Educating Our Children to Honor Differences with Respect and Kindness
By Fynisa Engler
A Story of Understanding
When my daughter was in third grade, a boy named Tyler was in her class. Tyler was on the autism spectrum. He was sweet and extremely bright but struggled with social cues and some repetitive behaviors. Through the years, my daughter had Tyler in several of her classes. We would see him at school events and the occasional birthday party.
When I volunteered in my daughter’s classroom, I found it very interesting that Tyler’s repetitive behaviors didn’t distract the kids when listening to the teacher. And his struggle with social awareness when working in groups didn’t phase any of the kids either. No weird looks, no pointing, or laughing. They had accepted and respected Tyler’s differences, which made me so happy.
Once my daughter entered junior high, I saw less of Tyler. (I mean, what junior high kid really wants their mom volunteering in class?) Before I knew it, it was time for eighth-grade promotion, and there, mingling with the other kids, was Tyler, a handsome young man who clearly had a lot of friends. His repetitive behaviors and difficulty with social cues were still slightly noticeable.
Since junior high can be some of the most challenging years, I wondered if Tyler had been picked on because of his differences. On the way home, I asked my daughter. “No, he’s our friend,” she answered. What she said next blew my mind. “When I was in third grade (and other grades too), Tyler’s mom came in and explained to us about Tyler and why he sometimes acted differently.”
WOW!!! Light bulb moment! And World’s Best Mom Award goes to . . . Tyler’s mom. Since she had explained, they understood. Since they understood, acceptance happened, no teasing or bullying. Wow!
My daughter is now in college, and little did I know that this interaction would stay with me like it has. This has inspired me to want to educate children about differences and diversity. Diversity and differences are great, but if a child doesn’t understand and is confused by the differences, this can lead to a negative perspective. That’s why I want to help empathy blossom in kiddos, just like Tyler’s mom had done.
Where to Start
So, you might think, where do I start? There are so many things that we can educate children about: cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, homelessness, juvenile diabetes, hearing impairments—the list goes on and on. I would recommend starting with differences that are close to your family. Does grandpa wear hearing aids or have a hard time hearing? Does a classmate leave during certain subjects to get help with a learning disability? Maybe a classmate is in a wheelchair or walks with a walker. When you can give your child concrete examples of people in their life, they will develop empathy and understanding.
I hope to educate and teach empathy through writing picture books. With my background in social work with the Department of Child Safety, previously Child Protective Services, I decided to start with foster care. I wanted to show children that may never experience foster care what foster children go through: moving into an unfamiliar home where everything is different, for example, routines, foods, smells, clothes, people, even a new school, and new friends. They miss their parents and, most of the time, don’t understand what’s going on.
Books Can Help
If we can explain to our kids what foster kids might be going through, we can build empathy, not pity, but genuine empathy. We can help our children understand that foster kids are just like them but have hit a rough patch in life that is 100% not their fault. And that is how my picture book, New House For Mouse, was born. Readers follow Mouse on his foster care journey when he is placed at Mama Bunny’s foster home. If children who have never been in a foster home can understand what their classmate might be going through . . . that’s like winning the lottery for me.
I also have a background in pediatric audiology, and that’s how I had the idea for my other picture book, Harry Can Hear. In Harry Can Hear, the reader follows Harry from everything he’s missed out on to being fit with hearing aids and then through the joy of discovering so many new things. I wanted to make the process simple and natural. Now if a child sees something behind another child’s ear and understands it’s a hearing aid helping them hear better, then that’s another win. Of course, I want to have books that kids can see themselves in too, but educating kids, so they understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, is my true passion.
I believe that if children understand —REALLY understand—and can develop empathy, then a lot of the teasing and bullying won’t be a problem.
One book I love that demonstrates empathy is The Buddy Bench by Patty Brozo, where the children see that some of their classmates are getting left out. They create a buddy bench so no one is ever alone if they don’t want to be.
Another is Wait For Me by Molly McNamara Carter, where Charlie is constantly told to hurry up while enjoying the beautiful world around him. It’s not until he visits grandpa that they can both slow down and enjoy life.
Also, Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pena, where Milo travels on a subway, studying the people around him and drawing pictures of how he imagines their lives. But when Milo’s perspective changes, his imagination opens up to new possibilities.
Here are some things to keep in mind when discussing differences with your child:
- Talk about it, even before they ask: talk about the difference in a positive and matter-of-fact way.
- Use “person-first” language: instead of saying, “the special needs child,” word it with the similarity first, “the boy in your class with special needs.” This shows your child that they are much more similar to the child than they are different.
- Discuss the symptoms/behaviors/what to expect with your child: if they have a child with autism in their class, explain that they might be much more sensitive to the environment and act a certain way if they are having a hard day. If a child has hearing aids in their class, the teacher might wear a small microphone that makes her voice go right into the hearing aid. Preparing your child for what to expect will help them feel more comfortable.
There are always going to be new differences to discuss. You might not always know what to say. And that’s okay. Take time to gather information so you can then educate and prepare your child. The important part is talking about the differences and keeping the conversation positive. These conversations will help guide our children and allow for a kinder and more accepting world.
Fynisa Engler is the author of New House for Mouse (and the soon-to-be-released New School for Mouse) and Harry Can Hear.