One very important, but often overlooked lesson to teach your children is understanding other people’s disabilities.
They will eventually have a classmate or friend who is noticeably different than themselves, and if they’re unprepared and react poorly it can be devastating for their special needs peers.
So how do we teach our kids about this kind of empathy?
It’s a conversation Stacey Jackson Gagnon is hoping to prompt with a heartbreaking personal story she shared on Facebook involving her son, Joel.
Nine-year-old Joel was born with Goldenhar syndrome and cranio-facial impairment: he’s missing one ear and has an irregular facial structure. Joel, and his mother, got a crushing reminder of his differences when the family visited a new church, and Joel was ostracized and pointed at by the other children.
“The minute we walked inside, the room became silent and every child stared or pointed at my son,” she wrote.
“I know he looks different, but today hurt.”
She explains that she was going to talk to the children about accepting people’s differences, but instead her attention went to Joel, who had fled to the back of the room and “buried his head in his arms,” devastated.
Stacey took Joel out of the classroom back to the church, where, consoling in his mother’s arms, he wrote “Joel ♡ mom” on her palm:
“Tears welled in my throat,” she wrote. “My beautiful and loving son deserves so much more than stares and pointing.”
But Stacey didn’t use her post to vilify the children or call out their parents. She simply wants to use the experience as a teachable moment.
“I am not angry. I do not think these were bad, mean children,” she wrote. “I think no one has ever taught them.”
She encourages parents to share with their families photos of differently-abled children, to expose kids to these differences so they’ll know how to behave when they see it in real life.
“Show them pictures of people with different colored skin, different eyes, different abilities to talk, walkers to walk, wheelchairs to roll,” she wrote.
“Now teach your child that a beautiful person is found with the heart; not the eyes.”
It wasn’t just an isolated incident with Joel that got Stacey thinking about this subject. She is the mother of six children, four of whom are adopted, special needs children, with another in the adoption process, according to the Huffington Post.
Their ages range from 6 to 16, and include a wheelchair-bound child with spina bfida and another who requires a feeding tube.
And Stacey’s expertise in dealing with children’s disabilities extends beyond her home. According to ABC News, she is a former elementary school teacher who is now a nurse for special needs children.
She writes that children often “fear things that look different” so their behavior is understandable, but that it isn’t an excuse for not educating them.
“Children stare, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay.”
“Teaching empathy is not a curriculum; it’s a way of life,” she told the Huffington Post.
In a follow-up Facebook post, she explains that even her own children—who each have their own physical irregularity—reacted inappropriately to the sight of two “little people” on the street.
“My children who look different and are often stared at, were doing the same to someone else,” she wrote.
She explains that this experience made her realize that this type of empathy is “not something [kids] just pick up,” and made a conscious effort to teach them about accepting differently-abled people.
Stacey encourages parents to use Joel as an example to teach their families this lesson. She offers some info about Joel’s disorder but also details that make him a regular kid, like how he “loves Dodge Ram trucks, Minecraft, and building forts.”