I noticed her right away. My two-year-old did not. He was too busy sizing up the equipment at the new playground we were about to enter. She had braces on her legs, which made her walk stiff and wobbly. I could see her communicating with her dad, but no words came out, just sounds. Maybe I felt sympathy for her dad, maybe I was nervous about how my little guy would react to her, maybe it was something else, but if I’m being honest – I did notice her in a way that I don’t notice other kids. And as an adult, I felt guilty because of it.
We walked into the small fenced in playground and within five minutes, any trepidation I initially had faded away. My boy is pretty outgoing anyway, but in a playground full of kids, he just took to this little girl immediately. He didn’t question the braces on her legs, or that she looked different from the rest of the kids – he just knew that she looked fun and he wanted to be a part of whatever she was doing!
We found out that her name was Charlie and while she couldn’t speak, she could understand everything we said. It took a little while for Charlie to warm up to my son and his general excitement about EVERYTHING, but soon they were playing hide and seek, swinging side-by-side, sliding down the tube slide, and squealing with laughter the whole time. Not only were they playing, but they were hugging and high fiving. Charlie’s dad even noticed that my son would copy Charlie’s hand motions when she was using sign language to communicate with her dad. We were both totally amazed.
We all played together the rest of the morning. When it was time to leave, we gave each other lots of hugs and then said our goodbyes. On his way out of the gate, Charlie’s dad told me something that I’ll never forget.
“No one ever plays with her.”
And then he knelt down to toddler height and told my son what a cool kid he thinks he is. I think Charlie’s dad and I both left the playground that day knowing that something really special had transpired between our two little kids.
I’m not telling this story because I want you to pat me on the back for my awesome parenting, or because I think my kid is more special than yours. I really need your input actually. As the grown-up, I was the one who was nervous about the situation, which was totally unfounded. I was so inspired that morning by my son’s openness and acceptance of someone who was a little different than he was. I want to be more like my two year old.
But now I wonder, how do I keep this up? As he grows up and is more vocal about the differences he sees in others, how do I help him to continue to be the sweet, friendly boy to everyone he meets? Especially those who need someone to play with the most? I know that he’ll be curious, and I want to answer his questions honestly, without making someone’s differences a big deal. I want to explain to him that some people can see and some can’t, how cool it is to be able to talk with your hands when you can’t with your voice, that some kids ride in wheel chairs because they can’t walk, but I bet they get to go really fast. I hope by explaining everyone’s differences in a really positive way, these differences won’t seem like a big deal to him.
Since I’m clearly not an expert on this topic, I did a little research (thanks PBS.org!) and here are some tips for helping your kid become “an includer”:
- Model inclusive behavior yourself! Instead of looking at your phone to avoid a social interaction, introduce yourself and strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. This really is easy to do when you are at a place like a playground with your kids. Show them how easy it is to be friendly.
- Look for someone who needs a friend. Teach your child to keep an eye out for someone who might be lonely or shy, and practice how they could invite them to play.
- Everyone has differences, but that’s what makes us all great! We also have a lot of things in common. Let’s celebrate the differences and embrace our similarities.
That day at the playground was just a normal day for my two-year-old, but it was a really special, eye-opening day for me. Sometimes in the daily grind of parenthood, we get a lesson from our kids that we didn’t know we needed.