At Trader Joe’s the other day, in a not-so-hushed tone, my daughter asked why a woman shopping the store with a cart had no leg. She pointed at the woman and made it clear what she was questioning.
Feeling uncomfortable, I immediately said, “Please don’t point or make her feel different. We are all different and that’s what make us all so special.”
Ashley looked at me, her wide eyes blinking and totally focused amid the busy hustle during a noontime San Carlos Trader Joe’s run.
“But, what happened to her leg,” she persisted, clearly not satisfied with my answer. I tried to direct Ashley’s attention to something else. I had her run little shopping errands. She made a few quick dashes around the store in her mini cart for milk, granola and pears. But during that shop, I could not have chosen a worse path to take to avoid Ashley’s focus on this nice woman with a huge smile, great hair and a cart loaded with colorful organic fruits and vegetables. She wore shorts and had a red metal prosthetic, one with a trendy Nike athletic shoe on her foot.
This woman’s leg didn’t alter her course at all. But my probing 5-year-old could not understand it. And on the flip side, I was apparently having trouble understanding why my daughter couldn’t just let it go.
I felt myself getting frustrated with Ashley’s staring, even shushing her when she asked another question. I realized at that point that my frustration had nothing to do with finding appropriate answers to her questions, but rather the impact my daughter’s stares and inquisitions might have on this kind woman. We all know we’re different in many ways, some more obvious than others, but does it have to be thrown in your face every time you run to the market?
It’s something that anyone with a child has gone through at some point. With each of my children, once they hit toddlerhood, I was forced to awkwardly answer random and inadvertently hurtful questions or comments about someone who’s fat or abnormally short or has a burn on their face or uses a wheelchair to move around. The questions were always in public, loud and caused me to blush in humiliation.
Each time, I tried to focus on the positive, using a similarly phrased answer as the one I tried to satisfy my daughter with that day at Trader Joe’s. And in the midst of toddlerhood, I could have merely answered something random, “The ducks fly at midnight,” and my crazy toddler might have begun quacking and waddling the rest of the grocery visit. Just becoming aware of their surroundings, at that point my toddlers needed to voice their observations; at Trader Joe’s that day, my 5-year-old needed an answer with some logic and reason.
Ashley finally asked at the checkout line why I was visibly irritated by her questions. I realized that at 5 years old and nearing first grade in the fall, the answers to my questions need to be more appropriate and with more depth to be useful to her.
We got into the car opened up a bag of chocolate-covered cherries and I told Ashley about how an accident, a disease or an injury can cause someone to lose his or her leg. I told her that the red metal she saw coming from this lady’s leg was called a prosthetic leg, and it served as an artificial extension that replaced her missing body part.
Ashley’s face went pale and her expression grew sullen. I think she would have chosen the ducky answer if she had to choose between the alternatives.
I told her that mommy wasn’t upset by her questions but didn’t want to make this woman feel sad because someone else was watching her, making her feel even more different.
I tried to send the message that I earlier tried to pacify her with. I told her that the woman uses a prosthetic leg to move around in the world but that leg is only a small part of who she really is. I highlighted that people are more alike than different and that if we all looked alike in color, ability or age, that the world would be boring.
She took a minute to describe a few people we know that have features or abilities different from ours, showing me that she understood the message. It all depends on the messages they're hearing and behaviors they’re observing.