Some of my most embarrassing moments as a mother have been when my children have pointed out physical differences in others. Whether it is noticing a limb missing or an injury from burns, young children are curious and do not realize the affect their words or questions may have on others.
Each time a situation like this as occurred, I tried to respond by helping the children see the facts of the situation. I have had private conversations with my children afterward about how everyone looks different and has a different body. We talk about feelings and how people may not like having their body parts pointed at. I also explain that sometimes people have accidents or injuries that interfere with their ability to do things and we should be mindful of how we can help them… amongst other lecturing type responses…
I thought this was pretty much all I could do, besides making sure I was giving a positive example of being friends with many different people and ensuring that the kids had opportunities to spend time with people who look different them themselves.
However a few months ago a reader sent me a message asking how she could teach her son to have more tact in a situation where he was pointing out how others look different. I am so glad she challenged me with this subject, for it prompted me to create a hands-on activity that would explain “differences” to my young children in a way that was much easier (and probably more age-appropriate) for them to understand.
For the activity, I simply cut out different shapes that could be put together as lamps. I asked my boys to choose whatever parts they wanted to go together, then helped them glue them on the page. As we glued, we talked about how every lamp is different – it looks different, it may be a different size, it may even have a part that is broken or a piece that is missing – but there is one thing each lamp has in common… and that is its light.
When discussing the light, I gave them a flashlight to shine and explained that the light of the lamp is what is important, and this light is like a person’s spirit (or heart, if you prefer). Every light/person deserves to be respected and loved, no matter what their lamp/body looks like. The light is what makes the lamp a lamp… the outside of the lamp is just the container for the reason the lamp exists in the first place.
Taking the activity one step further, we talked about how sometimes we have questions about what other people look like, and in those cases we should talk privately to make sure we do not hurt anyone’s feelings. We role played a few times whispering quietly into ears, and I would say something like, “Let’s talk about that when we get into the car.” Telling the boys ahead of time that sometimes we will need to discuss things later, in private, has been very helpful for us.
Sometimes it is okay for the children to speak to the person about the “difference.” I find every situation is different depending on what comments have been made and the personality/temperament of everyone involved.
We also talked about examples of wearing different clothes and what if someone laughed at you because of the color of shirt you were wearing. How would that make you feel? More role playing like this, on different days, helped us review our lamp activity as we tried to deepen empathy and thoughtfulness of others’ feelings.
These were simple activities, but for a 2 and 4 year old, the experiences gave them a concrete example to remember that people may look different but inside we are all the same, and thus we should be careful with how our words may affect everyone around us.
Kate from An Everyday Story shares her perspective about talking to children about “difference,” as the mother of a son with a disability. I really appreciate her viewpoint and agree we should never make our children feel embarrassed about noticing differences. Read her article here.
This is another hands-on activity from Easy Peasy Kids, which has the children wear shoes that do not fit them to experience what it is like to be someone else… helping them to develop empathy. Read more about the activity here.
Below are some more articles you may like to read regarding children and differences:
Have you ever experienced your child pointing out someone who looks different? How do you teach children about physical differences?
rebecca at thisfineday
Wow, what a great way to talk about this with kids. I’ve also had my fair share of embarrassing moments with my daughters. Thank you for sharing. This activity will be in our future!
Chelsea Lee Smith
I’m so glad it will be useful for you Rebecca 🙂 Thanks for the kind words.
Kate - An Everyday Story
My son has a physical disability so we have experienced this many times. I used to be really bothered by the comments from other children (and even parents) because I thought they were making fun of him in some way. But as we all grew, I have come to realise that children are indeed curious, and so long as they aren’t making fun or being nasty, then the comments don’t bother me anymore.
We talk about difference a lot; people wear glasses, some people are bald, some people are tall, short, thin, fat, different races and different cultures and different abilities in the hope that we are normalising difference.
I think this is a nice activity for helping children to talk about difference.
Chelsea Lee Smith
Thanks so much for commenting Kate – I love the way you say normalizing difference… it’s so true there is no “normal.” We all look different and that’s a beautiful thing.
It is soooo embarrassing when your child points something out… I think even more so when it is about other children, however, as adults are usually quite understanding. I would love to know what responses you think are useful from parents, when their child says something about another child. Sometimes I just have no idea what to say other than, “I’m so sorry” or something like that. I always feel it’s not enough though.
My “disability” is now not as obvious as some physical disabilities. I am severely/profoundly deaf and as a child I had a caliper on my leg, and a patched eye with glasses, as well as the huge hearing aids that had cords to the processor worn on my chest. I have grown up with the whispers, pointing, the questions, the embarrassed parents and a very wide range of facial expressions and responses to my looks, or speech, or actions.
I very much appreciate your suggestions, and I expose my children to lots of people and talk constantly about each of them being uniquely them, so that they realise all people are unique, special and very precious. You see, I don’t believe in normal. I love that God made each one of us, in His image and He loves each of us.
BUT, rather than the whispers, the looks and the embarrassment, I’d rather be asked about my uniqueness. My deafness, my need to watch faces, my technology, my signing (if I’m with signing friends), and my speech are part of what make me unique, and I love kids (and adults, who are curious, not patronising) asking me what they are wondering. I’d prefer it to them whispering, and assuming.
Chelsea Lee Smith
I love your suggestions Karina, and so appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and your wisdom. Every situation is unique (ie in some cases you may just be passing someone on the street) but I love your suggestion of openly starting a conversation about the “difference.” I will definitely consider this in the future, especially as my children get older and can learn to speak tactfully. Thanks again for commenting, you have added a lot to this conversation.
Kate @ The Craft Train
Some good suggestions here Chelsea. We always talk about how saying things might make somebody feel sad, and that’s not very nice. Nowhere near as creative as your ideas!
What a lovely way to educate your kids without stifling their curiosity!
A good few adults could do with learning this lesson… I can’t tell you how rude people are to my twins faces, pointing and making rude comments and asking personal questions right in front of them! I understand that they are curious and interested, but there is a right way and wrong way to be curious! Dealing with that as a parent of twins has really made me much more aware of what others who look or act different to ‘the norm’ have to deal with.
Oh I love how you taught difference with light being the soul that we all hold inside us. Your posts are always so inspiring Chelsea!
What a great way to talk about such an important subject, thanks for the resources too
Elise @ Creative Play Central
Such a beautiful way to instill in children lessons about difference and being empathetic.
Racheous - Loveable Learning
I truly admire your approach to this sensitive topic! I talk openly with my children about disability and differences. We’ve had many discussions (he’s very curious but kind) and his reactions and perspective always amazes me and makes me proud. Thanks for more food for thought 🙂
Hannah @ Paint on the Ceiling
What a lovely way to teach children about difference. You’ve handled the subject beautifully. Thank you 🙂
I am going into the teaching profession for early childhood education and I love your idea about the lamps. I plan on incorporating this idea into my future classroom as I think it is very important that children understand that everyone is different in some way or another. Thank you for this creative way of teaching children this topic.