I wasn’t quite certain who was more in a state of shock, Ethan or me. We had been at the local Y where John and I had been taking him for group swim lessons religiously since he was a toddler and this Saturday morning John had stayed back with Ethan’s two younger siblings, Charlie and Savanna. It was after the Christmas break and we were back with a new class, beginning a new session. Having proudly received the note at the end of the last session that Ethan had advanced from Guppee to the Pike 1, I purposefully hung around the pool to meet Ethan’s new instructor. Initially distracted by another parent sitting next to me poolside, I suddenly heard an unwelcome sound coming from the area where Ethan was. “Ewww….what happened to your hands and feet? Gross!” Another Pike1 had been chatting with Ethan but then noticed all of his four physically different limbs and began to yell.
I felt suddenly like I had been kicked in the gut. Unbeknownst to me, this would not be the first time a child would react with such extreme level of fear and disgust at the sight of our five-year-old at a swim lesson. On the verge of tears, Ethan turned red with embarrassment, and immediately tried to hide his hands but it was of no use since his two-toed feet were readily exposed. “You look weird! Ewwww…..” the child continued. I glanced at the other kids, most of whom were distracted but one Ethan had played with the season before quickly looked down and withdrew. Frantically, I looked around to find where the other boy’s mother was standing. I noticed her standing nearby watching, unfazed by her child’s loud outburst. She had been on her cell phone, clearly caught up in her own conversation. Given the commotion, I thought it impossible for her not to grasp her son’s extreme reaction to mine. My heart sank as I watched her merely waive her index finger back and forth at her child while continuing on with her own conversation.
The class started and the teacher, quickly surmising the episode, moved Ethan over to the first lane and placed the other child in the last. Admittedly, I would have given anything to reprimand the other boy for hurting Ethan’s feelings so badly. Although I understood that we both look extremely different and I expected natural curiosity, I couldn’t fathom how the other child could have such an insensitive heart. “That was terrific, Ethan!” I heard the instructor praising him for a ½ lap across the pool. I had to let it go, and we both promptly moved on. To dwell on those terribly difficult and humiliating moments was simply too painful for either of us.
This past week I published a new Guest Flaunt on DHIFI, written by an amazing mother named Tammy Palmer. Tammy and her husband, Jim, have three children. She decided to write about her youngest daughter, Gloria (aka “Princess Peach Tree”), who was five when her parents traveled for the third time across the globe to China to adopt this little girl born with upper limb differences. “Cutie pie” doesn’t begin to describe how adorable Princess Peach Tree is. In her Guest Flaunt, Tammy advised how she and Jim have been “training their daughters to confidently answer questions,” about their differences. However, even Tammy wasn’t prepared for an incident that occurred one day at a jewelry event when Princess Peach Tree became fast friends with another little girl who was oblivious, at first, to her difference. Tammy describes a scene where the little friend suddenly discovers Princess Peach Tree’s difference and started yelling loudly in terror. “Your arm is gone! It’s GONE!” The little girl continued to scream and cry, demanding to get away.
Although I published Tammy’s piece last week, the story of the little girl screaming in fear has not left my mind. Of course, for obvious reasons, our family certainly can relate to a child reacting to us with fear and not just curiosity. And come to think of it, in her journal about me as a young child, my own mother even acknowledged her appreciation that sometimes another child’s fear might stem from the fact they believe the same thing (loss of limb) might happen to them. But even if that were the case, I was nevertheless struck this week by a study just released by a Harvard psychologist in the Graduate School of Education. Richard Weissbourd, who runs the “Making Caring Common” project at Harvard, reported that 80 percent of youth claimed their parents were more concerned with their kids’ achievement and/or happiness than whether they cared for others. In response, Making Care Common released five strategies to help parents raise caring children.
(1)Making caring for others a priority: Instead of saying to your kids, “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” say, “The most important thing is that you’re kind.”
(2)Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude: Reward uncommon acts of kindness, rather than helping with other siblings or around the house.
(3)Expand your child’s circle of concern: Encourage children to care beyond their small circle of friends and family, giving them simply ideas for stepping into the “caring and courageous cone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.
(4)Be a strong role model and mentor: For our children to emulate us, we also need to acknowledge our own mistakes and flaws, so they come to understand that none of us can achieve perfection.
(5)Guide children in managing destructive feelings: Teaching children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful.
I digested these strategies, believing them not only to be helpful, but actually instrumental. I quickly became convinced, (and hopefully not by being simply naïve), that if parents raised their kids in the manner offered by Weissbourd, we could see fewer terrified outbursts at the sight of a child who looks like Gloria or my kids. And, let’s face it. It is taboo to reprimand another person’s child, no matter their conduct. Admittedly, though, I have been sorely tempted when I or my kids have been the recipients of poor behavior.
I conclude this week with two parting thoughts. That for those parents raising children with no physical difference, they consider prioritizing the Making Caring Common guidance so that it is never their child who is unable to manage their reaction to someone who looks different. But also, I note an inadvertent positive. As much as I am a fan of Weissbourd’s strategies, I am convinced that for children who are born with a blatant physical difference, knowing the importance of being caring and kind doesn’t have to be specially taught. Rather, and thankfully, it appears not only natural for our kids to be that way–it is arguably intuitive.