Have you ever had one of those moments where you say or do something that seems pretty insignificant at the time, yet when you look back, you see how profound it actually was? A few months ago, I had one of “those” moments. My three-year-old came to me completely heartbroken, exclaiming that his favorite toy, Catboy, was broken. After a quick look over, I agreed with him that he was indeed incapacitated. Somewhere along the way of being tossed and thrown about, one of its legs had come off. If you did not know, Catboy is a crime-fighting superhero who saves the world at night. In my little boy’s mind, how on earth would he be able to do this now? After a quick chat and some loving cuddles with my sweet teary-eyed toddler, I assured him that Catboy was still capable of saving the world and that all would be well. After a few minutes, I could see him processing my words. He accepted them and went on with his day.
Little did we know this would soon be a full-circle moment and a teachable one, too.
Fast-forward to last week. As my family was preparing for summer vacation, I got word that my mom and my children’s beloved Grammy, would have to undergo an emergency procedure where one of her legs would be amputated. As a daughter, I was scared. As a mom, I was nervous. Children are inquisitive and toddlers have no filter. How would we explain this? How would he feel seeing one of his favorite people “look” differently? How would we answer the many questions he was bound to have? Since everything had transpired so quickly, my husband and I decided the best thing would be for our son to go on vacation with the rest of the family while we had time to come up with answers to his anticipated questions.
I am a researcher by nature, so in between talking to doctors and aiding my mom in her recovery, I looked high and low for ways to speak to small children about physical differences. As a young kid, looks are immediate. I have watched my son run, fall, get up and keep going until he notices the blood from the scrape. The sight of it is what triggers the response. To avoid fear or him having an unpleasant reaction, I wanted to prepare my son that though Grammy might appear a little different, she is still the loving, fun-natured sidekick he has always known.
In my efforts, these are what I have found to aid in our upcoming conversation:
My little boy absolutely loves books and reading, so I immediately scoured the internet looking for age-appropriate ones to order. I figured, if authors write about gender and racial differences, indeed, someone will write about physical ones, too. Amazon did not let me down. From situations like ours, which focuses on amputees, to other bodily variances like skin conditions, burns, prosthetics, hair loss, etc., there is so much available to aid in discussions with your little ones.
Here are a few to get started:
- 5 Fingers and 10 Toes
- Why Are You Looking at Me?: I Just Have Down Syndrome
- Scars Like Wings (12> due to graphic descriptions and more mature language)
- What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?
- I See Without My Eyes
- All The Ways I Hear You
- Vitiligo Doesn’t Scare Me
- Rae’s First Day
- A Rainbow of Friends
- Just Ask
Beyond books, some kids learn better through play. One of the most incredible advances in recent years is how diversified dolls and figures have become. When I was young, Barbies were all the rage, but they all looked the same for the most part. Now though, the possibilities are endless. Mattel, in particular, has broadened its scope of dolls to have them be a more accurate depiction of how the real world looks. Everyone is not the same, and frankly put, how boring would the world be if that were so? If you think adding a tangible item would help you better relay this message to your child, these might be of interest to you:
In our case, my husband and I have decided that the commonly used adage, “Broken crayons still color,” is the angle we want to use when explaining to our son what has taken place. Again, he is three, so keep that in mind. A vague explanation will only lead to more questions, so I want to do an activity to help him process this.
I have gathered an assortment of crayons into one bin. There are new and used ones in various colors, sizes, shapes, and textures. I will ask him questions about the differences to ensure he is aware of them. I will then have him use the crayons to make a Get Well card for my mom. When he has finished his masterpiece, I will point out that he could use all the colors for his artwork despite each crayon being different. From there, we will drive home the idea that, like his crayons, people are not the same, too.
Some are boys; some are girls. Some have long hair; some have none. Some are tall; some are short. Some are dark; some are light. Some are thin; some are heavy. Some have all their limbs, some do not, and just like his Catboy, Grammy no longer has two legs. She now has one. We hope that his brilliant little mind not only understands this but that he also recognizes what makes us unique, also makes us beautiful.
Then, we will conclude with the most critical piece to this puzzle: providing a safe space for him to ask questions and learn more. Children are curious. It is how they learn. I never want him to feel stifled or afraid to ask about my mom’s newfound reality or about any difference he may see in someone he encounters. I want him to understand what has taken place entirely, and most of all, I want him to realize that people with physical limitations are differently-abled, not disabled.
But Amanda, what if my child has questions I cannot answer? Remember, there is no shame in not having all the answers, which is why I encourage you to get your wheels spinning right now. The time is bound to come when the questions are asked. Being proactive in sparking this conversation might save you from an uncomfortable discussion at the most inopportune time. Though completely innocent, no one wants to have this kind of conversation with a loud toddler in the checkout line at the grocery store.