Sticks and Stones {when the darndest things get ugly}

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When I took Liv for her 3 year well-visit, her doctor commented on how clearly she spoke. I love this about Liv. Most of the time.

A few weeks ago the girls and I were at…surprise surprise…Target. We were walking on the end of an aisle and I noticed a girl pushing what I assumed was her younger sister a few aisles ahead of us. The older sister appeared to have some sort of disability. Their mom was looking through spice options a few feet away.

As we approached, Liv looked up and said, “Mommy, that girl looks funny.” I stopped breathing.

Then Eliza the Parrot piped up with her version of Liv’s statement. “Girl fuyyey, girl fuyyey.”

At this point we were passing the aisle the other girls were on and I was pretty sure they hadn’t heard Liv. Eliza’s speech is still hard to distinguish for anyone but..me…so although I was frustrated by my daughters’ behavior and a little shaken by the whole thing, I decided it was best to walk by, then talk to them about the inappropriateness of the comments when we were out of earshot.

As we passed the aisle, I made eye contact with the other mom. She turned towards her own daughters and said, “Look, those girls are funny looking. Those girls look funny. They are funny. Looking.”

 

My face flushed and I hurried down the perimeter of the store. My girls hadn’t heard her. We turned a corner and I looked at my daughters. I did my best to talk with them about what kind of words we want to use. We want to say things that are encouraging, kind, that make people feel good and safe, not things that make people feel embarrassed or sad. This was not easy to explain to a 3 year old because she didn’t understand what “embarrassed” means. I’m sure I said some stupid things but I tried on the fly. I realized I’d forgotten something I really needed from the food section but I was afraid to go back in that direction because I didn’t want to run into the other family again.

Then my head really started swirling.

Here’s what I know about the situation.

I know my kid was rude and said things she shouldn’t have said. At the same time, I know my daughter, and I know her statements were observations, not judgements. I know this doesn’t make them any more acceptable.

I know it’s likely that I handled the situation imperfectly. Based on the other mom’s reaction, I’m thinking I probably should have corrected Liv while we were within earshot.

I know I don’t know what it’s like to have a daughter with a disability. I know I have the fierce instinct to protect my children and I don’t blame another mother for having the same instinct. Unfortunately, it’s likely that the other mom has to act on that instinct more frequently than I do because of comments like the one my daughter made in the store.

This one is hard to write. I don’t know what had gone on in the time before my life intersected with this other family’s. But I do know that turning the tables and mocking my daughters was probably not what the other mom actually hopes to model for her girls. We all have our less-than-lovely moments and I’m going to bank on the fact that this was one of the other mom’s; that it is not her regular pattern.

 

I wish I could go back and talk to the other mom, but the reality is I will probably never see her again. Even if I do, I probably won’t recognize her. Unfortunately, I’m still feeling a lack of resolution about the situation. How can I be better prepared next time? How would a mom of a child with disabilities like me to respond in this situation? We continued the conversation when we got home. I explained why “funny looking” is, for the most part, unacceptable. We talked about why we want to make people feel encouraged and safe; because God is our creator, and he gave us integrity; we reflect God’s image, and are loved by him. Yes, I tried to explain integrity to a 3 year old. I think Liv understands enough, but I know there will probably be more situations like this. Kids say the darndest things, and when we’re lucky, they’re funny. When we’re unlucky, they’re hurtful, and how can we guide their hearts to more loving behavior?

 

Anyone had similar experiences, either growing up or with your own kids? (Once, in a donut shop, my brother once yelled that a very large man was going to break the stool if he sat on it. The man ordered a small cup of coffee, no donuts. This was before donut shops had good coffee.)

What about being on the receiving end of a comment like my daughter’s? What’s the best way to handle this as the mom of the offender? I really am all ears.

20 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones {when the darndest things get ugly}

  1. Ugh. My girls have only ever said those kinds of things in question form about Amish people (Mommy! Where is her horse?). I don’t know what I’d do, besides correct her in ear shot, like you mentioned. And, yikes, you’re right, the other mom must be consistently wounded if that’s how she responded.

    I’m interested in reading what other people have to say!

    1. Aw, I love watching them notice the world around them. Just wish I could filter some of it first=) Cute that she asks about the horse!

  2. Honestly? Your little girl is three. She’s not twelve and KNOWS that’s not a nice thing to say yet- those are the learning moments, the teaching moments and that is what you did. I really think the other mom was in the wrong. I completely understand that her heart probably hurt for her child hearing that, I do, but she’s an adult and mocking your children was not the correct way to teach that lesson. If it was very important to her, she could have bent down, introduced her child, and gently explained that we all look different but are all just as equally special or something of that nature. HUGS MAMA!

    1. I wish she had taken the time to talk to us! I think that would have helped me feel more resolution. I think next time I’ll try to be more of an effort to be available for that kind of interaction. Maybe I looked like I was trying to get away or something. Who knows. Thank you though! I really do hope it was a last straw kind of situation and that that’s not her MO. Thanks, KA!

  3. I think the only time Emmie has ever said something in public (and within their earshot) about how someone looks was when there was a lady wearing a mask in Publix one day. That was an easy one for me since my mom was in the middle of her chemo so we talked about germs a lot at our house…I just explained that the lady probably couldn’t be around our germs…just like Gran. The lady actually stopped and very kindly explained to Emmie that she was wearing a mask because she is allergic to some of the cleaners the grocery store uses on their floor. THAT is how the other mother should have responded to Liv if she felt like something needed to be said. (I have heard many mother’s of special needs children say that they are more than willing to explain to people why their child is different…it’s the stares from people who should know better that are so hurtful.) The other mother should have looked at Liv, realized she was THREE, and let you deal with the situation.The great thing about 3 year olds is that while yes they are quick to point out differences (and often quite loudly) they don’t mean to be hurtful they’re simply curious and they’re also very accepting of differences.
    Emmie has said things before about people looking different or being in wheelchairs or such and I just explain to her that God made us all different and it’s what’s inside that matters not how we look on the outside. The nurse in me also tries to explain why someone looks different in simple medical terms…I’m probably just traumatizing her with too much medical info though..lol!

    1. I love that she stopped and explained! That’s what I was saying to Kayla Aimee below – It would have been really helpful if the other mom had done that! But I’m sure that gets tiring too.

      Also, I love the kids of medical professionals…always using the medical term for everything. Cracks me up=)

  4. Alright– I’m really glad you asked this question. My son is in a wheelchair and since he’s pretty typical looking (other than some extra equipment like his chair and his trach) we don’t get a lot of “Woa!” reactions BUT I have one incident that really stands out.

    While out shopping, a little boy (about age 7) saw my son’s trach and kind of gasped and pointed. He looked at his mom and said “What IS that” I saw the point, I heard the gasp, but truthfully, I was not offended by the boy’s confusion. My son’s trach can cause noisy breathing at times and it looks like a big plastic lego under his chin so, I get it. The boys mother grabbed her son’s arm, stared daggers at him, and said “Just don’t say anything.” I’m sure she was mortified, I’m sure she was embarrassed. Honestly, I have no idea how I would have reacted before my son was in his chair. I pretended not to notice as we continued shopping. So I guess the first thing I want to say is this: an adult mimicking a child’s behavior to make a point is unacceptable. If I had gasped and pointed at this 7-year-old it would have taught him nothing expect that strangers are scary and oftentimes unkind. Not helpful. If we want people to accept our children we have to be willing to educate– not denigrate– those who we encounter while we’re out in the world.

    As for my preferred parental response to kids speaking their minds (in an unintentionally hurtful way) I like a nonchalant approach. Something like “Well, everyone looks different– Grandma wears glasses. Your aunt Ida has big feet. Looking different isn’t a bad thing.” I might also say, “It’s impolite to comment on how someone’s body looks. Those words could really hurt a person’s feelings.” Keep it simple, keep it kid friendly. I think doing a big open discipliney “We-do-NOT-speak-like-that!!” kind of conversation only makes things more uncomfortable– and could make your daughter feel like she needs to keep mum around kids who are different because she might get in trouble. I want kids to approach my son. I want him to make friends. But it will be REALLY hard for that to happen if parents make their kids feel like they should NEVER acknowledge the disability and ask questions. We just have to teach them how to do it politely.

    I think that’s what I didn’t like about the response of the mother who’s son pointed at my son in the store– her saying “don’t SAY anything…” made me feel like my little boy’s disability was shameful to her somehow. Like something not to be spoke of. Like Voldemort or something 🙂

    Your daughter is 3. Way too young to know any better. According to my mother, I once SCREAMED out of our car window at a man who was smoking and told him how bad he was for doing it so give yourself a little grace on this one. You did the best you could.

    PS: Why don’t kids warn us before they pull this kind of thing?? Wouldn’t it have been nice if you could have blogged about it and gotten advice before hand? If only…

    PPS: Longest comment ever.

    1. “I want kids to approach my son. I want him to make friends. But it
      will be REALLY hard for that to happen if parents make their kids feel
      like they should NEVER acknowledge the disability and ask questions. We
      just have to teach them how to do it politely.” – This- thank you so much! I never intended to instruct my kids to act like people who look different are invisible, but hearing this is SO helpful because YES I want them to approach people who are different and make friends with them. Lightbulb moment. (Voldemort…teehee)

      Thank you so much for responding. I love hearing your perspective.

      PS- yes, a rude comment alarm would be awesome.
      PPS- I love long comments.

  5. With a crowd of little extroverts, we’ve participated in several of these situations. 🙂

    Our reactions have been all over the place! For the younger children, I prefer the “everybody looks different approach”. With my older two girls now reasoning at ages 6 and almost-8, I try to connect with emotions and logic. For example, we frequently cross paths with a man in our park/Target/Publix circuit who suffered serious burns all over his face. He IS strikingly different. First, I model direct eye contact and smile kindly. My mother always did this with janitors and laborers and I think it subtly teaches children to respect others, regardless of position. Next, we might share a simple greeting when passing, which I hope shows that one can be friendly without asking to be BFFs. Girls are so weird about this!

    I try to follow up on the incident with a conversation. For my pragmatic child, I explained that his skin had a different texture because he had been burned. Did they remember how much their last skin burn hurt? Imagine how it would feel to burn everything, etc. For my emotive child, who wanted to know what to say to him, I asked her if she could imagine how she might feel walking around with that same skin, how she might want others to react to her. Would she want to be avoided, ignored, pitied, shown kindness and so on. (One could get a bit heavy here…but I try to keep my tone and the conversation length light!)

    Sometimes, there is no way to avoid a loud blunder. I have apologized directly and I have totally turned my cart around, too. And sometimes, I have been that mom who models rudeness.

    My kids usually comment around people walking slowly. When weight is addressed, I gently remind them we don’t comment on others’ appearances. If the offended person overhears my children, then I try to make eye contact, smile sheepishly, and hope they offer my child grace. Seriously, if you wear clothes in large sizes, you know you are not small! I think we too often model political correctness rather than kindness. It’s not mean if a four year notices a person is old, fat, or funny looking. It is mean when they share their observation. With my older girls, I’m quick to remind them that we are all made in God’s image, we are also responsible for what we say, and we want to live out the fruits of the Spirit.

    Though your post was about disability, we face the same issues with race, too. My children are learning about appearances, prejudices, and observed connections. I am teaching them not to say, “that black man” or “that white woman” but rather “the man with dark hair and glasses” or “the woman wearing a striped shirt”. Of course, aren’t these descriptions of appearance? 🙂 When a handsome, white man came to our door, my opened it up, and invited him in. Thankfully, I rushed over in time to close the door and quickly discern her was not a good man. The police arrested him the next day. He’d been under warrant, was carrying illegal weapons, and robbing houses in our area. I showed my children his face in the criminal report and made a big deal about how we couldn’t trust strangers. Probably too big a deal…but then, I feel such a need to protect my daughters in a time of rampant sexual perversion and online predating.

    Overall, though we all “see” the outside I hope our children learn the power their words can carry…and learn to wield their voice with strength and kindness.

    1. Thank you so much for responding!

      Such a good reminder to respond to different kids differently. Liv is definitely a logical, pragmatic child, and I’m kind of the same way, so I hadn’t really considered approaching the discussion any other way. Great reminder though.

      I love that you remember your mom’s example. What we model is so huge, and speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

  6. Always correct your children before the parent with the child with the “disability” has to point it out to you. I know kids are curious, my daughter has a craniofacial syndrome, we have gotten lots of comments, some situations i handle better than others. Having said that, I am on the defense 24/7 and I figure most people try to ignore their kids reactions to similar situations, so why should i hold my tongue, especially if it is meant to open the eyes of the parent? kids tend to stare at my daughter, so she in turn stares at people a lot (i whole hardheartedly believe this was learned from her being stared at so much), so when i notice kids staring at her (especially when kids are old enough to know better), and she in turns stares at them, i loud enough for them to hear tell my daughter that is in impolite to stare at people. If it continues I usually tell her (again loud enough they can hear) that those girls/boys must think you are so cute they cannot stop looking at you. some situations are learning situations, but I feel like why do i have to teach everyone, every time we go to the store? Don’t we all just want to be normal? Sorry if this sounds like a rant, but it is so frustrating sometimes. On the flip side my daughter (with the cranio syndrome) has put me on the spot by being afraid of an adult in a wheelchair on a vent, talk about embarassing. Does life ever get easier???

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this. When we had this uncomfortable situation, one of the first things I thought of was what else the other mom had encountered that day – or even in the previous 15 minutes. Who knows if my daughter’s rude comments were the first that day or the 20th…I have no idea. I won’t pretend like I understand what you experience because I simply don’t experience the same thing, but like I said, I DO understand the mama-bear instinct to protect your kids and to want to help other people see her for the beautiful gift she is. I’m sure it gets exhausting and I’m sure some days are better than others. Hearing your thoughts is really helpful for me, and I’ll definitely keep them in mind. I wish I’d been more forward with the family that day, and while I can’t change the way that played out, I do feel much more equipped for handling that kind of thing in the future. I hope it does get easier, Kellie!

  7. I know I’m late to this conversation–but I wanted to comment as the mother of a 3.5 year old boy with Cerebral Palsy. Like another said–my son IS typical looking–but one can quickly pick up that he cannot talk, walk, etc. etc. At his age now–I get a lot more looks….the questions have begun because 3.5 year olds are supposed to talk and walk and run around! I encourage questions from other moms about my son, however I find it very hard when other parents expect me to parent their child “well what should I tell my child”…. I don’t know he is YOUR child….. please ask me questions about my son but it falls on your shoulders to teach your own child. So, please open a conversation(s)…but other parents know their child best and thus should educate or discipline their own child. Should this Mom have responded like this….NO! However, don’t run away and ignore us or your child’s curiosity. Face it head on. It only makes everything worse and social outings for those with disabled children harder than it already is. Yes, we want other children to befriend our children and other moms to befriend us–awkward questions and all. Bring it on–but it takes 2 to tango.

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