How Should I Handle This...? - Vernon Rockville,CT

Updated on December 06, 2009
L.S. asks from Vernon Rockville, CT
16 answers

I have 3 kids. a 4yr old, an almost 3yr old and a 1 year old. Yesterday we were at our public library and a mother and her son walked in. Her son was obviously retarded with facial deformities and a tube in this throat. He could walk but i'm not even sure he could talk.

After they sat down i overheard my 4yr old say that that boy looked silly. I brought both kids over to me and explained that God made that boy different just like he makes some peoples legs not work and so they have to use wheelchairs. I then took both kids by the hand and walked them over to the mother and boy. I asked the mom if it was ok if we said hi. She said ok. So we said hi. I introduced both kids and had them tell the boy how old they were. The boy just kind of looked at them.

At that point i was stumped. I tried to start a conversation with the mother (not about her son) but she was mostly quiet) After we walked away my four year old kept saying that the boy was very silly... and she didn't like people who were different. She obviously didn't get the lesson i was trying to teach. I was hoping the boy could speak but he didn't...

How could i have done things differently? I'm really hoping i didn't offend the mother...(although i don't think i did) I just felt very aquard and inadequate like i didn't do something right...or could have done something differently... How can i teach my kids about other people who are different?

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answers from Pittsburgh on

I don't think that you did anything wrong. Kids are naturally nervous around people who look different in any way. In fact, the mother was probably glad that you were so nice as to come over and introduce your kids - many people probably avoid them. Furthermore, I don't think she would have been offended if you had asked about the son. Not, "What's wrong with him?" of course, but "What's his name? How old is he? What does he like?" Perhaps your kids would have chimed in. Even if they had asked questions about his condition, the mom could have slaked their curiosity and perhaps made them feel more at ease. Afterwards, you could have the conversation with your kids about what characteristics made the boy seem different and what made the boy the same as they are. Everyone has differences and similarities, after all.
Happy Mommy-ing!

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answers from Boston on

I agree with the other posters, both pro and con. I think the only additional thing you could try is to say "We came to read some books about (trains/Christmas/dogs). I'm going to read this one to my kids if your son would like to join us?" That makes it a bit more natural and focuses on the common factor of being at the library together.

On a more personal note, as a mom of a special needs child, I've been hurt by both people who hustle their children away as if my child has a contagious condition, and by people who stare and whisper. I'm the type who welcomes a friendly introduction, but the mom you met may simple be more private or reserved!

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answers from Boston on

I was like your daughter when I was younger and I believe I was about the same age when my mom caught me saying something negative about someone who had a deformity and my mom took me aside and was REALLY mad at me, which I didn't understand but when she told me "how would YOU feel if people said 'Oh look at C. shes got so many freckles shes ugly'" and when she used one of my own insecurities in that kind of context, it CLICKED. I was totally horrified at the things I had said because I didn't understand that what I had said was a hurtful thing, it was just something i said to make me fit in. That one little sentence from my mom changed my life and attitude FOREVER and I can remember it crazy clearly to this day. So finding a way to tell them how what they say and how they treat other people actually has an effect on the other person emotionally in a way that makes them truly understand is the way to go.

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answers from Boston on

Hi L.,
I agree with the majority of the other responses: You did everything right. Sometimes our children just aren't mature enough for the lessons we want to teach them, and it seems like that is what happened in this instance.

I think if you continue with your loving, accepting, and tolerant attitude in your words, actions, and examples, eventually your kids will internalize it and live it just like you do.


answers from Boston on

I think your motivations are great, and your immediate response was far more effective than dealing with it 2 hours later at home. With kids this age, the timely lesson is essential.

You can't really judge the other mom's response - every parent is different, and there is no "right" way to respond. She may be more private, she may have been a little stunned at your willingness to approach when others recoil, or she may have been preoccupied.

I'm not sure you can actually judge the nature of his disability - saying he is "obviously retarded" might be incorrect. I'm not even sure what the correct term is, perhaps "developmentally delayed"? Anyway, there are so many compound disabilities that it is hard to diagnose from afar and therefore hard to know how to approach or what to expect.

I think there are some subtle changes in language that can be even more helpful - for example, I've heard people talk about "differently abled" instead of disabled. Instead of us saying that someone's legs don't work, we can say that there are all kinds of ways of getting around, and some people use their legs and others use wheelchairs. Some people breathe through their noses and some through tubes. You could say to your children that it's great how this boy's mom got him the medical care he needs and got him a tube, and how she takes him to the library even when someone else might turn away or say he looks silly.

I agree that your child's use of the word "silly" might not be as insulting as it sounds - she may just have limited vocabulary. She could also have been frightened by the tube in his throat, and expressed it as dislike.

Since you already have a strong use of the library, I agree with the other suggestions about taking books out that deal with a variety of subjects. There are some great ones on differently-abled people and their many accomplishments. There is the great Boston story of Dick and Rick Hoyt, how a father pushes his son's wheelchair through the entire Boston Marathon. Rick is now an adult and it's a lot harder for Dick to push that chair, but they keep going, and get more applause than the true winners when they cross the finish line. There are also great stories about people using animals, not just service dogs but also service Capuchin monkeys and other critters, that might interest your kids. By emphasizing what people CAN do (especially if they get the right equipment and more research is done into technological aids) rather than what they CAN'T do, bridges are build and barriers are broken down.

As you go along through your regular day, point out that curb cuts and ramps take away the barriers for people with walkers and wheelchairs, that larger bathroom stalls allow for everyone to go to that restaurant, that movie theaters have sections for wheelchairs so that people aren't left out, and so on. I have a friend who is in the field of Adaptive Technologies - for example, after pushing a friend's wheelchair through summer camp and finding it a lot harder to go down hills, he adapted a set of bicycle hand brakes to attach to a wheelchair to slow it down on a slope. Simple concept, but no one ever thought of it. Approach it by saying how brilliant the inventors are or how great it is that someone thinks about inclusion rather than exclusion. That way you can address it from a science perspective, a love of animals perspective, a recreational perspective, and so on. Eventually your children will be less awkward and more comfortable.

Keep up the good work!



answers from Springfield on

I wouldn't have brought the kids up to the child. I think would be offending not the words. The handicapped child isn't today's lesson. How would you feel if someone used your child as the daily lesson?

Kids are little and naive and people know and understand that. Your kids will learn as they get older. For now if they make a slip here and there its okay. Just always reinforce your beliefs to them.



answers from Springfield on

I think you did the right thing and really all you could, given the other mother wasn't very open at that moment. Half the battle of breaking judgments and stereotypes of people who are different from us is plain and simple exposure. I worked at a summer camp for handicapped children for a number of years when I was young and just seeing how human those kids were, with a wide range of disorders, put into place any previous ideas I may have had. While it may not have clicked for you daughter in that moment, at four years old, if you continue on with an approach like that as she grows, it will have an impact. One other thing that I think helps with my kids is the simple reality of the situation, that kid probably needed the tube to breath or eat and explaining that to even a 4-year-old can help her understand and think, wow, what if I needed a tube to eat or breath!

As for making someone else's child a lesson, I don't think there is anything wrong with that and I'm okay with my kids being someone else's lesson. The way we learn in life is through lessons and examples. We should all understand as parents that whether good or bad or different, we are all examples to others around us, the choice is ours as to whether we learn from it.

Good for you for being proactive!



answers from Boston on

Many of us do not live in diverse communities and don't see many people who are different from us. That can make children curious and uncomfortable but they may not know how to articulate their feelings. One way to expose them to diversity is through literature and film. We just watched Rudolph which is about characters who are "misfits" for a variety of reasons. It's subtle, but age-appropriate. There are books specifically about people with disabilities and those who naturally have different populations represented as characters. Your librarian can help you find some.
Here are some titles that we have:
A Bad Case of the Stripes, David Shannon
Lucy's Picture, Nicola Moon
Charlie the Caterpillar, Dom DeLuise
Masai and I, Virginia Kroll
Talking to Angels, Esther Watson

I also wanted to comment for those who were discussing "politically correct" language: It is important to use people-first language. So, we are talking about people with disabilities, not disabled people, or people who use wheelchairs, not wheelchair-bound people.

Good luck,



answers from Boston on

That's a tough one. What you tried to do is commendable, but it's not fair to make the other mother be a part of your lesson. Also, is the word "retarded" still acceptable? Good luck.



answers from Lewiston on

I think you did the right thing - explaining about how God makes us all unique, etc., and then attempting to interact with the boy. I don't know what else you could have done. I'm sure the mom felt a little awkward, too. Maybe you could get a children's book from the library about people with disabilities? We've encountered this too, and we just keep reminding our kids that God makes everyone unique, and special in their own ways, and that they have feelings just like other kids, etc. There are two children on the school bus with autism, and one of those children was in a class with one of our sons last year. There were a few instances where my son was less than sensitive (as kids are) to this child. The teacher was wonderful - she knew that I was horrified at my son's behavior and we both worked with my son on being understanding of this child's differences. The child was amazing - although he couldn't express himself well, one day in class he brought in a little keyboard, and after hearing a song played once to him, he played it perfectly without any sheet music in front of him. First grade, this was, by the way! Amazing. The bright spot was one day when the autistic child was able to express himself clearly in the classroom, and my son cheered him on! It was wonderful. Just keep doing what you're doing, it's a process. Good luck



answers from Boston on

Hi L.

I don't think you could have done anything different. I actually think you did a great job in trying to show your kids that not all people/kids are the same. Your child may be using the word "silly" to describe the other child because she simply doesn't know what other word to use. It will probably take several encounters with other people/kids with disabilties for her to truely understand that these people/kids aren't "silly". Don't beat yourself up over this or lose any sleep. This is perfectly normal for a child of her age to not fully understand what a person with disabilities is all about.
As far as the mother of the child that you attempted to talk to, I agree with you. I don't think you offended the mother, but I'm sure her reaction to you was simply due to the fact that not too many people approach her to meet her child and engage her in conversation. So good for you for reaching out to her!
On a side note, there are books out there that teach children about people with disabilities. Maybe you could sneak in a few of these to your kids to help expose them a little more, because more than likely you will run into this kind of situation again ;) Best wishes to you!!




answers from Boston on

Hi L.
I think you did very well. Not many people would have attempted to reach out.
It is possable that the women wasnt his mom but a care giver. The tention you felt may have been the fact you where not saying anything about the Boys condition and she was aware of it. Parents of, or poeple who work with, Special Needs children think often about the persons disability so It may have been a bit more comfortable to say somthing about him. IE: Are you his Mom? or Where dose he go to school? These questions may open up more conversation.
I think the most profound way to teach your Children to be comfortable with differance is to be truly comfortable with the differance yourself. I work with adults with developmental disabilitys and I have brought my daughter to work with me. She has seen folks that are in wheelchairs and have deformities and now in public it isnt such a big deal. She even was at a park and was the only child to go up to another child in a wheelchair and talk to him.
The more you know about disabilitys and individuals with physical disabilitys the more comfortable you will be.



answers from Boston on

I think how you behaved shows how much you care about respect to all people. I think that is very good. However, there are two things i think could be improved.

First, i agree with the poster that cautioned that the special needs child does not want to be "today's lesson". That is not to say that you shouldn't have approached him. But be sure about your motive.

The other thing that i think noone mentioned yet is to ask your own children about their impressions, feelings. I noticed in myself that my heart started racing and my hands started sweating when i saw a special needs man approach me in a Café. I am not proud of it. But i did get scared of what would happen. Would i be able to respond adequately? It is impossible to judge from a brief encounter what a special needs person can and cannot do, and needs you to do. So that is scary. I think your children may have felt something like fear, curiousity, revolt. You cannot make those feeligs go away. Best i think is to be aware of them, to accept them. Only then might these awkward feelings get quieter. So make sure your children also feel heard, and accepted without judgement of their feelings.

Good to know that you and all teh other moms care so much about this!


answers from Hartford on

I would not say that the boy was different!! I woudl explain hoe we ALL all different. I am a special education major! It is also called intellectual disabiltiy. You could explain what his disabiltiy was to the best of your ability. But explain that they would not like it if they were not liked because they have Brown hair. (or whatever) It is hard for kids! My daughter once said "Mom that dad is so small" she said it pretty much to him. He was a small person. I ws a little embarassed but he laughed. i just said well so are you. She said yah but I am a kid, she was 4 at the time. i just said well some people are short and some are really tall. Everyone is different even you! No one person is the same that is what makes us all special!

M.- WAHM and SAHM and loving it!



answers from Burlington on

Hi L.,

I think you did pretty well and I think Cathy M's advice is what I think would have been good to add for the situation - conversing about the library, books, etc. I didn't read all of the others.

I think the modern phrase for retarded is mentally challenged. You could use special needs too. I think that is still used.

It seems to me that your 4 year old hasn't been around people with medical equipment to not phase her. She finds it unusual and is stating that fact by her use of silly. It will take more observance of such people and a greater maturity than her 4 years to comprehend it. You are doing fine and I commend you for trying to remove an fear/lack of understnading/etc. of people with different abilities from your children.

I have my children watch such shows at Little People/Big World and others so that my children are aware of the diverseness of the world. They'd watched it numerous times, and then one day my eldest son said something like, "They're so tiny," as if he'd just noticed. This afer seeing it numerous times and me explaining things to him.

Some people thought it inappropriate to "make" this family the "daily lesson." Many people with disabilities would rather have people ask them about their disabilities/different abilities than to be stared at, etc. Some don't. Going up to the mother and asking is the right thing to do but I'd suggest that you add asking her if you could ask her about her son's special needs along with saying hi. I think the conversation would have gone better. She may have also let you know whether or not she wanted her or her son to participate in such a discussion.

I didn't read all of the responses. If no one said the best way of how to ask, I'd suggest calling a nursing home or a hospital or some sort of health outreach group. Hmm. Now who would it be that you'd ask to speak with? I don't know the answer. Maybe someone on here knows, or just ask the operator. Some sort of outreach person.

Keep up the good work!
: ) Maureen



answers from New London on

Honestly, you handled it as I hope I would. I think you did great. I may have told my children something like, "I guess he didn't like you either because your different than him." Explained how mean they were being and how I disapproved of it. I may have also explained the differences between siblings as well.
Maybe there is a movie out there to help? We have a couple people in our community who are "different" and my children see me treating them just as they were any other person. I think that helps. But if that was your first encounter I think it's harder for them to grow up feeling "different."
I wonder if there is some childrens hospital you can go and have them donate toys to and meet the children there. Make it a tradition or a one time thing to get them to see how "common" it can be. Maybe it would help make it more personal. Make sure they know how they hurt that boys feelings by talking about him like that. I may use a personal example..."I don't like your hair, it's different than mine." Simple but to the point and after making sure they know you love them as they are.
But honestly, you handle the actual situation great from my perspective. Maybe someone whose family memeber has mental challenges could give better advice.
I'll talk to my friend whose brother does and ask what her experiences are. If she has something to add, I'll let you know. She says mentally challenged or handicapped are terms that are fine. She says she understands the mothers responce was very normal because of the other people they have faced. As well as internal dealings she may be having.
She was driving and couldn't talk but didn't have any quick responce to how to deal with different.

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