Every parent has had this uncomfortable moment: your child is staring at someone who looks different than him/her. Maybe they are staring at a person in a wheelchair, someone with a prosthetic limb, a homeless person sleeping on cardboard in a building’s vestibule, or someone with different skin color. How have you handled this moment? Do you hold their hand and tell the child “It’s not polite to stare?” I’ll admit that I’ve often tried diversionary tactics, as in, “Look over there!” to draw my daughter’s attention away from whomever was holding her gaze.
This awkward moment is so common that it has served as inspiration for one of the most powerful modern young adult novels. Author R.J. Palacio– of Wonder fame – shares this interview on NPR explaining how poorly she handled a similar moment with her child’s reaction to seeing someone with a severe facial deformity. Fortunately Palacio turned this moment into a catalyst for Wonder (which if you are living under a rock and have not read / seen the movie, RUN – do not walk – to your local bookstore).
More recently, neuropsychologist and reading researcher Daniel Willingham (professor at my alma mater UVA) shared his experiences being the father of a child with a rare chromosomal disorder. I adore Willingham and was fortunate to bring him to lecture at my current university. He has added infinite wisdom to reading instruction, learning and the brain, and comprehension. From him, I have learned that background knowledge is more important than strategy instruction in helping kids comprehend text and that there is no real science to learning styles. But I digress…let me get back to why I started this post.
– writes that isolation is far more difficult than staring for parents and children who look different. He reminds us that children are naturally curious, and that children don’t understand the social norms of not staring. So what can we do - as parents – in those uncomfortable moments? Encourage our children to say hello. Model the greeting. And encourage children to ask questions. My words are not nearly as powerful as Willingham’s, so I encourage you to read his article and remember #startwithhello.