Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Tiger Beetle and Me

A Letter to the Parents of Young Children I Met Today,

Just as you teach your children to share their toys, it is important that they learn to share space with those around them. Several things happened today, as I ventured out during March break into a world full of children. I'd like to make a few suggestions:

1) Don't yank your child away from me. So many children today were frightened when they wandered near me in my chair and found their arm grabbed and pulled, sharply, away from me. I am afraid that they will associate their fright at being startled with me and my wheelchair. I did nothing to cause them alarm, I was simply sharing space. I know that some of you did it out of concern that they not be in my way or the way of my wheelchair but maybe you should trust that I managed to get myself out and into the world without leaving a trail of bruised shins behind me and that maybe I won't run your kid down either. Your concern may instill fear. I deal with that enough. Let's stop that now, shall we?

2) Don't cover your child's eyes when they look at me. I am big and I am in a wheelchair, I am different. Children look at different. Looking at me and staring at me are different things, looks just look, stares linger and evaluate and measure and value. Covering your child's eyes is telling them that there is something wrong with what they are looking at not something wrong with what they are doing. It's like you are protecting them from the sight of me. Let them look at me as they look at anything in their environment. If they are staring, that's different, just distract them. They're kids, that's pretty easy to do.

3) Don't tell them that what they are seeing they aren't seeing. A little girl said, 'That man is big mummy.' Mom flushed and said, 'No, he's not. Don't say things like that!!' The girl looked confused and then started to cry. She didn't call me a name. She simply described me. That's OK. I am big. I'd rather her know that it's OK to notice difference, but by denying my difference you demonized it. It's something that's so bad it can't be spoken of, something so real that it can't be real.

4) Do encourage curiosity. A child whispered something to his mom, she said, "Ask him, I'll bet he will tell you." Then with a bit of fear and a bit of a shake in his voice he asked, "How fast can you go in your chair?" I love this question from kids and I have an answer all stored up, "My chair goes just over 5 miles an hour, that's the same speed as that a tiger beetle can run and it's the world's fastest insect." Sound like a weird answer, kids love bug stuff. This is proven by the fact that I later heard him ask his mom if they could Google a tiger beetle.

5) Do watch where you put strollers. I could not enter a section of the bookstore I went to today because three (3!) strollers blocked the entrance. The clerk didn't want to move them, she whispered to me that some parents get really touchy about their strollers being moved, so I waited while the clerk went in to find what I wanted. I didn't like having to simply hang around, looking suspicious, while kids and parents flowed around me. I got what I wanted, I got out of the area, but I would have preferred that you thought about access, you left your stroller in a public space not a parking space.

6) Make connections. A little girl was looking at my wheelchair and I saw her mother notice her notice, mom said, "He's got a wheelchair like Auntie does! Isn't that cool?" I've never heard a parent do that before but, I liked it. She made a connection between me in my chair and someone the child obviously knows and loves, she made it just a normal thing to see. Just like Auntie! The little girl said, "Auntie's is red, his is blue." And that was that. Cool or what?

So that's it. Those are my thoughts and my bits of advice after being out today, in a crowded March break mall, surrounded by parents and kids. For the most part we all did well together but I'm hoping that these half dozen hints might be helpful the next time you are sharing space with someone who's wheelchair is blue.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

I love "how fast?" question and the tiger beetle information. The mum who encouraged the lad to ask is pretty cool, too.

Scarborough Kindness Project said...

If you have time, can you say more about what to say in response to comments like the one in number three? My girls often ask questions or say things like this and I'm never sure how to respond. One example is that they are very curious about a person who uses the women's locker room where they swim. She has short hair and dresses in a gender neutral way, and they commented within her hearing that she was a boy. I said that she wasn't and kept my tone light and matter of fact, but I felt like an ass. They also ask me questions like "What happened to him?" or "What's wrong with her?" when they see a person using a wheelchair. How much do you charge for parenting advice? Oh and thanks, Dave - I learn so much from reading your blog!

Laura said...

I can respond to your question Dave may have different answers but I would always always rather have a matter a fact answer to a question. What happened to her? I don't know or some people use wheels to get around the way you use your legs is a much better answer then to yank your kid away. Asking is never a problem for me. I had a very long very wonderful conversation with a young girl once who wanted to know where my family was if I was using the family rest room. Her mom was horrified and kept trying to shush her and pull her away but it was a valid question. And she was never rude and not to be put off by her mom. :D I know that not everyone with a disability feels that way. But I LOVE when parents encourage kids to ask me. I think the best way to answer in other cases is to relate whatever the question any situation that your child can relate to. In the case of the way someone is dressed. If it were my nice I would have said well sometimes you like to dress like a princess (because she does) and sometimes its a day to dress in jeans and tshirt. And left it at that unless she had more questions. Most times I think we as adults try to answer more then the child is asking in our quest to get it right! Hope that helps!

Connie said...

If the stroller blocked your access to part of the bookstore, surely they were in everyone's way.
If the bookstore cares about access for all their customers, why not move the strollers? Or, better yet, why not provide a marked space for stroller parking?

The stroller-riders are perhaps too young to notice their moms' rudeness but what a lesson to teach their kids.

Last year I read with a second-grader who would have loved your tiger beetle answer—and likely would have engaged you in far more bug talk than you'd bargained for.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the bookstore needs to put up a sign "If you leave your stroller where it blocks access, we will need to move it".

I agree that questions from children are almost never a problem. I tend to say "My knees don't work, so I can't walk very well"

I also tell toddlers in a stroller that I have a REALLY BIG stroller!

Louna said...

People actually cover their children's eyes when they look at you? Are you naked in that chair, or what?
More seriously, great post. Hope it helps some parents react better!

tekeal said...

"Looking at me and staring at me are different things, looks just look, stares linger and evaluate and measure and value."

i struggle with this one sometimes as a parent... i encourage curiosity and love to try and answer questions from my kids, but sometimes looking and lingering get mixed a bit, especially while trying to make sense of something... i think the evaluating, measuring and valuing aspects are more clearly expressed in a stare that's obviously rude from an adult, but perhaps less-so from a child. depends of course, on the details of the circumstance.

having a daughter with down syndrome, i also stand on the other side of the fence at times... and i try to remember that people are mostly curious.

Anonymous said...

I dont think your point about yanking kids away from your wheelchair is entirely fair, as long as its happening when kids are drifting close to you rather than purposefully moving towards you. I would do that, and have done it with wheelchairs, bikes, walking frames, skateboards, joggers, posh walkers in business suits, shopping trolleys etc etc. Its part of learning about space in my culture and although *you* know that youre good at space sharing, the strangers around you dont. And you dont know what previous experiences those strangers have had thats causing them to do something you wouldnt do yourself.

Kids drift when their attention is on something far more interesting then where their body is in relation to the world around them,kids are masters of colliding ,accidents happen in these situations and a lot of adults have no regard for a childs right to space and a lot of anger if the child accidentally invades theirs. Its sometimes quicker to grab your kids arm and move them away from a potential collision or a strangers aggression than it is to get their attention and tell them to open their eyes and look where they're going,which in some cases would cause the very collision you were trying to avoid.

I'm a fulltime powerchair user now and I still think yanking a drifting kid away from a wheelchair is fine. It doesnt make them scared of wheelchairs unless its the only time the parent has ever grabbed their arm,and while physical communication may not be a parenting technique you approve of its a common one and it isnt, in itself, a bad or scary thing.

Erin, the woman in your locker room knows that she looks like a boy,knows that kids will point that out in her earshot and knows that mothers will be mortified and lost for words, so dont sweat it. I've been on both sides of that sort of situation and its far less embarrassing to be the one the child is talking about than to be the mum trying to think up a good in-the-moment answer. I once had a similar situation with a little girl I was minding and a boyish looking woman where the child declared loudly "thats not a lady I think thats a man". I had a moment of pride when the response that came to me was " why, do you think all ladys have long hair like you do?" but that was instantly crushed when the little girl scornfully,and loudly with pointing to make her point clear, answered "of course not. But look,hes got no bazookas!!".

If youve got a kid that does that kind of thing a lot though it can help to have a neutral code-answer (like "auntie alis coming for tea later") that lets them know they need to shut up now please, because that helps them learn social etiquette without embarassing anyone further. And you can do the educating talk part later when youre out of the situation and can think rather than react.

And with disabilitys and wheelchairs its fine to answer "I dont know and its not really any of our business is it" ,because its not. And if they learn that as kids it might stop them thinking they have the right to expect an answer from a wheelchair person when theyre adults. Teaching about diversity and difference should be part of everyday life so its fine to shut down questions like this that you cant possibly know the answer to.

Mary said...

Anon, I don't think that it's ever necessary to grab and yank a kid's arm unless there is some very real danger. Gently guiding them away or calling them over, are options. Because I was an abused child, I was determined that my touch would always be gentle. I didn't spank or yank and I've now got two wonderful loving boys who know how to be gentle.

Anonymous said...

Mary I'm glad your way worked for you. In my world though theres a huge difference between abuse and physical communication.I explained why calling the child isnt always an option and my spatially unaware child had enough collisions for the situations I'm talking about to count as "very real danger" in those moments. I never spanked either, thats punishment not communication, and I too raised a loving,gentle son.