A Lesson For All Parents

Calling all parents…what or how should you teach your child about other kids that may be different from them? In my experiences with my daughter, and from experiences with the general public, I can only say this—lead by example. Teaching differences in general can be challenging for parents. But think about the first time your child asked you a question about a person that looked, acted or talked different from them—what did you say? If you haven’t crossed that road yet, or even if you flubbed it the first time, allow me to be your “mentor” on this subject for the next few minutes as you open your mind and heart.

The definition of empathy is ‘the action of understanding, being aware, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another…and/or having the capacity for this.’ I do not claim to be an expert in the subject; I can only tell you about how empathy has impacted my family and me directly.

I think that some of us have a larger capacity than others for empathy. Maybe it is based on our upbringing, genetics, life experiences, or a combination of all of them. But in attempting to teach your children how to respond to children that may walk, talk or act differently than they do, I think it is vital that you dig deep into that capacity for empathy and relay it to them. This, in turn, will increase their capacity for empathy.

Consider this: you are in a grocery store and see a mom with a child in her cart that obviously has some sort of delay or disability and your child is staring at him. What do you do? What do you say? Here is where your degree of empathy comes in. Instead of staring with your child or trying to hide your child out of embarrassment, set an example by acting and talking to the child as if there were do differences. Don’t speak with pity or sorrow to the child or his parent; instead speak with admiration and honesty. That mom has been through some very rough days and wants so desperately for her child to be accepted just as much as yours. Don’t look at the parent with sadness or heartache, instead look at her with dignity and respect and know that she has gone beyond the realm of courage and bravery in parenting this child.

As we all know, if you model this behavior to your children, you are leading by example, so next time your child may not shun or stare at a child who is different. Hopefully, after the encounter, your child will ask some questions. That will be your opportunity to express the importance of not making people feel different, even when they are. Encourage your child to approach and befriend a child who is different from them. They need acceptance from peers and friendships just like any other kid. Don’t be intimidated by the unknown, just open your mind and put yourself in the other parent’s shoes. Increase your capacity to empathize with them and you’ll be teaching your child one of the most valuable lessons—kids that appear to be different in some way don’t deserve to be treated differently. Things aren’t necessarily the way they seem, so take the time to listen and understand the child before you judge him.

I feel if we can all do this in small ways with our typically developing children, they will have a large inner capacity for empathy and will be able to express it to their peers—and someday, to their own children.

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