How Should I Teach My Child To Act Around You?

Last month, I spoke at a local MOPS meeting here in Cody. One of the Moms asked me a question I hear often- “How should I teach my children to act around people with disabilities?”

I love this question, because it acknowledges that these encounters will occur, and that parents are interested in teaching their children at a young age how to behave appropriately in public. Two great starting points in my book! Here is what I told her, and keep in mind that adults need to learn these lessons as well:

  • A child’s perception of and attitude towards people who look, sound, and act differently begins at home. Your child will pick up on how you act, and will often copy your behavior. Through your own example, teach them that being different is not a bad thing. In fact, a favorite saying in our home is, “Different is awesome!” How boring would life be if we were all exactly the same? Our differences bring so much beauty and variety to our world. We don’t learn and grow when our circumstances and surroundings are always the same. Educate your children on differences so that they appreciate and celebrate them. Eventually, they will see the person first, and not the things that make them different.
  • Don’t be afraid to let your children ask questions. After my accident, I hated it when people stared at me. I knew they were curious, but instead of approaching me and beginning a conversation, they gawked and whispered. My little brother had a shirt made for me that I would often wear in public. It featured the universal symbol for disability and the words, “Just Ask.” I would so much rather people ask their questions than wonder or imagine crazy answers. Children should feel free to approach anyone who is different and politely request information. Most people will appreciate a child’s honesty and enjoy the conversation. If not, the person should politely tell the child that they aren’t comfortable talking about their disability. This is another opportunity to teach your child how to use their manners and thank the person regardless of the outcome.
  • Along with teaching your child how to politely talk to someone, you need to teach them to respect people’s personal space. Most people living with a disability consider their mobility equipment, like a wheelchair, to be a part of their physical person. With this in mind, you would never walk up to someone, especially a stranger, and lean on them or push them. Unfortunately, this happens often with my wheelchair. There is nothing wrong with teaching your child to ask questions about a mobility device, but unless they are given specific permission, teach them to keep their hands to themselves. I personally don’t mind letting well-behaved children push me or giving them rides in my wheelchair, but you cannot assume this with others. Our mobility devices are our lifelines, and we can’t risk having them damaged or injuring ourselves or someone else because a child or adult felt the urge to push a button or pull a lever out of curiosity.
  • Teach your children to look people in the eye and speak to them as they would anyone else. If you are an adult, and it is possible and comfortable for you, kneel down to speak to someone who is sitting in a wheelchair. Not only is it a polite gesture, it helps us prevent a sore neck from constantly having to look up all the time!
  • Finally, the most important lesson you can teach your child, or learn yourself, is the importance of treating everyone, regardless of our differences, with love and respect. If you push this truth home early and frequently, you may not ever have to touch on the topics mentioned above.

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me!