Conversations and Kindness
I think I have watched AFV (America’s Funniest Videos) about a million times and it is true- kids say the darndest things. In fact, I am pretty sure that was a show on tv too.
Most of the time, I appreciate the honesty- especially from children because it’s from their view- their understanding. In fact, as I type this, I am remembering an example that happened this afternoon. After spending all afternoon by the pool, I changed into a new dress I had never worn and was honestly second-guessing. My cousin (who is 5 years old), told me I looked “very beautiful.” She made my whole day with that one statement. That little girl radiates kindness, genuine kindness, and sincerity. Those qualities are so hard to find in people these days.
I appreciate honesty, but when does an honest comment become cruel? If it comes from a place of firm belief, or curiosity, can it really be considered cruel? The saying goes “from the mouths of babes.” but are the young really wise?
Mark wears a brace called Ankle Foot Orthoses (AFOs). This brace keeps him from walking on his toes, a common occurrence with Cerebral Palsy. It goes over his foot and slides into his shoe so that he is able to move around a little easier. The AFOs also help his leg muscles with muscle memory.
He wears these every day while we go on walks, explore outside, and even around the house. They are very much a part of our routine, so much in fact, that Mark will bring me his socks, shoes, and his brace when it’s time to get ready for the day. His brace is a natural part of his life that it is strange when others acknowledge it as something unnatural or different or wrong
Mark and I were enjoying the beautiful day at the park. He loves the swings, especially the tire swing. He has had a few bad experiences on the actual playground set and doesn’t really seem to want to explore that as much lately. A group of older boys, maybe 8 or 9 years old, were playing football in the playground area. As they would all pile together to catch the ball that landed in front of Mark on the swing, I heard one little boy mention Mark’s brace. There were looks. There was pointing. A few of the boys began to chuckle and they continued their game.
The group of boys playing football continued to grow and kept getting closer and closer to the swing set. I grabbed Mark and we went to explore a different area of the playground. After I set Mark’s feet on the ground, he took off (like usual). Then I heard it. I heard the snickering. I heard “retard walk.” I turned around and I saw two boys attempt to mimic how Mark walks.
I struggle with a lot of “Mom-guilt”. I struggle a lot with my own anxiety and the fear of not being good enough or not providing my son with the best opportunities possible. As a parent, you always want what is best for your child. You want them to be happy. You want them to be loved. You want them to laugh a lot and have friends. You want your child in an environment where they will flourish, and with people who will help them become the best versions of themselves.
I have never been more frightened that people may see Mark as different and treat him as such. I knew things weren’t going to be normal with my pregnancy, delivery, NICU, or anything of that sort. I knew Mark would be unique, but I never thought people would treat him as if he were someone less deserving of respect.
Kids will be kids. Right?
It is my job as Mark’s mom to teach him to be strong, to embrace what makes him unique. It is also my job to teach him to be kind to others. You can have thick skin and have a gentle heart. I hope Mark will someday have the mental strength to let cruel comments roll off his back, and the emotional maturity to reciprocate with kindness and forgiveness.
I think the moment that saved my mind from itself- the moment that gave me hope, was when three younger boys stood up for Mark. Remember, the kids didn’t know I heard their comments or laughing. They didn’t know I saw them try to mimic Mark.
The three boys came up to Mark and I as we sat down to get something to drink. One boy said “Woah! Look at his brace! He’s a Superhero!” Another boy said “He’s not just any superhero. Look at the color. He’s Iron Man!”
Mark was so excited and just smiled as the boys showed him how to shoot a nerf gun. As one boy would help him hold it, another would guide his finger to pull the trigger- sending nerf rockets everywhere. The third boy knelt down in front of Mark and the other boys. His mother was walking up and was trying to prepare him to go home. She sat down next to me (at a safe social distance). He ran over to her and whispered in her ear. She nodded and he knelt down right in front of Mark and the other boys once again.
He asked me a question that he had been wanting to ask since he noticed Mark. You could tell he was unsure of how to approach the topic. He didn’t want to upset me or offend Mark, but Mark’s AFO seemed to pique his curiosity. He looked at his mom once more, she nodded and he proceeded.
“Excuse me ma’am, why does he wear that brace?”
The other boys paused. They looked at the boy and his mother. They looked at Mark’s brace and then their eyes met mine. How do I answer this? How do I navigate this topic? Should I give a generic answer? Should I be specific? I knew this day would come with the AFO. It’s already happened with Serial Casting. How is this any different?
I had to remind myself to breathe. What was only a few seconds felt like a lifetime. In that moment, it felt like it took me a thousand years to muster up the courage to answer this question. Then it hit me. Just be honest.
I took the time to explain that Mark needs the AFO to help him walk, run, and climb. This opened up Pandora’s Box. “Why does he need it?”, “Will he always need it?”, “It is so cool! Can I get one?”
The other mom sat there in silence as I answered all of the questions that were thrown at me. The boys’ were happy that their questions were answered. The one who started asking the very first question just looked at me and said “Thank you.” and they all continued to play with Mark for a few minutes longer. They helped him up when he was struggling to climb. They pushed him on the tire swing and went down the slide with him once.
I looked over at the mom sitting beside me. She had a small tear rolling down her face. Before I could say anything, she opened her mouth and said “The way you handled that, answering his questions, was noble.” I sat there for a moment, processing what I had just heard. I stood up, grabbed Mark’s backpack, and said “Thank you for encouraging your son’s curiosity. Thank you for modeling kindness. I think if you hadn’t taken the time to teach your son how to be kind, this conversation never would’ve happened.”
I explained to her about the older group of boys from earlier. She just sighed, shook her head, and looked down. She thanked me once more and we went out separate ways.
In my opinion, when you see a child who looks different, walks different, or talks different- as parents its our job to teach our children inclusion. Don’t run away from situations that can broaden your child’s knowledge. Allow them to ask questions in a polite manner. Educate the kids on this matter. Teach them that not everyone looks the same. Teach your children that not everyone has the same skills. Let them experience interacting with those who are different from them. This is how we get more of that flourishing environment we want for our kids. This is how we teach respect for one another. This is how we raise children who are respectful, accepting, and curious.
This is how we can make the world a kinder place.