Raising the compassionate child

Kathryn was three when her Aunt Tammie died in July, 2007. Tammie left a husband and two children, ages five and nine, that Monday morning. Kaci has no memory of her and vaguely remembers going to Texas for her funeral. When we arrived at the funeral home, Kathryn only knew she had to behave, dress pretty and be quiet. Mostly, she was excited to see her cousins again. They had yet come to the full realization of what happened or what was going to happen to them and so, the demeanor of all three kids was jovial most of the day.

Halfway through the service, however, the mood of the two older children changed drastically. Kathryn knew it too. She saw me crying on (to her) a strange man’s shoulder. She saw her big cousins curl up in their dad’s lap, crying… and then, she saw her Uncle Michael cry too. She realized it was a sad time for everyone.

Following the service, Mike and the kids piled into the limo. Kathryn and I stood by the car door and I talked some to Mike. Unprompted by anyone, Kathryn broke free from my grip and climbed into the limo. She clambered over Mike, over her big cousin Zak and directly to her cousin, Vonnie, who is 5 years older than Kathryn.

“Kathryn!” I said, “You can’t ride in the limo, baby…” but then I stopped and saw something I never expected out of my three-year-old. She stopped in front of Vonnie and gave her a big hug. And then, my child climbed back over Zak, back over Mike and out of the limo again only to return to my side and quietly grab my hand again.

My own toddler brought me to even more tears right then. Though she had no real concept of death nor did she understand that her Aunt Tammie would never rock her to sleep again, she knew that her big cousin needed a hug because she was sad.

A few weeks ago, I told Kathryn that her friend’s bike had been taken from her front yard and that R would not be able to bike with her until it was found or a replacement was purchased. Kathryn was disappointed and expressed how “mean” the thief was.

Last week at school, Kathryn was given information on a fundraiser event in which one of the prizes was a scooter. “I want to win first prize, which is a scooter,” Kathryn said with urgency, “just in case R’s was stolen along with her bike, so then I can give it to her for her birthday!”

She made me proud. Again, she put someone else before herself. She is exactly the kind of person I want her to grow to be.

Recently, we were forced to switch after-school care facilities again. On Thursday, when I picked her up, Kathryn rushed to my side because she wanted to introduce me to “her new BFF”. Kathryn introduced me to S, and I shook her hand and told S my name. It was obvious that S has some delays, however, I didn’t miss a beat and talked to S the way I would any other 4th grader. Kathryn’s excitement of having a new friend overshadowed any need to question any intellectual or developmental differences they may have. That’s not the important part in my eyes.

We never taught Kathryn that people’s differences define them. We’ve taught her that it should never matter if someone is physically or mentally disabled. They are people just like her and should be treated just like anyone else their own age.

I was born with a physical anomaly.  It impacted my ability to walk for some years and thus, some of my childhood was spent in a wheelchair. I was called names. “Retard”, “leper” and “stupid” were just a few. So, I knew what it was like to be the kid who needed the hug. I knew what it was like to be the kid who was made fun of or was avoided in school because I was different. I was the kid who had things stolen from her because she wasn’t like the rest of the kids. Though those incidents were rare, the scars left were permanent.

We never force her to befriend someone who is different than she is. We allow her to make her own decisions on who she befriends. We know that forcing someone to befriend a child with a disability will only create potential resentment between ourselves and the child or even between the two children.  Additionally, we also know that by forcing a friendship between our child and one that is disabled could potentially make the disabled child feel as though they won’t make their own friends unless another adult mediates the situation. I remember that feeling myself.

Additionally, I cannot express how often I see people treat children with physical disabilities and minor mental delays as if they are years younger than they actually are. With any child Kathryn has encountered with any kind of mental or physical disability, I’ve only given Kathryn the “important” facts, ie the child’s name and their age. That way, Kathryn treats them as an equal.

Many times, I’ve seen friends, and even relatives of children with (physical) disabilities treat their children as if they were several years younger than they actually were, which, in my own experienced eyes, makes the child feel as if they cannot accomplish as much as others their age. They become convinced they can’t and lose the “I will find a way” ambition.

To Kathryn, age and name is all that matters. If she notices something different about her interaction with that child, then I will explain the other child’s disability, but until then, it’s a non-issue. Labeling the child, I feel, would only give Kathryn the impression that their friend is different and should be treated as such.

Introducing someone AS their disability (“This is Joseph and he has Autism”) doesn’t let the child with the disability be their own person. Now, they are the disability because they were introduced as such. As someone who was sometimes introduced as “Emily Kate who has EB”, I cannot express how frustrating it is to see other parents do this when introducing their own young disabled children to others.

Today, I don’t bring up my EB unless it’s necessary. In interviews, I don’t mention that I have a disability because it won’t impact my job. I don’t want my physical issues to get in the way of who I really am. We should never allow our children to let another’s disability be the sole definition of who they are either.

Because my daughter is completely unaware that her friend L is autistic and her new friend S possibly is as well, she maintains her compassion that she’s had her entire life. She sees no disability. She sees no color. She only sees other people… people like herself.


About gespurr

Emily was born in Southwestern Louisiana and has moved over 20 times in her life through nine different states. Most of her life was spent in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where she met her husband and had her only child. Both she and her husband are also only children. She graduated from Stillwater (MN) High School in 1992 and from the University of Wisconsin in 1997 with a BS in Journalism. Three years later, she met her husband, George, and they married in 2002. Their daughter, Kathryn, was born early in 2004. She relocated with her family back to Arkansas in 2005 after being away for 30 years. She currently works as a customer service representative for an insurance company and lives in North Little Rock. When not taking care of her daughter she is either cooking, working, cleaning house, sewing, gardening, knitting, crocheting hiking, traveling or spending time with her husband.

Posted on August 26, 2013, in Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), Family & Marriage, Grief, Kathryn, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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