Our mission at Therapies in a Pod is to empower parents, children and families in this journey we call Life. Many parents express concern about how to talk with their child about his or her limb difference. In reviewing information available to families, we came across many comments along the lines of, “I wish someone had told me how to have this discussion with my child,” and “No one ever talked to us about how to support our child in talking to others about his limb difference. What do I tell him about people staring?”
Understandably, parents often have strong emotions as they approach this subject: fear of how others will treat their child (either intentionally or through ignorance); protectiveness and worry that their child will feel hurt, sad or isolated from others; guilt for so many reasons. Parents want to give messages of strength and capability to their child, but understand they may face social stigma through questions, staring and even outright rudeness or cruelty. We often get tangled up in emotions. The question is how to find the balance of being realistic about how others may respond to physical differences, while giving a child the mindset and tools to feel confident when they face those situations.
As parents, our most important job is to prepare our child for the Real World. In that world our children find both good and bad: kindness, cruelty, generosity, prejudice, love, hate, fear and joy. A child’s physical appearance is just one part of the whole person. It’s our job as parents to nurture that whole – the strengths (love, patience, courage, resilience) that enable them to meet and overcome challenges. One of the qualities that makes Daisy remarkable is her spirit – her spunkiness and determination. Your child’s spirit is also unique. It may be the spirit of an athlete(such as Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott, rockclimber Hugh Herr or mixed martial artist “Notorious” Nick Newell) , a performer (X-Factor finalist Rion Paige, athlete/actress/model Aimee Mullins or Miss Iowa 2013 Nicole Kelly) or motivational speaker /author (Ryan Haack, www.livingonehanded.com or Kyle Maynard, www.kyle-maynard.com ). It’s the spirit and soul that transcend our physical beings. Yes, it’s very likely a greater challenge to achieve some goals with certain limb differences, which means accomplishments are that much more admirable and respected. The same is true for individuals with different cognitive abilities, vision and hearing differences, economic advantages (or lack of). For kids who are shy, it takes more effort to make friends. For kids who feel anger or sadness intensely, it’s more difficult to manage emotions. It’s the determination and strength of spirit that lead these individuals to rise above challenges and shine. This value and life lesson is something you can reinforce with your child throughout the years.
The following activities are designed for parents use in talking with a child about differences. However, professionals (teachers, camp counselors, therapists, physicians) may also tailor the activities to use with children individually or in groups. You may adjust the language in the activity according to your child’s age and situation.
Activity: A Gem Among Gems
Fill a small, clear jar with similarly-colored precious or semi-precious stones (clear, white or grey). Add in one blue gemstone (or any different color). Explain that in humans, our instinct is to focus on the stone that is “different.” This isn’t necessarily good or bad – noticing what’s different. It’s simply what catches our eye or stands out. And in this world, there are many things that stand out as different. With limb differences, it’s true that people will notice there is a physical difference. That’s not necessarily good or bad, it’s just noticeable. Many people are what we call “flexible” – they can take something that looks different and fit it into the “picture” they have of the world. They’ll notice the difference, accept it and move on to other things. It won’t bother them a bit. But some people have trouble accepting differences. They want things to “fit” or “make sense.” So they will continue to focus on the difference or be bothered by it. For those people, their own “difference” is on the inside instead of the outside. Their weakness is that they have trouble seeing or accepting things that are different or unique. This can be true of a person’s color, height, weight, limbs or anything that is noticeable on the outside - anything that doesn’t fit exactly with the way they think things “should” be.
Now dump all of the stones on the table or floor. Explore how at first it seemed like all of the non-blue stones were “the same,” but actually there are differences between those stones as well. Are there any two stones exactly alike? No! It’s the same with people. No two people are exactly alike. There is only one you!
Activity: The Rose in a Field of Sunflowers
Building on the themes in the above activity, draw or cut out magazine pictures of a field of daisies and one rose. (You may even choose to use a bouqet of real flowers.) Add the rose to the field of daisies. Explore how it’s instinct for the human eye to be drawn to the rose. Why? Because it stands out. But as you look at the rose, you see that it’s no better or worse than the daisies – just different. Discuss what is the same – or similar – between the rose and the daisies (they are all flowers, they all need water to grow, they are all beautiful, they all have petals, etc.) and also how the daisies are similar or different from each other. Just as there are no two stones exactly alike, there are no two flowers exactly alike either. In this world, you could be out walking in a field of daisies and come across one rose. Everyone will experience this differently. Some people will say, “Isn’t that unique? What a beautiful rose to find here among the daisies.” For those people, the rose makes the field even more special or beautiful. Others – who have trouble understanding and tolerating differences – may say, “What is that rose doing here? That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit, it doesn’t belong. How did it get here?” Their sense of balance is upset. It can help to remember that this person is trying to keep a sense of “order” in their mind. Remember, people who get upset by differences have trouble being “flexible.” How will you respond? Will you remember that you are a rose among the daisies? Being confident in yourself – your place in this world and that you do belong – in the face of someone questioning you can be hard. But you are actually helping that person to grow – to learn to accept differences. Some people will grow – just like Rosie grows and understands her friend Daisy the Chinchilla – and some people will continue to struggle. They may struggle their whole lives and that is actually a shame for them. How hard must it be to always need things to be the same? It’s something that person may struggle with – not just in relation to your limb difference but to so many things in life.
There is phrase called being a “wallflower.” It means someone who blends in so much with others, there is nothing unique, special or interesting about them to make them “stand out.” They are people who are shy, who no one notices. You are not a wallflower! Your limb difference is noticeable – people are going to look at you. No – you are not a “wallflower” – you don’t blend in. You are a rose.
In this activity, you may point out to your child that their limb difference is a fact. It’s reality. You don’t need to tiptoe around it. Embrace it, for it’s an opportunity for your child’s spirit to shine. You’re not trying to hide the difference. You wouldn’t put a hat made of white petals on a rose, to make it look like a Daisy, right? Of course not. Sometimes there may need to be accommodations for that limb difference. A rose in a garden of daisies may be tended to differently. It may need more shade; it may need a different fertilizer or different amount of water to grow; it may need a stake nearby to climb. Again, this doesn’t mean the rose is any less capable or valuable than the daisy. It’s just different.
People are curious about differences. It’s not necessarily meant to be offensive – would you be offended or ashamed when someone pointed out the rose in your garden (or the blue gem in your stones)? Why are you noticing my rose?! No. You would take pride in that rose. Yes, isn’t it wonderful? A rose among the daisies. And it makes the daisy garden that much nicer, doesn’t it? (As a parent, having this discussion with your child may be very emotional – for you and/or your child. Looking at things this way can help put things in a broader perspective, taking the emotion out of it. When your child is faced with the insensitivity of others, the greatest challenge will be to respond without letting emotions take over. This can help.)
Many people stand out because of their personality rather than physical appearance. They stand out because of what’s on the inside instead of what’s on the outside. They may be kind, funny, smart or any quality that makes others notice them. Others stand out because they have qualities that aren’t so pleasant: they may get angry easily, think they are better than others, have trouble accepting anyone different from them or are just plain mean to others. People may notice you at first because of your limb difference or physical difference. But as they get to know you, they will come to notice you for your personality. It’s up to you what qualities you want people to notice about you – to be as beautiful on the inside as the rose is on the outside.
Other Activities/Teaching Tools
You may use any other examples to illustrate differences that you think your child might be interested in or enjoy: add one penny to a roll of quarters or use a collection of white seashells and add one unique shell. Social media and the internet offer many examples of athletes, entertainers, photographers, etc. as a way of exploring how their limb difference didn’t change the spirit of their soul. If you have ideas on other ways to talk with a child about limb differences, we would love to hear from you. Please use our Contact Us email.
The greatest theme in these activities is one of Acceptance. It’s important for your child to understand that when someone has difficulty accepting a difference, it’s not just that limb difference that is a challenge for them. It’s other differences as well. Their mind simply has a tough time being flexible. It’s not personal – even though it feels so intensely personal. When something is personal, that means it’s about you – the person. But actually, the difficulty is in accepting differences. Your child can see in the above activities how the eye goes right to what’s different. But for most of us, as we continue to look at our garden (or jar of stones or collection of shells), we develop a broader view – one of appreciation for the whole scene. Your child’s outward difference may bring out the inside struggles, challenges or differences in some people. Some individuals can never come to grips with differences but there are many, many people in this world who embrace and celebrate diversity. It’s why so many people love Daisy the Chinchilla. What a boring world this would be if we were all exactly the same!