Words Can Heal


Dealing with Children Who are Different

Lia was born with two fingers missing from her left hand, and stumps of fingers on her right hand. Her parents, Hannah and Mark, were determined to help their child overcome her disability. They encouraged her motor development, as well as her sense of competency. As soon as she could hold a crayon, she was coloring in the O’s in the daily newspaper. At age three, she started playing the flute. Growing up in a close-knit neighborhood, where all the families had been friends for years, little Lia was accepted and loved by her young playmates.

In the summer of Lia’s sixth year, her family moved to a different city. Hannah and Mark enrolled Lia for first grade in a parochial school where all the children came from far-flung areas of the city. On the first day of school, most of the first-grade pupils were strangers to each other; all of them were strangers to Lia.

Lia came home from the first day of school devastated, in tears, swearing she would never go back to that school. When she stopped crying enough to speak, she told how the other children had made fun of her, had run away from her, and had called her, “monster.”

Mark and Hannah were caught off-guard. Since Lia’s acceptance had never been a problem in the old neighborhood, they had not prepared her for the possible cruelty and rejection of her new peers. Mark, a management consultant, struggled to find a way to redeem the situation, to put a positive spin on Lia’s “differentness,” to use words to heal.

Finally, holding Lia lovingly in his lap, Mark asked her, “Do you know the names of all the other kids in your class?”

Lia responded with a tearful, “No!”

Mark continued. “Do you think there’s any kid in the class who knows the names of all the other kids?”

Lia had to think about this. “No,” she finally answered.

“Do you think that there’s any kid in the class who everybody else knows by name?”

Lia’s mind was switching tracks. She pondered the question, and replied, “No, probably not.”

“Do you think that all the kids in the class know your name?”

Lia admitted, “Yeah, they probably do.”

“So,” her father suggested, “Isn’t there something positive about that?”

Lia thought about it, and decided, “Yeah, it’s special that everybody knows my name.”

The next day she went back to school.

An Interview with Lia

Lia is now twenty-one years old and a student of international relations at a prestigious university. Words Can Heal interviewed Lia about her experiences and her perspectives.

WCH: What shouldn’t children do when they see someone who is different?

Lia: Until the age of ten or eleven, I was much more sensitive to the reactions of other children. Children would point at my hands and whisper, or they would point and whisper and look like they didn’t want to get near me. Sometimes they would tell me not to touch them or their stuff. I would run away crying.

WCH: So it wasn’t the staring that hurt as much as the feeling of rejection, of their being repulsed by what they saw?

Lia: Yes. Now that I’m older, I can’t imagine noticing something odd and not looking at it. Staring is probably natural. It’s not totally out of line.

WCH: What should children do when they see someone who is different?

Lia: Most of the time, if they just ask me, “What happened to your hands?” I think that’s great. I tell them, “I was born that way.” Sometimes people ask if it hurts. That’s also a fine response.

WCH: In other words, it’s not their noticing that’s painful, but their distancing themselves. When they approach you and talk about it, they show that they want to make a connection. That feels good.

Lia: Another sensitive response is to ask someone who is already my friend, “What happened to her hands?” It’s good to be interested in something different. It doesn’t have to be hurtful.

WCH: How did your parents help you cope when children taunted you?

Lia: My mother always told me not to walk away. Instead, to stay there and show them that they didn’t get the better of me. She taught me that children who act in such a hurtful, mean way are really the unfortunate ones, because they lack the proper education in how to behave. She used to tell me, “You don’t really want to be friends with kids who laugh at other people.”

My parents worked hard to encourage my sense of competency, in art and music and using my hands in different ways. Till today, I am very artistic and musical. I use my hands better than the average person. I have no doubt that whatever steps I’ve made in life were thanks to the foundation my parents laid in the beginning.

WCH: What advice would you give to parents in how to train their children to deal with people who are different?

Lia: From an early age, my parents told me that each person is different in his or her own way. Some people have big ears. Some people have big feet. Some people have different color skin. How boring life would be if everyone were exactly the same!

Nobody’s perfect. Each person has something messed up in body or personality or family. I’m pretty lucky that my defect in life is my hands. It’s so external. I’ve gained so much from it.

WCH: What have you gained?

Lia: A strong personality and a perspective on a person’s true worth, also my psychological and spiritual development. It has brought so many positive things into my life, and it hasn’t set me back in any way. You know that people who are blind hear better. My hands gave me advantages in other facets of life. It was a good thing.

Tips for parents and teachers

Ask your children: How would you like it if you were teased because you have curly hair . . . or freckles . . . or eyeglasses? Or because you’re tall . . . or short . . . or skinny . . . or plump? If you wouldn’t like it, don’t do it to others.” Empathy is a lesson that even young children can learn.

Children have a great desire to “be normal.” Ask your children to look around and define what “normal” is. They’ll notice that there is a large range of differences between individuals. Assure them that differences are normal!

Ask your children: “Which is a worse defect, to have only nine fingers or to be mean and hurtful? Can a person with nine fingers be kind? Who would you more likely trust with a secret, a kind kid with nine fingers or a mean, hurtful kid? Who would you rather be shipwrecked on a desert island with?”

Source: Visit www.WordsCanHeal.org for more ideas on how to heal with words. And spread the word! Send this message out today -- together we can make a difference!

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