Yesterday we went to the JCC family gym to beat the heat outside. While there, a teenage-looking girl came in and started to use the equipment near us. She was talking to herself and walked with a particular gait. As time went on it became clear that she was a kid with special needs. I could see Bambina trying to figure her out. She asked, "why is she talking to herself?" I realized at that moment that I spend all my time trying to educate people about my family's situation but have taken no time to educate myself about other families situations. I had no idea what to say to help my 4 year-old understand a kid with special needs in a compassionate and--dare I say--nonchalant manner.
So I said, "Some kids talk to themselves; some kids don't." Then the girl came over and started talking to us, asking what we were going to do when we left the gym. So I just started chatting with her, asked her what she was going to do when she left the gym, etc. It turned out to be a fine chat, but Bambina was clearly a little bit afraid of her simply, I think, because of her size and her lack of a sense of physical space, and I think perhaps because she seemed different. I remember having the same feeling as a kid when we visited a family friend whose child had Down Syndrome. We played in their pool and had tons of fun when we visited, but I do remember feeling afraid of him when we first met. I think it was the "otherness" maybe. And his relative size to me. I can't recall why. I just recall that I did. Which ended up having no bearing on how we played later, but it's instructive that I remember very well being a bit frightened of his differentness to what I knew to be familiar.
Which is why a lightbulb when on yesterday. I want Bambina to be comfortable around all kids, just as I want other kids to be comfortable around her and her white parents. And as much as I put it on parents to speak positively about adoption and to avoid being clueless or rude, I need to take the initiative to fix my own cluelessness about kids with special needs. For example, I have no idea if "kid with special needs" is an appropriate phrase. Maybe just "kid" is better. I don't know. So if any of you have any ideas or websites, send them along. Because it really finally dawned on me yesterday that this stuff is important to raising a compassionate and confident kid. I remember a mildly-developmentally delayed boy from my elementary school, and the stuff that kid went through ought to keep me awake at night. As I look back, none of the kids had any tools whatsoever to interact with a kid who was different from what they knew to be the norm. And that is a failure of parenting as well as tragic a failure of imagination. One or two kids were outright mean--but they were mean about everyone. The rest ignored him or teased him sporadically. I think I veered into the pity response, where I was nice to him not because I saw him as a person I could be friends with but because I wanted to counteract what I saw happening to him from others. I suppose it's better than being mean, but how much better would it have been for me to have internalized that a kid is a kid is a kid, regardless of how well he walks, talks or thinks? And how do I give that knowledge, that core sense of confidence to see everyone as important, to Bambina?
So as we chatted to Linda (name changed) and I encouraged Bambina to speak to her, we ended up playing a cool game on the slide that Linda had invented. Bambina had a great time, I had a great time, and when we left we said, "Maybe we'll see you here next time for another game!" Bambina kept asking about her all night: "How old was she again? Was she really thirteen?! Why did she talk to herself? What was her name again? Tell me the story of how she showed us her slide game. Why did she talk to herself?..." I just wished I had the knowledge of how to speak specifically to the issue. So I just said again, "some kids talk to themselves; some don't. Either is fine," but felt like I was missing an opportunity for a teachable moment.
So while I'm in the process of educating myself, I'm hoping that in the end, maybe it's more what you do than what you say that influences your kid. And with any luck, Bambina will grow up seeing that a kid is a kid is a kid.