How to make a child comfortable around those that are different from them
March 2, 2007 10:14 AM   Subscribe

How do I expose my 2 1/2 year old son to people who have handicaps, or chronic illnesses like CP or MS?

I remember my mom taking me to her nursing home when I was younger, and am very glad she did. I also remember most of the patients/residents were extremely happy to see me.

I would like to hear from people who grew up with somebody with a chronic illness, or somebody who was fine and then became ill. Before my mom started taking me to the nursing home, I remember visiting my grandfather who had a stroke and tormenting him, and generally being a dick with with my other cousins. I think I was either 4 or 6. I still feel like a dick for doing that.

I don't really like the insert childrens' book series/television program here that deals with this for one token episode.

Are there any books/programs with recurring characters with disabilities? Can I take him anywhere? Can I volunteer somewhere with him?
posted by MrMulan to Human Relations (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Do as your own mom did: call local nursing homes.
Tell them you'd like to spend an hour or so in the day room interacting with residents, and you'd like to bring your child.
I bet they'd really enjoy it.
posted by Dizzy at 10:28 AM on March 2, 2007

Sesame Street regularly has handicapped children on, not just for one token episode. They don't usually "deal with" them, though--they just treat them like regular kids.

When I was in grade school we often went to the nursing home to sing songs and such. Unlike the one you apparently got, the message I got was "here's a scary place where everyone smells funny and is almost dead, unlike the real world that has sunshine and bikes and people who don't talk to themselves."

When you say you tormented your mean you said deliberately mean things TO him? Or did you mock him with your cousins out of his earshot?
posted by DU at 10:36 AM on March 2, 2007

I spent so much time at nursing homes when I was growing up. We went for Christmas to sing carols, at Valentines to hand out cards, things like that. My church also gave us the name of a lady in the nursing home. We visited her every week, sometimes every couple days. She was at my baptism and I was at her funeral. I still treasure those memories.
posted by nadawi at 10:44 AM on March 2, 2007

2 1/2 might be a little young to take much away from the nursing home experience.

I have a friend with a daughter who is your son's age. To provide her daughter with the same experience/lesson, she enrolled her in a pre-school for special-needs children (chronic illness, handicaps, etc.). She goes once or twice a week and really enjoys it.
posted by necessitas at 11:03 AM on March 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

One thing that would be really grand would be to find a person who could really become a part of his life - someone he can ask the curious questions of and acclimate to, understand and respect on a deeper personal level. I'm thinking babysitter?? Teenagers with CP or MS often want that "normal" kind of experience.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:07 AM on March 2, 2007

To start to answer your question, a lot will depend on where you live and what you do. If you live in an area that does Meals on Wheels, you could volunteer with them - I believe they usually have a range of clients.

Many schools now mainstream handicapped kids as much as possible, so your son may get normal contact that way. Depends where you he goes to school.

And thanks for the nice reminder about why I don't tell people I have MS. Thanks a lot. And MS is not MD.
posted by dilettante at 11:15 AM on March 2, 2007

My aunt has MS and is homebound most of the time. She gets visits and support through a local church; she can't go there, but the pastor and some of the members come to her during the week. You and your son could volunteer to go along with someone from a church on visits. My aunt loves getting to meet new people, especially children, since her ability to get out and make acquaintances is so limited.
posted by junkbox at 11:18 AM on March 2, 2007

I think the experience of being exposed to different people will not be quite enough. You'll probably actually have to talk about things with your child.

I was taken to visit my great aunt in the nursing home regularly when I was a small child, and my experience was similar to DU's - it seemed like a scary place where people were smelly and frail and didn't make any sense. I hated it. Nowdays I absolutely regret that I didn't get to know my great aunt, but little kids can't be expected to have that kind of perspective without some serious coaching.
posted by vytae at 11:36 AM on March 2, 2007

Oh, and what I forgot to say above:

I think the kind of conversations that would have helped me most would have been ones that could help me relate to the sick person. Telling me what was wrong with Auntie or why she smelled funny didn't help, but if I had known then that she had been married to a funny guy or that she had worked as a <whatever> or that she loved to ride her bike around the farm when she was a kid, that would have helped me see her as a fellow human being instead of as a scary obligation. So, don't emphasize the differences. Emphasize the similarities, and help your kid get to know someone as a human being, not just as an example of someone who is old/disabled/whatever.
posted by vytae at 11:41 AM on March 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

When I was a teenager, I volunteered with our local parks system who ran recreation programs (sports and arts and crafts) for teenagers with physical and mental handicaps.

This was an excellent way to meet people my own age that I wouldn't have met otherwise, and I came away with a lot of lessons--including how to be respectful to those with handicaps and yet still provide help politely on the occasions when it may be needed. I find that to be a skill I use in my adult life now fairly often.

Perhaps you can see if there are any similar programs run by your local county/city recreation centers? I'm sure there are programs for younger kids. Even if you can't volunteer, you probably can attend the programs yourself.
posted by divka at 11:42 AM on March 2, 2007

DU, No, the mutually beneficial experience of being accepted as capable of performing that kind of job and upholding that kind of resonsibility by someone who's keen on promoting acceptance and diversity... and pays you $10/hour to clean up after their runt. Why so cynical? The people I know/have known with such illnesses have all aggressively taken advantage of all such opportunities (is accepting scholarships becoming University's gimp?) as well as sought to flaut preconceptions regarding their abilities.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:45 AM on March 2, 2007

When I was a kid we routinely went to visit our former neighbor, Joe, in his nursing home. We kids were uncomfortable, but we all went, every other week. My mom would talk to him at length, even when she couldn't really understand him. Our mean jokes about other residents (out of earshot) were met with stony silence from our parents. Even if it made us uncomfortable at the time, these visits were an excellent lesson in sucking it up and doing the right thing. (Valuable lesson to teach your kid regardless of how they feel about disabilities generally)

So yes, volunteer routinely at a nursing home. It will be a good lesson even if it's not the "disabled people are completely normal" lesson. For that, outside of enrolling in a playgroup for disabled kids, you may have to trust to chance.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:45 AM on March 2, 2007

Even if it made us uncomfortable at the time, these visits were an excellent lesson in sucking it up and doing the right thing. (Valuable lesson to teach your kid regardless of how they feel about disabilities generally)
Disabled people are not educational tools. They don't exist to teach your children lessons. If you drag your kids to a nursing home to teach them a lesson about "sucking it up and doing the right thing," you are exploiting the nursing home's residents . You're also teaching your children that disabled people are objects of pity. That's not a good lesson to teach.

Unless your child routinely encounters people like him in an institutional living arrangement, please don't take him to a nursing home to learn about disability. It will only create the impression that disabled people are very different from "normal" people, since nursing homes are probably entirely different spaces than anything he's used to. He needs to encounter disabled people in ordinary settings, doing ordinary things. And I don't know any way to make sure he does that other than to fight really hard to give disabled people full access to the community, so that your son encounters people with disabilities all the time, as a matter of course.

Otherwise, I guess my advice would be to figure out which places in your community are truly accessible and spend time there. For instance, is there a universal access playground in your neck of the woods? They're designed to be accessible to all children, including those with disabilities, so your son would be likely to encounter disabled kids there. And they'd be doing ordinary kid things, such as playing.
posted by craichead at 12:03 PM on March 2, 2007 [9 favorites]

A scholarship is a totally different thing. For one thing, the disabled person does the approaching, which means they are comfortable with it going in. Are you saying this parent should walk up to random handicapped teens and ask if they want to babysit and oh, btw, bring the wheelchair--my kids will love it?

For another, a scholarship doesn't pay the handicapped person to be disabled. I.e. they aren't asking them to "perform" in any sense. They are making an opportunity available. In the babysitting case, the job is to be "the disabled person for the kids".
posted by DU at 12:19 PM on March 2, 2007

i find it really distasteful that anyone would intentionally traipse his child through some specialty facility to expose him to different people. special purpose places are not thoroughfares for sightseeing.

maybe you need to settle on the sesame street box set and let your son take people as he finds them in the wild. your son may be 30 before he happens across his first burns victim, or acquired brain injury survivor, or disabled parent.

travel, take him abroad. mingle... he'll meet all kinds of interesting differences and learn by your example. you also want to impart that people are not a means to your ends, too. surely.
posted by de at 12:21 PM on March 2, 2007

Will no one ask why? So you feel guilty about tormenting Gramps. Is it bothering you so much that you have to indoctrinate you 2 1/2 year old? I don't think I saw my first 'cripple' until I was in 1st grade. (Way back when we still had duck-and-cover drills, and we called them cripples). No one made fun of her because the teachers and other adults treated her no differently than the rest of us. Only thing I noticed is that she didn't run around during recess. Lead by example. Retirement homes are not zoos. Visit one because you care to brighten someone's day, not because it's a field (guilt) trip.

Am I being too harsh? Probably, but I really don't think the kid should be subjected to a forced education about differently abled persons. Kids discover things at their own pace. And by the way 2.5 is the age when the kid is trying real hard to create a self identity, He's got enough to deal with.
posted by Gungho at 12:37 PM on March 2, 2007

Disabled people are not educational tools. They don't exist to teach your children lessons. If you drag your kids to a nursing home to teach them a lesson about "sucking it up and doing the right thing," you are exploiting the nursing home's residents . You're also teaching your children that disabled people are objects of pity. That's not a good lesson to teach.

Your first two sentences are correct. Your third and fourth sentences aren't.

The lessons the kid would learn by routinely visiting a nursing home are not about disability. They are lessons about how we have obligations to other people (family in particular) to help them and treat them respectfully even if we are a little uncomfortable, and even if they smell funny, etc. It's a lesson about how to act like an adult. This is probably a lesson for when the kid is older. But it's a valuable lesson that gets learned in every generation, and doesn't exploit anyone.

Obviously at this stage of life, a playgroup or accessible playground would be a better way to meet peers with disabilities.

And, although I can see why some people might take offense at the way the question is phrased ("where can I find some disabled people for my kid"), I think it's accidental bad phrasing. I don't think the poster actually has bad attitudes about disability, so let's lay off that angle.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:47 PM on March 2, 2007

The lessons the kid would learn by routinely visiting a nursing home are not about disability.
Yes, they are. You may not intend to teach those lessons, but unless your kid is encountering disabled people elsewhere, he or she is, in fact, learning that disabled people live in special institutional settings, not in the community. They're different, and generally not in a good way, since even nice institutions are still pretty institutional. (And I say that as someone who spent several months in the hospital as a kid.) Obviously, if you're going there to see a relative, then it's worth it, and you'll have to figure out some way to counteract the problematic messages. But this poster wasn't asking about seeing a relative. He was asking about exposing his kid to disability. In my opinion, dragging your kid to a nursing home as if it's the zoo is not the way to do that. I'm not hostile to the question. I think it's a perfectly good question. I just think that's a bad answer to the question.

Have you thought about exposing him to American Sign Language?
posted by craichead at 12:57 PM on March 2, 2007

When/if he is in preschool, ask if that institution also has a PPCD (preschool program for children with disabilities) or similar program. PPCD teachers are usually looking for typically developing kids with whom to do inclusion activities. Your kid can be a good speech/language/behavior/social skills model for the others without him even knowing it, and he may learn how to treat "different" kids with kindness, or maybe even make some good friends. Many schools also have buddy programs for students with disabilities, up through high school.
posted by kmel at 1:25 PM on March 2, 2007

Response by poster: Gungho: Are you a registered shrink? I think what happened is I grew up. Either you never did anything bad when you were a kid, or you have no remorse about it as an adult. (false dichotomy argument)

DU: My mom worked as a nurse supervisor, she introduced me to the people there (patients and coworkers). This probably made it not scary (My mom likes these people, so they must be ok)
As for tormenting my grandfather...he couldn't get out of his chair, so we would run by him and hit him or throw paper and spitballs at him. I'm due for a rock or two...

Disabled people are not educational tools.
I wish all people were educational tools...I think it enriches a person life. I would love to travel, and host tons of people at my house... Unfortunately, I am not independently wealthy, so I pretty much have to work...same routine 5 or 6 times a week. My days off, I am on the floor playing with my kid.

For the posters that say that there is no dad just had a stroke, and he is not the same and probably will never be. The pop I knew is dead, and now we need to get to know the new one.

American Sign Language is a great idea...I would like to learn that myself with my son so we can mess around with his mom. (Yes, craichead, I know that wouldn't be the main reason for learning it)
posted by MrMulan at 1:53 PM on March 2, 2007

(Yes, craichead, I know that wouldn't be the main reason for learning it)
Actually, I was going to be even more mercenary and point out that if he could become fluent and get certified as an ASL interpreter, he'd have a perfect day job to finance all his artistic endeavors later in life. I think learning a second language as a little kid is a good thing no matter what, just in terms of brain development. And since it would expose him to Deaf culture, it would be good on that score, too.
posted by craichead at 2:08 PM on March 2, 2007

I think it's all about your intention and method in exposing your son to those who are disabled. As stated previously, "they" are not educational tools nor are they novelty items. Volunteering at a nursing home or any other similar community is not a field trip with a neatly-packed permission slip and twenty dollar check. Please communicate that to your child through your actions and words. Although you may be able to get into a vehicle to return home, they cannot. They are home.

My brother (who is three years my junior) has mild-functioning autism. I don't know how else to put this into perspective except to compare my childhood home on a small scale, less communal environment as a nursing home. Well-intentioned parents would arrange play dates between their son/daughter and my brother. One of two things would occur.

One: The forced learning experience. The father or mother figure's charitable attitude (almost placating, dare I say?) and self-absorbed parenting would completely alienate and exploit my brother and my family. Their intentions would influence and permeate their child's actions and behavior to such a degree that it felt like our household was holding its breath -- that is to say, we felt rather nutty and zoo-like, like we were specimen in a Petri dish (the scientists carefully observed the savages and all of that over-dramatic business). As a collective family unit, we felt embarrassed and misused. Think of sales people who go door to door. They aren't doing it out of small kindnesses but out of their own agenda. Eventually, we learned how to sieve these people out.

Two: The children who actually cared about my brother. Sometimes the parents were awkward or withdrawn when dropping their kids off. Regardless, the children wanted to spend time with my brother. They were eager to play and communicate with him. They didn't treat my brother or my family like we were crafted from glass.

I don't know what your actual intentions are nor am I calling them into question. I feel like this thread has sort of spiraled out into this tangential arena of PCness and word phrasing. I would just like to say that if you would focus more on just instilling that everyone has merit and value in spite their differences, cultivating a curiosity and openness to different walks of life, it might alienate everyone involved quite a bit less.
posted by somersault at 2:13 PM on March 2, 2007

Unless your child routinely encounters people like him in an institutional living arrangement, please don't take him to a nursing home to learn about disability. It will only create the impression that disabled people are very different from "normal" people, since nursing homes are probably entirely different spaces than anything he's used to. He needs to encounter disabled people in ordinary settings, doing ordinary things.

I have to agree with this (as a non-institutionalized disabled person). Too many people assume that disability implies being homebound, or stuck in an institution (which more people are than is actually necessary, thanks to the steaming pile of injustice that is Medicare, but that's beside the point).

The ASL suggestion is a good one, I think. The Deaf community is one that has a very positive self-image, although they do not necessarily consider themselves disabled as such (and I've seen some fairly negative attitudes towards disability there - still, it's a good place to start). The preschool idea kmel and others have mentioned is also a good one.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 2:20 PM on March 2, 2007

Because I think it is important for human beings to do so, I've tried to learn a lot about people who's cultures and experiences differ from my own. I read biographies, autobiographies, theory, and history to help me understand a range of human experience. In my travels around life, I try to expose myself to a wide range of people, visiting neighborhoods where I don't live, checking out art and music that is unfamiliar to me, and finally, working towards understanding and supporting the struggles of people who experience oppression in our culture.

I believe that one reason I have friends, coworkers and acquaintances who come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences is because I have specifically tried to learn about and be open to and support people from a wide range of cultures and experiences.

Now that I'm a mother, I simply try to live and reflect this effort when I am with my kids. My children (4 and 5) have gotten to know a diverse group of adults and children, and they've seen how life is different and the same in various neighborhoods and families. Specifically, my kids know adults and other kids with disabilities because we have people with disabilities in our lives.

Kids are curious about difference, and my kids ask questions about people, or make assumptions about people, that are at times rude. For this reason, I do read books to the kids that specifically exist to normalize the range of human experience. I usually ask the children's librarian for advice, or just pick stuff off the shelves that shows the ways that people are the same and different in positive, thoughtful ways. I also tell my kids specifically that it is OK to be curious, but it isn't OK to talk about people in front of them. When my kids take an interest in someone who, to them, appears 'different', I encourage them to talk directly to that person. In other words, when my daughter has stared with interest at a blind woman who often passes our house, I remind her to say 'hello'. Although they are shy at times, they are used to my encouraging them in this way, and generally are willing to be friendly instead of staring.

I'm grateful that a number of people have been open to talking directly to my kids about the physical differences that interest my kids. For example, a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair prefers to address the kids' curiosity head-on, and she talks to them about her chair and points out it's exciting features.

The point of what I'm trying to say here, is that I'd encourage you to address your important concern from a holistic perspective. Rather than trying to expose your kids to people with disabilities as you would to a new math concept, I would suggest you try to build a diverse group of friends, neighbors, and allies who your kids can get to know. You'll never be able to expose your kids to every type of person, after all, there are as many kinds of people as there are people in the world, but you can build an attitude of respect, kindness, and solidarity that will serve them as they grow and meet other people along the way.
posted by serazin at 2:25 PM on March 2, 2007

I just realized how irrelevant my response was to your post. So in short, I would recommend waiting until he is two to three years older. If your preference is to place emphasis on the senior age bracket, then I'm rather ill-versed in that area. However, I would recommend searching within his own age group. There is less of an emotional distance between two kids in a classroom trying to share their blocks.

My brother was enrolled in certain specialized programs that welcomed everyone and anyone to join. I especially enjoyed it because those who were only peripherally connected to the program were not forced to wear an apron and hand out cookies and juice. They talked with the families and played with the kids. Just inquire with the school staff.
posted by somersault at 2:31 PM on March 2, 2007

I have no idea what people think the benefit of waiting until a child is older is supposed to be in this situation. My cousin had a special bond with both demented and intellectually handicapped adults when she was a preschooler, and because kids are so much more accessible to one another than adults I wouldn’t expect your son to even particularly notice another child’s handicap.

Anyway, what serazin said. Your kid experiences your life. If you have diverse friends, if you live in a diverse community, then your child will simply take diversity for granted.

If you don’t have diverse friends, why is diversity important for your child but not for you? Perhaps becoming a parent has caused you to reflect on the life you are passing on to your child — not a bad thing.
posted by kika at 2:47 PM on March 2, 2007

I think no one here has acknowledged that one reason to acclimate kids to people with physcal disabilities is that sometimes their untempered reactions to those people can be embarrassing to we older, socialized and PC individuals. Playing intereference so that your child won't react in terror at age 7 or 8 to a person with a jerky walk isn't evil.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:13 PM on March 2, 2007

Mulan, I am not a shrink, just an adult who realized a long time ago that children do childish things. I think us adults have to look back and view those childish antics for what they were, not cast them in the light of adult behaviors. What I was hoping you would understand is that by leading through example I didn't see the girl with MS any differently than any of my other friends. So whether they be disabled, mentally challenged, redneck or caveman, when you and your son come across someone who is different you must teach acceptance by your behavior.
posted by Gungho at 4:13 PM on March 2, 2007

My daughter's preschool is a private school which leases space at the county's Early Childhood Education program's campus, and shares facilities with those students. Children from the ECE program occasionally spend time in my daughter's classroom in a "mainstreaming" capacity, and my daughter and her classmates interact with the ECE students on the playground and during a schoolwide music class.

The ECE students have a wide range of disabilities, some physical and some that aren't visible. It's been a very positive experience and it has definitely made an impact; my daughter will frequently notice someone with a visible disability such one that requires using a chair, and will point out that "that's just like the chair my friends at school use".

This particular school is on the San Francisco Peninsula; your profile doesn't say where you are but if you are interested, email me.
posted by padraigin at 5:01 PM on March 2, 2007

In my experience with the elderly, they really don't question much whether you're there from some kind of weird, ulterior motive. They like visiting with people, they like being treated respectfully, they enjoy being around young people, and all this stuff about "you're treating them like a zoo" is completely wrong. They're used to be treated like they don't exist, so when someone is nice and interested in them, they're not going to probe into your motives for being there.

Really, I can't believe the assholishness of some of the responses to this very well-intentioned and broad-minded questioner's plan (specifically, the sorts of responses given by craichead, gungho, and de).

The questioner's plan could have two very salutary effects:

(1) it could (obviously) teach the kids that disabled people are not freaks, are people, and worthy of respect like any other person; and

(2) it could teach the kids, by the questioner's example, that going out of your way to be compassionate and respectful of people with difficult lives is a good way to live. I.e., those kids will grow up thinking, "Our mom/dad cared enough about how we were raised, that she/he actually took the time to expose us to people who live much more difficult, painful lives than ours." And by thinking this way, the kids are more likely to have compassion, and are likely to begin a cycle, in the family, of behaving in a classy manner toward the disabled and different.

I mean, here on Metafilter, there was a post about that abhorrent site "Tardblog," written and run by ostensible adults, and devoted to ridiculing the mentally retarded ... and several of our members thought it was really funny! When such attitudes exist among privileged people, it is so asinine to question the motives of this person that wants to make sure their kids are respectful of disability.
posted by jayder at 7:30 PM on March 2, 2007

Speaking of posts, I'll semi-self promote here by linking to a post I made linking various disability activist sites.
posted by serazin at 7:55 PM on March 2, 2007

I had a vitriolic post all ready to go, but Jaydar's got it.

My brother is autistic. I didn't realize till I moved out of my parents home that people typically don't stare, point or snicker at one other in public places. Strangers did it to my brother when we went out because he made noises.

I think, perhaps, if those people's parents had taught them that there are individuals with different physical/mental abilities, my brother's and my childhood would have been different.
posted by luminous phenomena at 12:46 PM on March 3, 2007

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