17 June 2013

Preparing children for meeting people with visible differences.

I believe that we should never make a negative comment about other peoples' appearances. But I know children can be curious. They can be cruel too.
These last few weeks I've seen a couple of online friends comment on the way other children react to their children who have Ichthyosis. Heartbreaking.
Another friend said a child in a chicken shop told her that her baby's face looks disgusting. She added "my heart breaks for my baby. Teach your children some respect!". So true.

Courtney and I discussed the need to prepare children for meeting people with visible difference, which inspired this post.

I also got some great comments from contributors to the Ichthyosis Awareness Month blog project.

From Peggy:

And from Jaime:

These responses both moved me to tears and also made me think about children's reactions to my visible difference.

Encountering children often fills me with dread. It brings back memories of being at school. I want to avoid children's direct honesty. Even more so, I don't want to be the scary person they see. Children are curious, but they can be cruel too - even if unintentional. And their words and actions can impact adults and children the same way.

I once stayed with a family who I thought should have known better. A family who has known me my whole life. They should have been prepared. For two days, I endured two children - aged six and eight - not looking at me. Being afraid. Not speaking to me unless prompted by their parents. It was tiring.

Their cuteness waned fast. I spent much of the time being polite, smiling my discomfort away, trying to make conversation. I asked the children's parents if I should explain about my skin. No, they told me. Then I asked them straight out, in front of their parents, do they want to ask me anything about my face? No. No. And still no conversation was made. In the end I told them, "I'm not talking to you if you're not talking to me."

Their parents put their behaviour down to shyness. I've seen the reactions of enough children to know they were not shy. What made it worse was that there was someone else that the children had not met also else staying over. The children did not react like they did around me with them.

What I had hoped was that this family would have prepared the children for my visit. I had hoped (especially in this age of social media) they would have seen my photo and been encouraged to ask polite questions. I had hoped that they were a little more appreciative of diversity. It was a difficult stay. I especially find it difficult that I didn't feel that I can raise this issue with the children's parents - I was a guest in their home.

But my experiences have not always been bad - like I have written about here and here. I also have a great memory of a time at my day job - my manager had her then seven year old nephew and his parents in at work one day. I'd heard lots about him, especially his intelligence and confidence, and was excited to meet him. (I expect him and his parents had heard a bit about me too.) We chatted for about 15 minutes - about lots of things like school and what he was going to do when he's 18. I could see him looking at me, curious. I smiled, and continue our conversation about everything else but my skin. When he left, he said "bye Carly", waved his hand around his face, and said "I hope your face will get better soon". It was such an emotional moment for me - he was clearly concerned and very thoughtful. I didn't want to break his heart by saying it won't get "better". And so I said "thank you".

I bumped into a good friend of mine at the local supermarket this past weekend. While she usually sees me dressed up for work, I commented to her that I always see her outside of work when I'm looking daggy - in my tracksuit and beanie and my face at its reddest. Sometimes I have scale in my hair. Her beautiful kids - aged two and three - smiled at me from the trolley, saying "Hi Carly" through chubby-cheeked mouthfuls of biscuit. On reflection for this piece of writing, I realised that her kids have never been wary around me. They've spoken to me, given me cuddles and laughed with me like my difference doesn't bother them. I sent her a quick text telling her that her kids have never seen me as different - and I am so thankful for that. She should be proud.

I do believe in educating children about diversity - after all, it's future generations who will change the world.

Children are curious about people with visible differences - because it's unusual, often a new experience. And children are also fearful. I think fear comes from people with visible differences represented as characterised villains in movies - they're people to be scared of. Think Scarface or Freddy Kruger or the witch in Snow White. Curiosity comes from encountering the unusual. I also believe negative, fearful perceptions of people with disabilities and visible differences come from voyeuristic, exploitative shows such as Embarrassing Bodies (more on that soon!) and the way diversity is depicted in the media, as well as how children's parents talk about and expose their children to diversity. I read this piece about a child's reaction to a woman in a burqua and was surprised that a mother just didn't know what to tell her child. Don't read the comments, just don't - it's the bottom of the Internet.

So what would be my advice for preparing children for meeting a person with a visible difference? (So I'm not seen to be providing all the advice to parents without being a parent, some of my friends who are parents weighed in too.)

Tell your child that everyone is different - people come in all colours and sizes and have lots of different skills. Talk to your child regularly about diversity at home. I am a strong believer that the responsibility to teach diversity lies with the parents.

Rachel, a mother of a child with Ichthyosis agrees. "I think it is the parents place to teach their children, the onus should never be on the person with the physical difference." Alicia, my friend from Uni, who has two little ones says "How does a child know that someone else's difference isn't the norm? Most of the time kids learn from what they are exposed to, good or bad. If my kids asked why Carly looks different i would try to explain but otherwise Carly is just like everyone else. I would like to encourage my kids to think about a persons character rather than what they look like."

Danielle says "as a family of 5 (me, my fiance and 3 children ), we accept and embrace 'differences ' both myself and my son are aspergers, so as a family we embrace difference, we try to educate our children that sometimes people can 'look' different but they don't 'feel' different, that everyone deserves love and acceptance as they are. Recently my son piped up in a conversation with his mates (he's 10) they had been speaking about a girl with a visible dark brithmark on her face he said 'she's still awesome who cares about her big freckle'. All 3 of my children say 'you can't decide who you love it just happens' when they hear of people in same sex relationships .... when I hear this I know I've done a good job."

Don't make something up as an answer for your child.

I hate a parent telling their child I've "been stupid in the sun." I'd prefer them to say "I don't know honey, maybe this woman would like to tell us about why she's got a red face?"

Prepare your child for your friend or visitor who has a visible difference. Show them a picture. Tell them your friend may do things a little differently to them - like using a wheelchair because they are unable to walk, or put cream on their face, or use a device that helps them to see, hear or talk. Tell them it's ok to ask questions. Tell them it's not ok to be rude.

A different Alicia told me: "I explain to my kids that we are all different. We all have something we don't like about ourselves. Something's aren't obvious some are. We shouldn't have to hide our differences or feel bad or ashamed of them. If we accept others as they are, people will accept us.

We have several family and friends who are vision impaired. I ask my kids do they think it matters to them the colour of my skin, or if one side of my face has dropped, or if I walk funny? Or does it matter how I treat them and the kind of person I be.

My son once asked me on a flight next to an Indian girl why her skin was dark and his wasn't. So we asked her about her heritage. Her parents were from India. She told him nearly everyone where she was from had darker skin. He asked why his wasn't. We explained it."

Ask your friend with a visible difference about the condition before you introduce them to your child. Ask your friend if they are ok to explain their visible difference.

Don't provide an excuse if they are rude or scared - like shyness.

If you encounter a stranger with a visible difference, encourage your child to say hello and preface the question with "I hope you don't mind me asking."

Don't be offended if I don't want want to explain my visible difference. Just like when adults approach my, children approaching me - and making a noisy scene - can be tiring too. It's a fine balance!

Laura told me a lot about how she encourages her children to ask questions, and when I said that questions can be tiring, she said "just because they want to know, doens't mean someone is emotionally available to be asked." Yes!

What about whether the person with a visible difference should speak up and explain the way they look to curious or rude children?

I understand that it can be embarrassing if your child asks questions about someone's visible difference. The shrieking, the repeated whys, the candidness. It can be hard for people with visible differences to answer these questions, especially if they're not confident. Don't be offended if a person with a visible difference, or their parent, find an innocent question hurtful.

Sometimes I wonder if parents want me to speak up if their child doesn't ask me about my skin directly.

Most of the time I smile at a curious child and then I usually say "everyone is different, I was born this way - like you were born with your blue eyes". Most of the time they understand and move on.

I put the question out to my Facebook friends and Twitter followers:

Parents, how would you like people with visible differences to explain their difference to your child?

Cheree says "Yes! Definitely speak up! If we were to walk past you and you overheard my kids say something about your appearance it'd probably make them stop and think again about saying something. I try to educate my kids that some people do have visible differences but that doesn't mean they are any different from us. But hearing it from someone with a visible difference might make them listen more and also understand how staring and words about appearances can hurt."

Alicia adds "I can teach my children acceptance and respect for differences and people but I can't always answer why people have those differences. I often explain to kids who are staring at me that I have Parkinson's Disease that makes me shake and walk funny. So I definitely encourage speaking up!"

People on Twitter replied succinctly:

EatShootBlog: Honesty + candidness + further explanation/discussion depending on age of kid and their questions.

newsflock: honestly, scientifically.

Hibblej: kids especially younger one's like my 4yo will ask all the innocent but awkward questions.

spillihpzil Honestly & matter-of-fact-ly. Kids understand more than some ppl give them credit for. Just because a body looks different doesn't mean the person is some exotic freakshow. Bodies are just different.


I dont want to parent your child. I am happy to answer questions, and I realise children can learn just as much from a stranger as they can from their parents. But I will speak up if your child is being rude or cruel, or pointing, staring for an extended period of time or laughing, just like in the examples written about by my friends affected by Ichthyosis above.

Additional resources:

Talking to people with visible differences - my blog post.

Changing Faces - handling other people's reactions.

Happy Child - a perspective from a mother of a chronically ill child who just wants to be included.

Easy Peasy Kids - a Kind Eyes empathy initiative.

What advice do you have about teaching children about diversity?




  1. Carly, this is really honest post with lots of practical advice. My son has a visible difference too, being born with albinism. I personally welcome questions and I would rather be asked questions straight out than not. I'm trying to bring my kids up to accept that everyone is different and that everyone has feelings and should be treated with respect, regardless of how they look. I will be sharing this far and wide - thanks for writing it!

  2. I bought a doll-sized wheelchair for my preschool students, and our dolls have been regular occupants of that chair. They happily submit to well-baby checkups and are quite patient with their "doctors." In addition, a local extended-care facility visits us several times a year. They come prepared with arts and crafts supplies, snacks, and books, and after a few minutes of shyness on everyone's part, and a few hearty sing-alongs, everyone forgets that they were strangers with differing abilities just a few minutes earlier.

    Our parents are also very focused on their children's manners, prompting them to be polite and kind until it becomes second nature to the child, and they need no reminders from mom or dad. Children who lack empathy often have parents who lack empathy, too, but kindness can, and should, be taught at an early age.

    Children may be startled at seeing something they weren't prepared for, but rudeness in any situation shouldn't be tolerated.

  3. I love that you wrote this. I try really hard to explain how everyone is different. Even we in our family we look different from one another. It's so not the same thing I know but it's a place to start talking about diversity. For kids, a difference is a difference no matter how "big" the difference. Your explanation is, as always, sensible and well thought through. Thanks Carly. X

  4. Although I only have an 18 month old and haven't encountered any of these situations with him yet, I can't believe parents do not discuss this with their children. I would never leave it up to the person to explain, it just goes without saying.

    While reading your post my heart broke to read about how children have reacted to others, I always put myself or my child in that persons position and it breaks my heart. Although we do not know of anyone with a disability, I will one day when my son is older, have to explain about my sister who is gay and married (to a wondeful sister in law I must add) and my other sister is married to an African American. I am so glad that I came across your post and thank you for your side of the story because now when it comes to having to explain and prepare him (because as an inquisitive young child he will ask questions) I will know how to approach it better.

    Thank you so much for linking up at Mummy Mondays with The Multitasking Mummy.


  5. I get so fed up with having to think about everything all the time. It may seem harsh, but I think parents, more than anything, need to teach their children that it's not polite to comment about appearance. It's adorable on a toddler but any child older than that should've been taught manners. It seems obvious. But you think about the people you know who blend into the crowd. Generally speaking, they get to walk around unfettered. No one calls them out for daring to try on clothes in a store. Or for sorting through the vegetables in the supermarket. It would be really great to have people not comment. I'm sorry, but we see people who aren't like us all the time. Yet a few of us have crossed that fine line and we're deemed just different enough to warrant comment.

    More than bracing their children for encounters with people who aren't like them, parents need to teach their children to be civil to everyone they meet.

    1. Amen Carolyn! Thank you for saying this. I agree - we do tiptoe, and there is often a lot of bracing ourselves for a child's curious questions.

    2. Oh boy, I relate well to this one. When I was a teenager, my best girlfriend at school who had Spina Bifida, was a stunning blonde haired girl, and she was always lifting up my self-esteem telling me how beautiful I WAS. She would point out a boy at a camp who was interested in me, and had asked about my skin.

      She and I lost touch over the years, and found each other again about 8 years ago. We met halfway at my mother's as she lived a long way away. When she showed me photos of her daughters, I commented on how pretty they were. she had obviously valued their aesthetic beauty and had them in baby shows and the like. Then i asked her if I could come down and meet them sometime, and she replied to me that she "was worried that their seeing me and my skin would scare them". I was naturally very shocked and hurt by that comment, as we had both been to Yooralla schooling, and she was a real influence on developing my confidence as a teenager. To have a sudden turn around from those affirmations was very disappointing to me. I still love her to bits, I cannot dislike her for that. Just that I am very sad and disappointed that she has fallen into the trap of putting sooo much focus on ONE PERCEIVED IDEA OF BEAUTY. She will however, stay in my heart until the day I die. A very sad but true issue Carly. This topic makes me think back to my disability degree, and the Elephant Man and the line, "I am not an animal, I am a human being". I get more hurt by associates or families, such as mentioned above when they stare or make comments or are too ignorant to understand, than the general community. My family I guess have taught me to expect it, and not let it bother me, and that is exactly what I do. My brother once said to me "Paul, when a black guy walks down the street (in a majority white society) we naturally look over because it stands out, it doesn't mean we are being horrible, it is just human nature". he was just demonstrating that looking at something different is not to be shamed at, but like everyone here says, when it turns to verbal comments or sneers, THAT IS NOT ON.

  6. So well written with great advice off to share.

  7. I'm really glad you mentioned that kids (and adults) she first ASK if it's ok to ask about difference, and also expect and accept that sometimes a person may not want to talk about it.

    I'm Muslim. I have an intellectually disabled daughter. I always get comments, questions, stares and demands for answers. I'm often happy to answer questions, but you know what - sometimes I just want to buy my damn milk without an inquisition. And children should be prepped by their parents that maybe it's better to do some personal research instead (eg, online through reputable sources or get good books from the library) to answer questions in some cases.

  8. Another great article-there is no one answer-as we are all individuals and at differant stages of our journey. I am older-a Grandmother and have no issue with children's question's-it's how they learn. But when I was a child the question "why do you walk funny?' was hurtful-I didn't want my "differance" to be an issue. Over the years I became more comfortable and realised my "differance" actually made me a more rounded, empathetic, caring person and now happily answer.

  9. I love how you put this into words. I really picked up a lot of good tips in and I am really learning a lot. Parents should teach their kids not to be rude to others and that they should be treated with equal respect. Thank you for sharing this very honest post.

  10. I love how you put this into words. I really picked up a lot of good tips in and I am really learning a lot. Parents should teach their kids not to be rude to others and that they should be treated with equal respect. Thank you for sharing this very honest post.

  11. Thank you for this insightful article. Situations like these can be a challenge, even with a child who has been raised to be considerate of others. Not long ago, I was at a museum with my five-year-old grandson, and he noticed a man with dwarfism. Very quietly, and from a distance (the man was facing away from us), my grandson asked me, "Why is he so short?" I answered, "Not all grownups grow to be as tall as others." I left it at that. We weren't in a place where I could have gone into greater depth, and I wonder whether I blew it: he's a very intelligent little boy and can absorb a lot of detail.

    When he started preschool, he told me, "Some of my friends at school have brown skin." I explained that their ancestors came from Africa, and that if we went to Africa (he LOVES Africa, particularly its wildlife), we'd see that practically everybody has brown skin. I added that, even though our ancestors came from Europe and have lighter skin, millions of years ago, all human beings originated in Africa.

  12. When you posted your story at the end of May, the bit that stuck out was where you said you would not take up a cure for ichthyosis because it would most likely reduce your quality of life rather than increase it. I've heard of parents subjecting their children to cosmetic surgery to iron out much more trivial differences, such as sticky-out ears. When I was a child, I read a story in a British newspaper about a child who had died having that precise operation, just from the anaesthetic. At the time, I was being regularly bullied at school and "big ears" were a common taunt, and I was quite upset that a child had been put through an operation, and killed in the process, to please school bullies. School bullying is transient - it is a product of school and goes away when you leave. It is the bullies who should have to change -- not the people they bully.

  13. First off please let me say Thank You for using my quote above, I hope that when others read this blog they will start teaching their children at a young age how to approach and prepare them for meeting others with a visible difference.

    Being a Mom who has seen first hand the way my sons, and other are/were treated, by young children it only give me the desire to help coach/teach the younger children when dealing with a visible disability. Working in a Daycare give me that ability, and I find it rewarding to see the children in my class catching on, and then hopefully they will take what they have learned and teach their parents too. Yes it's true that the Parents should be the first to teach their children, but when the parent has placed their child in my care for almost 8 hrs a day, then I'm going to teach them the proper things to say and do especially when they are around someone with a visible disability.

    My goal now is to continue teaching these young ones and hopefully when and if they ever meet someone with a visible disability, they will know the correct and proper things to say so that a life long friendship can be created between everyone.

  14. I think a lot of these negative comment come from how parents react to people like that...they could be copying their parents. I always explain to my children that everyone is special and beauty is inside and out etc etc.

  15. Hi Carly, I've been thinking about this post since you posted it. I want to tell you about my child. My child looks normal but he isn't. He has five labels and takes medication. Life is a huge struggle for him and for us, and partly because he looks fine. Nobody recognises that he is disabled. In fact once I was in a group of women and mentioned that my son was going to the Independence Games (for special needs kids) and one women said, "Does Reuben have special needs?" and my neighbour said "NO". What the F***? what gave her the right to say that just because he looks normal? I was speechless. My point is that I think we need to teach people to accept all differences, that being in a wheelchair isn't the only way to be disabled. Sometimes it feels like having Down Syndrome is the only "acceptable" face of disability. I salute you for what you do, keep on raising awareness and if you have a minute to say, disability is not always obvious, I would be truly grateful!!

  16. Carly, thank you for this intelligent and thoughtful post. Sharing your self stories with others is a scary thing to do but in doing so, you inspire growth and understanding in others. My kids are 4/5 and have grandparents with dark skin, a grandfather with total blindness and have had to be taught, through kind, firm interactions how to approach new situations. Miss 4 called someone 'fat' when she was only 2. I made her apologise, I apologised and the lady was so good to us, but my daughter has never used that terminology again, even being uncomfortable asking me to cut the 'white stuff' off the bacon! I will never stifle curiosity but your insightful, personal experiences will be food for thought for me always, and I, for one, will share your words with all I know. Thank you. Caylie x

  17. Here is a great activity for opening the conversation with kids and teaching them about diversity: http://kidsactivitiesblog.com/23747/what-is-diversity

  18. Great post Carly. As a mum of a 4 year old and a toddler it is helpful to read this. I try so hard to educate my children on diversity and how at the end of the day, we are all people, all humans and all have feelings regardless of what we look like or how we act. When we are out and about and see someone with a visible difference, I hope my children see me smiling at them, nodding a hello or saying g'day (just as I would to anyone). I hope that my actions can speak louder than any words I tell them and that as they grow they learn and take this to model to others. I found this post thanks to Natalie's (Easy Peasy Kids) great post on teaching Acceptance to children.

  19. So glad to find this post. I have wondered how to deal with my curious 3 year olds questions & wondered if I am handling them in a respectful manner. Recently she loudly asked "Why is that man so small?" I would have liked to explain scientifically why, but given I didn't know I explained, as I always do, that everyone is different. My girl thinks I know the answers to everything. Like "what's his name?", pointing at a stranger. And "where is she going?". At her age I see her questions as innocent and born of curiosity & an expectation that I know everything. I want her to encourage her to learn about differences & not to offend others.

    I now have a second daughter who has a massive, big, red birth mark on her knee. Children are always asking me what it is and some are concerned that it's a big sore and causing her pain. I am happy to explain what it is. I was upset however when a 7 year old girl saw the birthmark and exclaimed loudly "oh that's yuck! I don't want to touch her now!" Then kept going on about how yuck it was and that she didn't want to touch my girl. I explained what it was but it made no difference & soon some other kids were joining in too. All I could think of was that these girls probably tease others with differences and that made me very sad. :-(

  20. Really great post. I'd love you to come over and hang out with our kids. They're inquisitive but respectful (except the three year old who calls everyone a butt head)... Seriously, we'd love to have more opportunities to discuss diversity with our kids so come on over! :)

  21. Really great post. I'd love you to come over and hang out with our kids. They're inquisitive but respectful (except the three year old who calls everyone a butt head)... Seriously, we'd love to have more opportunities to discuss diversity with our kids so come on over! :)


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