One conversation can mean the difference between heartache and humanity.
Posted on April 10, 2012
I’d started to write about our Easter weekend road trip from hell, but before I could finish, I heard a story that I cannot ignore.
I’ve mentioned that Facebook has been a tremendous source of support and information for me as I learned how to be a mommy and how to be an advocate for my child with Down syndrome. Tonight, it gave me a little heartache.
Several pages offer resources and support for parents of children with Down syndrome; they provide unique opportunities to learn from parents around the country. That’s why I don’t know exactly where this story originates and I haven’t dug into it enough to verify its details.
But the concept turned my heart into an aching, burning hole in my chest. An 11-year-old girl with disabilities thought she had befriended several of her peers in the sixth grade. She thought she was spending time with children who wanted to be with her, supported her and shared laughter with her.
If this tale is true, those children have so much to learn about compassion and friendship. They allegedly recorded themselves asking her to do things. Inappropriate things, things that would be funny in a cartoon perhaps. Not things that are funny when a child with disabilities is cajoled into doing them.
These children (and it’s difficult to call them that, because quite truthfully it would be easier if these were adults because adults never cease to shock me – that children would think this way, well, it makes me ill) – these children posted their videos to be seen by the whole world.
The 11-year-old’s parents now have the burden of finding a way to tell their daughter that her friends are anything but.
What would you do if you learned your child had taunted a young girl with disabilities? Would you be horrified of the act, or more horrified to have to address it?
As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, I am begging parents, guardians, aunts, uncles, grandparents – whoever has a relationship with a child – decide that you will have the conversation that means the difference between another child’s heartache and your own child’s lesson in humanity. Please, decide you will help guide them toward being the child, the teen and ultimately the adult who would never stand for this hurtful behavior.
I will be honest; my parents taught me right from wrong, but we never (that I recall) had a conversation about bullying. I remember only too clearly how a friend and I shunned another girl at about the same age as the children in this story. I don’t remember saying anything specifically horrid, but I remember doing enough to make sure she felt like an outsider. Which means I likely did say something horrid. She likely felt horrid. Somewhere, she had a parent who wanted to smash me in the nose.
I understand, because it’s my visceral reaction to this story: my fight vs. flight instinct kicks in, and I am a Mama Bear who can shred predators with one swipe of my claws.
Why do children act this way? For me, perhaps it was because I’d felt like an outsider before. Perhaps at that age, the rationale of an irrational, still-developing mind is that if I’m not the aggressor, I will become the victim. I don’t know.
It hurts my heart to remember being on the dealing end of bad behavior. It’s humiliating and achingly ironic to reflect back on the child who would one day grow into an adult who would give her limbs, her eyes, her organs, her life if it meant her son would never know the pain of betrayal, bullying and cowardly jabs at his perceived weakness.
Maybe this story is third- or fourth-hand that I’m repeating now. Maybe it didn’t actually happen. But we all know it has happened. We all know children are out there this very moment relentlessly teasing, cajoling, bullying and beating the will and confidence from innocent young souls.
Please sit down with your child and talk openly about behaviors like these. Please have a conversation that asks, “Why would someone do that? Do you think it made them feel better about themselves?”
Talk about ways children can feel good about themselves by supporting others – talk about how compassion isn’t lame; condemnation is lame. Share an example of a child who may not look like all the other children. Maybe his eyes are slanted (“like he’s Chinese!” your child may say, innocently, without meaning anything more than an observation). Maybe his ears are tinier than any you’ve seen before. Maybe he walks with a barely perceptible limp.
Maybe he can’t walk at all, and he’s the one child with a wheelchair.
How will your child look at my son? Will your child look with pity?
Or will your child have learned that the only true way to know someone is to sit with him, look in his eyes, wait for his smile, understand his tears and hold his hand, or his wrist or perhaps just his stuffed monkey because he is too shy to reach back?
Please have a conversation about how similar we all are, at our core.
Please tell your child that my child giggles uncontrollably when I scrunch my hands toward him as if I’m about to tickle him. I will not have even brushed his ribs yet with my fingers, but the anticipation will make him giddy with laughter.
Please let your child know that even if my child cannot say “Cheerios,” he loves them more than all the monkeys on the moon and will sign for them as if his parents haven’t fed him in a blue moon. Ask your child if she wants to learn how to sign “Cheerios,” too.
One day, my son may teach your child how to sign for something they both want, because they’re both young souls focused on abundantly important things like Curious George and where their next glass of milk is coming from…
One day, my son may offer to share his Cheerios with your child.
Or, he will be just like most little boys who don’t want to share.
And we’ll have our own conversation.