As a follow-up to my last post, I thought I would give you some tips and insight from my own perspective about how you can encourage your children to embrace and welcome those who may be different from them. Granted, I am no expert in this area, but in terms of personal experience I have a lot of ideas. You see, I have had to guide my typically developing 4.5 year old son (Little Man) to be more compassionate and understanding towards his older, special needs brother (Big Brother) who came into our lives last year. This past year has been a steep learning curve for us all. Luckily, my Little Man makes that job pretty easy as he is naturally a very compassionate kid (as far as 4 year olds go.) So what can you, as a parent, do to help instill these values into your children? Here are some ideas.
1. You have to start the conversation. Perhaps your child already has a friend or classmate with a particular disability or special need. Maybe it’s just a child who has some other noticeable difference. If so, I imagine this conversation has already been initiated by your child in some way or another. But a lot of young children may not have come into close contact with a child with special needs, so it’s important to bring up the idea about differences at an early age. You don’t even have to focus on special needs. It can be as simple as talking about everyday differences and how being different is a good thing. For instance, Little Man likes to compare how his eyes are brown while mine are blue. We talk about our differences and why it is a good thing that there are so many shades of humans on the planet. We also talk about how Little Man and Big Brother communicate in different ways. One way is not better than the other, they are just different.
Differences can be celebrated and appreciated when they are brought into focus by you, the parent. I’m not implying that you dwell on every single difference you encounter. Try to incorporate this attitude naturally into your everyday conversation and before you know it, you will have a child who embraces the differences he or she sees with a positive attitude.
2. It’s good to role play. What better way to teach kindness than to practice it. When your school-aged child encounters someone different from them, odds are you will not be nearby. We role play a lot at home, especially when we are talking about safety and what to do when approached by a stranger. Why not practice social situations that might arise at school? Have your child practice what they might say if another child is being mean to a someone in their class. This is something we have been working on with Little Man. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.
3. Model the behavior you would like to see. You already know that you are the strongest guiding force in your young child’s life. If they see you consistently displaying kindness, compassion and understanding towards others, they will learn to do the same. No one is perfect and we all have times of frustration and a lack of compassion, but remember, your children are watching you. Telling them to be compassionate and showing them are two completely different things.
4. Create the opportunities to interact with those who differ from your child. Branch out beyond your normal group of friends. Leave your comfort zone every once in a while to give your child an opportunity to make friends with those who may differ from them. If you start at an early age, your child will be able to have a more accurate picture of our diverse world.
5. Don’t overdo it; too much of a good thing can be bad. Big Brother may have some differences, but he is still just a kid. Remind your child of their similarities! He has feelings and thoughts of his own. Just like others, he has strengths and weaknesses. He may not be able to do all the things your child does, but that is no reason to pity him. He has some special qualities that really rock. He can blow up a balloon faster than any adult I know. He can climb just about anything, and I mean anything. He may need help some of the time, but he isn’t helpless. It’s okay to offer help, but it’s not okay to treat him like an alien or to automatically think he isn’t capable of doing something. Let him be Big Brother. He’s really good at that. He’s also really human, just like you.
Teach compassion and kindness, but also teach your child that all people, regardless of obstacles, can achieve great things. We are more alike than we are different.
So why should you care about making a concerted effort to building these values in your children?
“A new survey by the Interactive Autism Network found that nearly two-thirds of children with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied at some point. And it found that these kids are three times as likely as typical kids to have been bullied in the past month.” (article here)
Together, we really can change this. I will leave you with a video I made tonight after bath time. Yes, that is my voice. You’ll never guess what region of the country I am from–hey, I was tired and hungry, sure ways to make my accent drag on even more. The boys were quite giggly because they thought using the names Little Man and Big Brother was quite ridiculous. But you can see that little conversations like these can add up to big changes down the road.
Also, for those who were wondering if Big Brother was aware of what was going on, this post may bring you some insight.
So tell me, what do you already do to help your child be a compassionate and accepting member of society? Anything I should add to the list above?