The other neighborhood children and I made Teddy's life miserable. We teased him until he cried. We called him retard. We all knew better, but we were intentionally mean to a boy who couldn't help being born with a damaged brain.
Eventually, every child will come into contact with a person who is disabled, disfigured, or just plain different. And just because kids love Jesus doesn't mean they won't be thoughtless and cruel.
Elementary-aged children in particular are developing their understanding of what's normal and what isn't. They are just starting to notice that other people are different from themselves and are gauging what those differences mean. They are also at the early stages of applying what they know about right and wrong to the decisions they make. Those factors often lead children to act in hurtful ways toward people who don't fit the norm. That's why it's essential to help your child develop the ability to express her natural curiosity while still being sensitive and respectful of people who are different.
Darnly Motter's husband, Larry, suffered serious brain damage in a car accident. Motter says, "Larry's condition was hardest on our children, Greg, Renee, and Jeff, when they were in elementary school. He embarrassed them in front of their friends." Through trial and error, Motter found ways to help her children accept their father's disability. Whether your child has a grandparent, a sibling, a classmate, or a neighbor with a disability, Motter's guidelines can help you, too.
Hold children accountable. When Greg and his younger brother wrestled, Larry could no longer understand that they were just having fun. Larry would get upset and start yelling at them to stop hurting each other. The children would laugh. Goading him was funny.
Even though the boys were young and their mother knew they didn't mean to hurt their father, Motter explained why their laughter was wrong and doled out consequences for their actions. If your child teases or hurts a person with a disability, explain that God wants us to be kind to all people, then have your child offer a sincere apology to the person she's hurt and ask for forgiveness. Youth or ignorance is never an excuse for sin.
Learn about the disabilityand the person. The more children know about a person with a disability, the more accepting they will be. Every year Darnly, a teacher, would introduce Larry to a new class of children and explain his condition. She knew that seeing Larry, and people like him, as real human beings would make them less likely to be cruel.
When your child meets someone with a disability, help her ask sensitive questions to the person or his caregiver. Then show her how to learn more about the personwhat music he likes, what makes him laugh. Help your child discover that there's more to a disabled person than meets the eye.
Strive for balance. It's easy to hope that your child will be the gracious, accepting child who becomes best friends with the kid in the wheelchair. But like any other friendship, you can't push your child into feigning a relationship with someone she simply doesn't connect with. The goal is kindness and respect, not false friendships or guilt-ridden children who feel like they aren't doing enough.
If there is a special-needs child or adult in your family, Darnly also notes the importance of balancing the needs of the whole family. She says, "As the responsible parent, I needed to make certain that our children didn't miss out on important childhood events. Each of us is as important to this family as Larry."
This is an issue I've been thinking about a lot in recent days. You see, Teddy, the boy I teased when I was young, just died. My hope is that other children won't have to whisper the heartfelt prayer I've uttered these last few days, "I'm sorry, Teddy. Will you and Jesus please forgive me?"
Marlene LeFever is the Director of Church Relations at Cook Communications Ministries.
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