In some respects, it was quite ironic. As I stared in awe of a stunningly beautiful building surrounded by four large free-standing minarets, its dome covered in glistening white marble, I noticed an Indian boy of about six near me whose gaze was locked not on the mosque, but on me. No, this wasn’t a quick glance at my physical imperfection, something of which I was quite accustomed. The boy had become fixated at the sight of me and I braced myself as he began to open his mouth and point in my direction.
Until that morning, the day in Agra, India had been simply hot and rushed. As usual, my mind was on anything but the fact that I had such an extreme physical difference since, after all, it wasn’t like it prevented me from doing anything other kids my kids could manage. Desiring to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, my parents literally dragged Peter, me and our baby brother Teddy out of the small hotel room into a crowded street, where a taxi awaited us all. The early morning temperature had already reached 90 degrees and the cab had no air conditioning, of course. As we approached the vast Mughal garden and faced the mausoleum’s reflective pool, our eyes all turned toward the most magnificent building any of us had ever seen.
When we finally got close enough to enter, a man wearing a cream-colored robe pointed to a basket. In it were rows of shoes alongside a pile of foot-coverings that resembled slippers. Slippers that wouldn’t fit me. Seeing my strained expression, my father had instantly clued into my stress, and reassured me. “It’s okay Meggie. You can still come inside. Just take off your shoes and wear your socks.” I was wearing shorts, making the shape of my tiny feet all the more visible. It was in that moment the boy noticed my one-fingered hands and my tiny, almost stump-like one-toed feet and proceeded to gawk and point. The boy blurted out something in Hindi to his mother, while still pointing. His mom then looked over, seemed to reprimand her son, and then grabbed him as she dashed all of her kids into another room. After they left, I felt a mixture of relief and pain. Sure, his eyes felt like little needles jabbing into my soul, but his mothers impulse to drag him away made me feel, well….like a monster.
While on the way to work this week it happened again. I mean, why should I ever be so surprised or shocked? On my way off the ferry crossing the Hudson River to downtown Manhattan I walked briskly on my usual path toward my office. Ironically, since the air was cold, my hands were in my pockets. That morning I had decided to wear a skirt with long boots and a cute (albeit professional) top, one of my favorite styles. Typically, with my hands hidden, I would draw no attention. But on some days, reality cannot be avoided. I have written often about how my shoes never really fit well and as a result, over time, the shape of my shoes and even my boots stretch and adapt to my very differently shaped feet. As a result, my shoes often look distorted and abnormal to those who bother to notice.
And so it was that I came upon the girl, probably no older than ten, walking alongside me with her family. I could hear they were speaking Italian and at first had smiled to myself, thinking about the day after I got engaged. John and I had flown to Florence where I insisted he propose again to me, over and over at every beautiful spot I could find. Within a few moments, the girl began to stare down at my boots, and then at me, then down again. Although her family began to walk faster ahead of me, she practically walked backwards so she could continue staring at my body. It is hard to believe that after all this time and all my flaunting, moments like this still get to me. Yet I have to admit, even coming from a young child, they do. In many respects, I think when a child stares at me it is the hardest. I suspect the experience catapults me back to my own childhood, when it did actually hurt. It recalls for me not only the stares, but those parents who dragged their kids away from me before they could embarrass themselves. It was those moments that made me feel like I had the Plague.
So, it is no wonder that when several friends forwarded to me an article written in The Mighty by Rachel Garlinghouse titled, “7 Things to Do When Your Kid Points Out Someone’s Differences,” I would take particular interest. Garlinghouse wrote in her touching piece about the fact that she and her husband were grandparents to twenty-month old Trae, who was born prematurely and with a diagnosis called, Apert Syndrome, a condition where the child’s skull bones prematurely fuse, impacting his or her facial features. In addition to the facial difference, a child born with Apert syndrome can have fused toes and fingers, is prone to deafness, seizures, and cleft palate, among other things.
According to Garlinghouse, despite Trae’s naturally sweet disposition, stares and rude comments follow him and he and his parents are subject to unsolicited looks and comments on a daily basis in every public place imaginable, Trae and his Mom don’t even catch a break at the pediatrician’s office where one medical professional referred to him as a “pug,” while a child nearby pointed with an unself-conscious outburst to his parent, “what is wrong with that boy?” Then, according to Garlinghouse, after one boy shouted out, “That boy is weird,” Trae’s Mom noted with distress that the other boy’s mother “silenced and shamed her child….the exact opposite of what she should have done.” Garlinghouse provided seven “tips” for parents to follow.
Here they are:
- Apologize. When your child behaves rudely, apologize on the child’s behalf.
- Introduce Yourself.
- Don’t interrogate.
- Treat the person like a person, because he/she is a person.
- Follow-up with your child privately. It’s okay to notice difference, but questions and comments should be reserved for private
- Use any mishaps as teachable moments, for both you and your child. If you do shush your child, apologize for doing so.
- Evaluate your own relationships. How diverse is your circle of friends? You cannot expect your child to not be intrigued by someone who looks different when the child is only around those who look and interact just like him or her.
Some of Garlinghouse’s tips resonated so much that I looked back at my own article on this topic published in Parents magazine from a few years ago to see how much we had agreed on. I certainly loved that out of the gate she encourages people to introduce themselves, and to treat the person like a person. Both tips embody my own messages of the importance of not whisking your child away and letting natural curiosity govern. Only then, will the someone like me or our sons (or in this story Trae when he gets a little older) have the opportunity to explain the reason for our difference and move on to become a ‘someone’ and not a ‘something.’
But then, Garlinghouse’s advice begins to stray from my own views. For starters, she guides readers to apologize. I struggle with this advice, since common sense would lead anyone to think that is the right thing to do. However, by doing so, the child who made the unwelcome outburst is then given the signal they did something wrong. To me, based on their disposition, they curious and merely outspoken. Instead, as an alternative, Garlinghouse’s other tips to ‘introduce yourself’ and treat the person like a person is ideal.
But then, Garlinghouse’s tip to ‘not interrogate’ makes less sense to me. While I don’t advise overly pressing someone who looks different to talk about their difference, in my experience I’ve found that inviting conversation in the right way is well received. A child’s question like, “Why do your/kid’s fingers look like that?” provides the opportune moment to reply readily that we were born this way. If the goal is to treat us like people, then this is our chance to explain, move on and actually feel like a person.
Now I also like the tips to follow up with your child privately, so that the experience can be discussed as a teachable moment. However, any natural outburst triggered by innocent curiosity is just a part of life, and to me shouldn’t be analyzed post mortem as a mishap. The final tip, to evaluate your own relationships, got me thinking the most. While encouraging a diverse environment for our children is certainly ideal, often times they naturally lean toward kids that are like them. I get that, and as supportive as I am of diversity and inclusion, the fact that people (including children) happen to like to spend time with people they find with similar interests and backgrounds makes sense to me. What makes sense, also, of course, is to expand the field of people our kids are exposed to and then let it go. If friendships are going to form, they will do so naturally and authentically.
To me, here is the critical point and the most valuable tip: The majority of children not only don’t identify themselves as being different, they are actually socialized to seek “normal”, to avoid being different, with its many negative connotations. Therefore, the teaching moment to me is to have them consider what makes them unique. Maybe it’s the fact they are short, have an accent, have dyslexia or have two moms. Perhaps its because they are the first in their class to wear glasses. Or maybe a member of their family is different. Trying to create diversity among peers is hard and often fruitless. Discovering the diversity that already exists within you is easy and just takes a change in perspective (and a little honesty.)
If our goal is to have our children manage well the differences in others they come across, then they ought to recognize difference first from within. By accepting and embracing their own differences, they can better accept and empathize with others they encounter.