Kids recognize diversity before entering preschool, but you influence how it will be understood, and your child’s understanding determines how she interacts with others who are different. As a mom, your influence also plays a significant role in how your child acquires the social skills that motivate her to refuse to mistreat or label individuals who are different. You can help your child learn to respect persons with disabilities by modeling prosocial behavior, and by using events and people in her daily life as teaching tools.
Kids Mirror Moms
Teaching kids social skills is usually as easy as modeling the behavior you want to see. However, your child doesn’t just observe and learn when you ask for her attention. Kids watch and listen all the time, because their moms, to them, are the most important people on the planet. When kids hear comments and jokes that belittle persons with disabilities, they assume the behavior is appropriate and expected. Don’t endorse disrespect, even temporarily. When kids observe moms interacting with a disabled person in a less-than-dignified manner, they learn lessons about disrespect and unkindness. The bottom line is that routine, daily communication serves as a powerful teaching opportunity for your child. Ensure that your child’s words and actions reflect respect and kindness for disabled persons.
Demonstrating respect for persons with disabilities comes naturally for kids who can practice empathy. When your child can recognize another person’s feelings, she's more likely to treat others as she wants to be treated. Help your child to acquire empathy by asking her to talk about her own feelings, and then praise her when she listens to the feelings of others. Share a book or watch a video with your child and ask her to imagine how a character might be feeling.
Talk About Differences Positively
It’s natural for kids to recognize differences and to try to understand what they observe. Young children typically misinterpret what they see, and need moms to provide clarification with enthusiasm. Answer your child’s questions about disabled persons openly, and frame responses according to your child’s developmental level. Emphasize that a person’s disability comprises a very small part of the person’s identity. For example, point out that a man in a wheelchair may also be a dad, an architect and antique toy collector. The wheelchair enables the man to move from place to place, and doesn't minimize his value as a person.
Chosen with care, books, videos and television programming can not only reinforce your message, but also opens up new discussions related to the importance of treating all disabled persons with respect. Watch selected videos and television programming with your child, remaining alert to questions and new opportunities to talk about feelings. Select books that portray a variety of physical and emotional disabilities. Encourage your child to explore and problem-solve characters’ dilemmas, and emphasize similarities between the characters and your child.
Becky Swain's first publication appeared in the "Journal of Personality Assessment" in 1984. Her articles have also appeared on various websites. She is an adjunct college instructor, licensed school psychologist and educational consultant. She holds a Master of Science in clinical psychology and a Doctor of Philosophy in educational psychology, both from Mississippi State University.