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Feighan: Being kind starts with ‘Hi’ and a smile

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

The little boy took one look at my daughter, scrunched his face and walked away.

“Your sister,” he said to my son who was nearby as we all waited for the school bus to arrive, my daughter’s small hand in my own. “I can’t stand her.”

My stomach dropped and yet I was used to it. As the mother of a special needs child for almost a decade, staring comes with the territory. So does the occasional unfriendly comment. That doesn’t make it easy – or right.

Still, we’ve all been that parent — the one horrified by an unpredictable, filter-less child saying something that makes us want to crawl in a hole. My son went through a phase at 4 years old of being very aware of different body shapes. We were visiting Mackinac Island one summer when he marched up to a woman and declared, “You’re fat.”

As cringe-inducing as our children can be, their bluntness often doesn’t come from a malicious place. They’re learning to navigate this weird thing called life.

Still, it’s up to us as parents to steer them. Sometimes that’s as simple as having a conversation about people or things they’ve never encountered. After my son’s “fat” declaration, my husband and I talked to him quite a bit about how people come in all sizes, colors and shapes.

But we as parents set the lead. Our kids are watching our every move. Be kind. Teach your kids that different isn’t bad. Expose them not just to different experiences, but people. How will our children ever know how to interact in our incredibly diverse world if he or she is only around people like them?

For children or even adults unsure of how to act around someone with disabilities, start simple. Start with “Hi” and a smile.

Without saying a word, a smile speaks volumes. It says there is no reason to be afraid. It’s a starting point, an icebreaker and a common connection. It’s amazing how quickly a simple smile or “Hi” says “It’s OK. We’re more alike than we are different.”

The reality is people with disabilities make up a significant percentage of our population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 56.7 million people — 19 percent of the population — had a disability in 2010.

My daughter, who is now 9, is blissfully unaware she’s “different.” She couldn’t care less if someone is staring. She just lives her life. If you have a problem, it’s your problem.

Still, I’ve seen the way parents sometimes scramble when their children stare at her or even make a comment. Or sometimes parents don’t scramble at all. We were at our local library recently when two young kids stared at my daughter for a solid minute before their mom looked up from her phone. But I did what I always do: I made eye contact, smiled and said “Hi.”

If we want people to be kind, then it has to start with us. We have to model the behavior we want to see in the world.

My husband and I recently visited my son’s first grade class to talk about our daughter and what’s the best way to treat people who are extra special. We talked about how we all talk without using words, how my daughter’s birthday is in October and why she wears glasses. I soon learned that at least 12 other children in the same class have October birthdays and that many of their parents wear glasses or contacts. In the end, we all shared Goldfish crackers because everyone likes Goldfish.

As for the little boy at the bus stop, I introduced him to my daughter, explaining that she’s really not that different from him. He might’ve been put off, but he’ll get used to her. Kindness has to start somewhere.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mfeighan