When Mama Bear Comes OutIn the beginning, when I was a new parent of a child who looked different and one who was still processing it all, taking Aiden out and about was nerve-wracking. I was obsessed with how long people let their looks linger. I always assumed they were passing judgement and found myself constantly on the defense. Even though I loved my child fiercely - despite his differences - I was always shocked (and quite honestly a little skeptical) when a perfect stranger would comment on how cute he was. Were they being genuine? Or trying to cover up the fact that I caught them staring?
Over the past 5 years, I've seen and heard it all. What has surprised me the most is that adults seem to be the worst offenders. Hadn't anyone taught them manners? I'd think to myself when an adult would nudge their friend to have them look at my sweet boy. Kids, however, have an innocent and healthy curiosity that perhaps makes their reactions a bit more forgivable.
I was never quite sure how I would react during these encounters. I'm still not. I desperately want to have the right thing to say - something poignant and composed that can turn a negative situation into something positive for all parties involved. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case when emotions run high. I either find myself fumbling over my words or coming across like a crazy, overprotective mom.
As the parent of a child with Apert syndrome, I experience these encounters daily. But as a parent in general, I too have the responsibility to teach my own kids how to act appropriately - including how to respect others who have physical or behavioral differences. I get that sometimes kids make off-the-cuff remarks without thinking. I've experienced that myself on more than one occasion (once, while shopping at the grocery store, Ethan was overly vocal in his curiosity about a "little person"). It doesn't mean that I've failed as a parent and I don't pass that judgement on to other parents when their kids react to Aiden. However - it is my opinion that how the situation is handled (or NOT handled) at that very moment truly defines just how well you are doing your job.
While patiently waiting in line with Aiden, a boy in front of us, about 10 if I had to guess, began glancing back at Aiden. No biggie. It happens all the time. I would try to catch his eyes and offer a smile, but each time he looked at me he quickly turned around.
When it was our turn, they took 3 kids into the waiting area to sit on benches while the kids before them got unhooked from their harnesses. I went in with Aiden, who was between me and the boy on the bench. Immediately, any time Aiden turned toward the boy, he began to scoot himself farther away with an obnoxious scream. After the second or third time my blood was boiling.
"Is there a problem?" I shouted with an obvious amount of emotion. "I'm sorry," he said. "That boy is just freaking me out." I looked around for his parent. Nowhere to be found. "Well he is a perfectly sweet little boy and if you have a problem, perhaps you should go sit over there." I pointed to the empty bench on the other side of us. So off he went.
When I looked around yet again I noticed that a handful of adults had witnessed this exchange and suddenly, I felt like my actions were being judged. Even though I was protecting my child, I couldn't help questioning myself and whether I had handled it appropriately.
As Aiden bounced himself into the sky, laughing with pure joy the whole time, I heard a little girl behind me say "Look at that strange looking kid". Again, no parents nearby when I turned to her and said "He is not strange and that was very rude." She hadn't realized I was his mom standing there and was mortified when I addressed her. "I'm sorry for saying that," she said sheepishly and walked on.
A little while later, the boys were playing on the crowded playscape. It started to get really warm and Aiden came to me a few times complaining about this or that (nothing new). "I'm hot." or "Ethan's not playing with me." And so on. At one point he said "a boy stepped on my toes" and I chalked it up to it being an accident with so many kids running around. When he came to me a second time saying the same thing, I made a point to keep a closer eye on him as he ran off. Sure enough, as Aiden crossed the bridge from one side of the play structure to the other, a boy twice his size walked up to him and kicked him in the shin. I COULD NOT BELIEVE what I had just seen.
I scooped up Hudson who had been crawling around at my feet and without so much as a second to compose myself marched up to the boy, who was already walking away. "Hey you!" I shouted. He turned slowly, knowing full well I had just seen what he'd done. "DO NOT kick my little boy, do you hear me?" Dead stare. "DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" The boy hid behind a railing and shook his head yes before running off. Probably to go tell his mommy about the mean lady who yelled at him no doubt.
I went back to where I was sitting and mumbled to the woman next to me "Whew - sometimes mama bear just comes out." Again, I felt a sudden pang of guilt to have shouted at the boy and wondered if the moms would think I was too aggressive. She and another mother next to her said they'd both seen what the boy did and were horrified. Then they said what I thought during all 3 of those situations "Where are the parents?"
And that's just the thing. I wish the parents would have been there to handle their own child's behavior so I didn't have to step in but also so that they could learn, if they weren't already aware, how their child reacts to someone who is different than they are. Perhaps they could have used it as an opportunity to educate their child so they would not behave that way in the future. Or I could have talked to the parent about Aiden and shared a little of our story.
So while I would personally never let my child run around the crowded kids area without supervision, I was more disappointed that three opportunities to address their children's careless actions in public were lost...at the expense of my child's feelings.
In a perfect world, this stuff would never be an issue. Kids would always be nice to others regardless of what they looked like or their different abilities. In reality, I know that just isn't the case. So here are a few tips that you might use when you find yourself - or your child - in the middle of a situation like we experienced:
1. If your kid says something insensitive, acknowledge it. Not only if it was overheard, but especially if it was. I don't care how embarrassed you are or how much you want to pretend it didn't happen - ignoring it tells your kid two things: it's okay to do/say what they did and that they can get away with it, even in front of a parent. And please, even do this if you plan to address it differently in private.
2. Apologize on your child's behalf. Say something, anything, to let me know that you understand that your child's actions were hurtful. If you don't get it? Then I know your kid is never gonna get it. And that's just a shame.
3. Ask your child to apologize as well. Putting them on the spot holds them accountable for their behavior. It might even embarrass them enough to discourage them from doing it again.
4. Focus on the positive. Say something about my child that discredits the hurtful comment your kid just said. Did they say something about Aiden's face? Point out his sweet smile. Did they blurt out how different his hands are? Comment on how well he's able to use them to pick up that small piece of paper on the ground. Disarming the negative with a positive just might drive home the point that even with his differences, my child is pretty amazing.
5. Talk to your kids about respecting people of all shapes, sizes, colors and abilities. Have a conversation with them early and often. I began talking to Ethan about this subject when he was about 2 and could understand. Granted he had a brother as an example, but at that age Aiden was no more different to him than anyone else.
Bottom line is, we all want our kids to be accepted, but while that may not always happen naturally, respect should. I may not always be around to handle these situations on behalf of my child, just as the offending kid's parents were not there to witness it. But if we do our best to guide our children, provide a good example for them, and address behavior appropriately when something is said/done, then maybe kids like Aiden will encounter one less person who doesn't know any better.
From one mom to another - THANK YOU and please share!