"...it is inexcusable to allow a child to treat other people badly. Teaching a child to be disrespectful is a habit that can’t be broken."
They say it takes a village to raise a child. But I am always mindful of commenting on parenting, because I'm not a parent. And there's often a backlash when people who aren't parents comment on others' parenting. But when I encounter children, it is easy to judge how they're parented based on their behaviour and reaction to me. I recently met a little girl who initially stared at me, but after I said hello and her parents encouraged her to say hello back, we chatted about lots of things including Frozen, and a new subject at her school called 'snacks' (hah!). When I left the cafe, I told her dad how lovely his daughter was, saying he's done a great job!
Dealing with children can be so hard. Sometimes they ask cute and innocent questions - out of genuine curiosity. I don't mind if they ask what's on my face or stare a little. I recently experienced a gorgeous moment when a little girl couldn't work out why my face hadn't changed colour when we exited the train tunnel - and then she was more shocked that I was 32 yet still carrying a Minnie Mouse bag!
Other times children are downright rude. Little shits. To me and to other kids (and adults) who look different.
Most days I read about friends' children who have been bullied and excluded because other kids think they'll catch ichthyosis. I tear up when friends write that no one attended their child's birthday party. And I'm horrified to learn that children (and adults) ruin outings for my friends' children because of incessant staring, whispering and comments.
Those things happened to me when I was a child, and the memories stuck.
And often children's comments hurt just as much for an adult on the receiving end.
Sarah, a 20 something woman with dwarfism, was exasperated by a child who mistook her for a boy and commented on her appearance. She gets stared at and comments directed at her regularly, so I imagine that having her femininity overlooked stung.
Mel, a gorgeous dancer and mentor (who has Cerebral Palsy) wrote this on Facebook last week:
“I like to think in today's society that perception of "disability" has grown for the better, though after yesterday's experience, I am doubting myself it has... wheeling past a primary school ground some children were eager to know "what's wrong with you" and so I naturally responded with my natural speech, "I....have.....cerebral palsy" then came the laughter when they heard my speech, and then a boy did the body movement, tongue out, eyes roll which he appeared to be very good at….
so my explaining was not working right now and I wheeled on with my friend who was equally disappointed by the children's attitude... I wanted to do something to help these children understand, my world is amazing and not what you think it is.”
While people dismiss children’s behaviour as curiosity or innocence, reactions like Mel received can sting. Mel has since written to the principal, asking if she can do a presentation on disability.
I have become better at responding to children (smiling, saying hello, talking about how everyone's different, saying I was born like this as they were born with blue eyes) but I still struggle with whether to invite questions from them or call them out on downright rude behaviour.
I was on the train one day and a little kid saw me and threw an absolute whopper of a tantrum. He screamed that he didn't want to look at me or sit next to me. He kicked the inside of the train, hit his dad, and said how yucky I looked. It was really embarrassing because people were looking at me to see what the boy didn't want to look at. And I had to say something. Because his father wasn't saying anything. I said to the boy that he was very rude. I told his dad that I write about what it's like to look different, including how to educate kids about diversity, and gave him my card, suggesting he talk to his kid so this doesn't happen again. The dad thanked me and got off at a stop I presume wasn't his stop, because the kid - mid tantrum - said this wasn't the right stop. The dad was so embarrassed. And so was I.
Mother of three, Toushka, told me:
"In the case of visible difference and disability and the lifelong conversation we need to have with our children, it can be difficult to find ways to have that conversation if the circle of people your child sees are all the same. There are some great books and TV shows to help but it is a lifelong conversation that hopefully starts before a toddler freaks out on the train."
I don't want to parent your child.
I can educate your child about my skin to an extent, but it's up to parents to teach them manners, kindness and compassion.
And you also need to remember that while curiosity is important for learning, being on the receiving end of curiosity can be tiring.
It's up to you as parents to have that ongoing discussion about diversity and need to treat people - no matter how they look - with respect. Because when a situation like the one I had on the train happens to you, you'd wish you had.
Edit: a number of people on my Facebook page and blog comments suggested the child on the train might have autism. Thanks for raising the idea that the boy on the train might have autism. This is something I had not considered. I appreciate you opening my mind to this, and I am sorry if I offended anyone with my comments. If autism had have been the case, it would have been great for the father to provide a short comment like "my son has autism and this could be why he is behaving this way', as I provided a comment to him about me. Please also respect that the incidents that I mentioned - that happen to me and my friends Sarah and Mel - did happen, and often happen on a regular basis and can be tiring. Thank you.