By Rachael Abrams, LCSW-C
Have you ever had one of those teachable parenting moments where you look back, minutes or years later and think to yourself, “Wow, I could have really handled that much better than I actually did?” You know, those moments where you chose to ignore a question from a child because it was easier than answering or, you made something up as opposed to offering the truth?
R.J. Palacio had one of those moments that affected her so strongly that it led her to write her New York Times best-selling novel Wonder. Palacio was in an ice cream shop with her boys, ages 3 and 10. They saw a girl with a severe facial deformity and Palacio’s 3 year old began to cry. For the sake of the girl’s feelings, Palacio whisked her children out of the store but not before she heard the mother of the girl say “I think it’s time to go.” This incident stuck with Palacio and she kept replaying the various ways she could have handled the situation, rather than ignoring it and leaving the shop. She regretted the missed opportunity to set an example for her kids.
Wonder is a book about Auggie Pullman, a 5th grader with a severe facial deformity. In the first chapter Auggie states: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Auggie has been homeschooled his entire life but his parents make the difficult decision to enroll him in a private school on the Upper West Side in New York City. The book chronicles the school year from the perspective of multiple characters including Auggie, his sister Via, friends Summer and Jack, Justin, Via’s boyfriend, Miranda, Via’s friend and Julian, the bully Auggie encounters.
Wonder is a touching and moving book that, while geared toward tweens, resonates with any adult, especially parents. Not only is the book an excellent reminder of a cardinal rule we all learned in preschool, treat others kindly and with respect, but it is an important and sometimes painful reminder that our children are always listening to us and often modeling us too. It can come as a surprise to hear your own child make a shocking statement, then wonder where it may have come from only to realize that it likely came from you. Kids pick up on everything that we say or do, even when we think they aren’t listening. Never is this more evident when the reader is horrified to learn that Julian’s terrible treatment of Auggie is rooted in his mother’s own behaviors and attitudes.
While it is essential to model the behavior we hope our children will exhibit, it is equally important to recognize teachable moments and be as prepared as possible to handle them well. I’ll never forget a time where my family was invited to brunch with new friends who have a child with autism. My children were young at the time and my friend suggested that we explain that her son’s brain “works a different way” than my own children’s brains. Not only was this an effective way to talk to my kids but it helped me to have a conversation that I knew I had to have without knowing how to have it. Sometimes we are scared to ask questions because we don’t want to be offensive. The truth is, had I proactively asked my friend for advice, she’d happily have given it to me. I wouldn’t be asking her anything she didn’t already know and simply acknowledging the situation can make all the difference in the world.
It is important to distinguish discomfort that we as adults may face from that which our children are experiencing. We may assume that because we feel a certain way, our kids are bound to feel the same way but this is not always the case. Kids are taught from an early age about differences – how it is okay to be different, to respect differences and how being different doesn’t mean you are less able, worthy or qualified. Parents can certainly reinforce this at home but giving children context through life experiences will help children understand even more. Here are a few tips for using difficult situations as teachable moments:
- If you can anticipate your child is going to be in an awkward situation, try planning ahead. For instance, if you know you’ll be at a party with someone with differing abilities, you may want to call the other child’s parent to get some guidance on how they prefer handling the situation. Sometimes it’s helpful to seek advice from a professional about what’s the best age appropriate way to explain things to your child.
- Refrain from using the word “normal.” What is normal after all? The more we can help children recognize that there are many ways to look, talk, act and feel, the easier it will be for them to understand that there isn’t necessarily a normal or right way to do these things.
- Next time you are out and you encounter someone different, instead of ignoring the situation, have an age appropriate conversation with your child. If possible, consider talking to the person, asking his/her name and introducing yourself. This will demonstrate to your child that there is nothing to be scared of and the kindness that you exhibit may be invaluable to the recipient.
R.J. Palacio still regrets that she didn’t approach the mother and her daughter in the ice cream shop. With so many teachable moments at our fingertips, look for meaningful experiences in your own life and use them to make a lasting impact for your children. I bet you won’t have to look very hard.
Join our JCS Parent Book Discussion on Wonder Tuesday, January 27th at 7pm at Barnes and Noble. Click here to for more information.
By Rachael Abrams, LCSW-C, JCS Parent Outreach Specialist