For the last few months, I’ve been walking in someone else’s shoes. I’ve been getting a taste of a life I never imagined living: one with a physically disabled child.
We were blessed with two healthy babies, so it wasn’t until we discovered Alice’s osteochondritis that we had to take on the role of special needs parents. And I have to say, it’s given me a whole new perspective on so many things:
- How horrible it is when people who don’t belong in handicapped parking spaces decide they “need” to park there.
- The kindness of people willing to make your child’s day by making a fuss about her rocking cast.
- How devastating it is for a child to feel ostracized by their peers because of whatever makes them different.
- And the point at which we cross the line in speaking about other people’s children.
Alice’s cast, wheelchair, and boot have, interestingly, been the source of a lot of public comment and curiosity, some of which has crossed the line. If I were to place people’s reactions to her condition on a scale, it would go something like this, from best to worst:
“What a great cast! Are you the artist?”
People who say nothing.
“Did she break her leg?” (notice that the question is directed at me?)
“I guess you’ll have to be more careful next time!”
I’ve admitted that even inquiries into Alice’s condition have a tendency to irritate me, mostly because the people asking don’t really care. Most don’t even know us. They’re just curious, and frankly, my child’s physical condition is not a subject we should be discussing to satisfy your curiosity. It’s a tender topic, one that makes her feel like an outsider, so save your questions, buddy.
But aside from irresponsible curiosity, some people’s comments have been downright rude. Like the woman in the hotel elevator who remarked on how unfortunate it was that we had a child in a wheelchair during our spring break vacation. I explained that we planned the trip knowing full well what the circumstances would be—that we weren’t going to let a little thing like a wheelchair ruin our fun!—but I was shocked that a grown woman didn’t have the sense to keep that comment to herself. Seriously, lady? Why would you insinuate that Alice’s wheelchair was an impediment, a “shame,” right in front of her? Who does a comment like this benefit??
So, this is my advice when speaking to parents about their children: Consider how your comment will benefit the child or the parent. Will it make them feel proud, or will it make them feel like an oddity? Are you commenting for your sake or for theirs?
I’ve realized that probably the only comment it’s ever safe to make to an unfamiliar parent or child is a compliment.
What a beautiful baby!
What cool Batman sneakers you’ve got there!
What an awesome baby carrier! Do you love it? I’ve been looking for one.
Any other comment or observation could be hurtful.
We’ve all been guilty of off-color comments—sometimes with the best intentions. Sometimes we’re just trying to make polite conversation, and moms are famous for talking about their kids. We’ll comment on how big or small another child is compared to our own. We ask about which milestones they’ve reached. We ask personal questions without really thinking about how they’ll make someone feel.
But I can tell you that being on the receiving end of a lot of questions and comments gets old. It makes you feel defensive and singled out. So just remember your kindergarten teacher’s favorite phrase: if you don’t have anything nice to say, zip it.