A friend asked me recently "How do I teach my children to befriend someone with Down syndrome? What should parents be teaching their kids about people who are different than them?"
To be honest, I was a bit thrown by this question. It was a perfectly legitimate question, but one I hadn't even considered before. My kids aren't yet of the age that their social circle is more important to them than it is to me.
The other kids Addison's age don't yet see her as different. She's just another kid in music class (which she is loving more than ever!), the girl who goes behind them on the balance beam in gymnastics class, and "one of the twins" that their parents stop to fawn over in the grocery store.
But I know that this day is coming. Her future friendships- or lack of them- is something that I spend more time worrying about than I'd like to admit.
And I'm glad that this friend dealing with this issue took the time to ask me. It told me a lot about the quality of mothering going on behind such a thoughtful question- the type of thoughtful mothering that will make the world a better, kinder place.
The future generation is being raised by YOU. And maybe you've asked yourself the same questions as you're genuinely trying to prevent future bullying through how your children perceive difference. And for that I absolutely adore you.
I don't claim to be an expert on this subject. I don't claim to know any magical answers- or problem solving techniques that will make this easy. But I do have a few thoughts to share- from reading I've done, discussions I've had with my friend, and observations from when I was teaching in the public education system. And I do have a daughter growing up very fast who someday might be your child's friend. And here's what I wish those potential friends would be taught:
1. "Mommy, why does she talk so funny?"
Ask your child to think about subjects that are hard for him. Math? Writing? Recess? Where does he have to work harder than everyone else in order to succeed? Once your child thinks of some areas, then pull it back to the girl that "talks funny". Explain that just like solving those math problems are difficult for him, talking is difficult for this little girl. It's not her fault- just like math struggles aren't his fault.
Then remind him how he wants the things that he's good at focused on instead of what he struggles with. See if he can list some things that the little girl who struggles with speech can do well.
2. Bring a new level of empathy to the table
I wrote about this in one of my earlier posts this month:
One of the common physical traits of Down syndrome is a small mouth with a shallow roof of the mouth. In relation, the tongue can then appear oversized and be much more difficult to maneuver. Not to mention that same tongue might have low muscle tone, making movements more difficult to begin with. I've heard it said that if you want to know how difficult it is to articulate clearly when you have such a physical set-up, you should place a full size marshmallow on your tongue and then talk "normally".
Make it a game with your children. Have them hold a full-sized marshmallow on their tongue (without pushing it into their cheek) and ask them to talk. Then ask them how it would feel if that's the way their mouth was designed to always work and how they would then want to be treated.
Depending on the disability of the child that your child is trying to befriend, there are many ways that you could do an empathy exercise. Blindfold to be blind, noise reducing headphones to be hard-of-hearing, push them around in a wheelchair in a public setting to be physically unable to walk, bind up a hand to simulate limb loss- use your imagination.
Because if your child can really understand how it feels to be the person that everyone is tempted to make fun of- or refuse to befriend, perhaps their compassion and kindness will meet that new friend right where they need it to be.
3. Teach by example
Addison's peers don't understand that she's different yet because she's in that magical time when other children look at "different" children and just see- another child. But then as they grow this slowly changes. It's no longer "cool" to hang out with the "slow" kid or the one that looks "funny".
And who knows what's responsible for the cruel bullying that can then begin. But oftentimes I wonder if it's due to the behavior that they see at home. The parent who makes flippant remarks about avoiding eye contact with the "weird" greeter at Walmart. The mom who makes a bee-line out of the store as soon as a van drops off the shoppers from the adult group home with a look of distaste on her face. The grocery shopper who complains how horribly that person bagged their groceries with other colorful words making fun of the disability because it inconvenienced her.
You might feel uncomfortable. You might not know what to say. But it's important that you treat everyone with kindness and courtesy because your children are watching. And when they're given the choice on the playground to help torture the boy with autism or to stand up for him? They're going to go with the behavior they learned watching you interact with people that you didn't even given a second thought to as soon as it was over.
My friend often takes her children to watch Special Olympic games, so that they can become familiar with achievement at different levels. They talk about what those individuals CAN do instead of focusing on what they can't. The more exposure your children has to those who might be different, the more they will think it to be normal to have someone like that in their lives as a friend. It also gives you a wonderful opportunity to talk to your children about difference and answer any questions they might have. You might not have an easy, clean answer for each of their questions. But just be honest- and bring it back to how they would feel and how they would want to be treated if the situation happened to be reversed.
How do you teach your children to befriend someone with a disability? If you have thoughts to share- please do! Consider the comment section open for your words of wisdom. I'm sure there are many ways to approach this, and I would love your input. As a mother who is still on the new end of things, I always look for advice from those who have "been there". Please share your ideas so that those who are going through this right now can read what worked for you.