepting of developmental differences means teaching them to be kind, helpful and inclusive. It means joining extracurricular activities where people with developmental differences are included or inviting kids to birthday parties. When children feel comfortable around people with developmental differences, it helps increase their empathy levels. Helping your child build these relationships helps them become more compassionate.
It's important to educate our children about developmental differences. There are multiple reasons why. Our pediatric experts dig into this topic and explain why you need to start the conversation at a young age.