There are big conversations that all parents, at one point or another, have to have with their children. Sometimes uncomfortable, perhaps scary, yet always necessary, these are conversations that help shape our children’s worldviews and demonstrate that we are here as both a sounding board and a source of information.
The fact that these conversations are made more complicated when you’re the parent of a child with complex challenges does not make them less necessary.
On the contrary, talking to your child with complex challenges about large societal and life issues becomes even more critical, as these children are often susceptible to what Dr. Robert Brooks calls “The Unholy Trinity” – rigid adherence to a belief, fear of difference, and defensive aggression.” (Or, as Dr. Ross Greene describes, “Children with special needs are black-and-white thinkers stuck in a grey world.”)
It’s up to us as parents and educators of children with complex challenges to ensure they don’t adopt mental roadblocks that can lead to serious behavior deficits — especially because the old adage is true: If you don’t talk about it with your children, someone else will. Today, that “someone” can be YouTube, a podcast, television, or a schoolmate. Trust us, these big conversations are better held in the home rather than over a streaming service.
One of the most pressing “big conversations” critical to today’s children is talking about diversity.
What is the best way to provide context to this very complex topic? When you’re the parent of a child with special needs, starting this conversation can seem daunting, so start simple.
Try these five ways to talk to your child with complex challenges about diversity:
#1: Just Start
I mean, today. Right after you read this, just get going. Sit down with your child and ask, “Do you know what diversity means?” And just begin the conversation. Ask them what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard, what their friends say about the topic. As you get started, any uncomfortable feelings will diminish.
#2: Work within your child’s abilities.
Watch your language — and by that, I mean make sure your child can understand you. Keep big topics simple by talking about how important it is to accept and appreciate others, be kind to people, and how all kinds of differences are what make the world an interesting and happy place.
#3: Use praise.
As I have written before, the single best way to influence children with special needs is to praise their positive behaviors. Catch them being responsible, kind, or empathetic. Say specific things, such as “That is wonderful how you helped that boy in the wheelchair reach the counter,” or “It was so nice that you said ‘thank you’ to the check-out lady.” Praise is simple and highly effective, yet it’s something we often overlook.
#4: Be a role model.
In the book “Tenacity in Children: Nurturing the Seven Instincts for Lifetime Success”, Dr. Robert Brooks asks, “What do my children observe me saying and doing on a regular basis that models compassion toward others?” This is not a rhetorical question. Write down the answers, and then do more of them. Be a model of compassion, and talk to your child about what you are doing that is compassionate and why.
#5: Focus on commonalities while celebrating differences.
We do a good amount of diversity training here at The Quaker School at Horsham, and one recent workshop run by diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist Denis Okema was truly wonderful.
Mr. Okema had TQS faculty and staff write our favorite traditions on a piece of paper and then read them to each other. One person in the group described a soup that mothers in their family prepare for their adult daughters after the daughters give birth. I described how I host a Friendsgiving every year and how the tradition has grown to more than 40 people. What did these two beautiful traditions have in common? We had love, togetherness, care, food and so much more.
Help your child with special needs understand how they are like others who may not look, talk, behave, or dress like them. Point out as simply as you can what they have in common with others while celebrating the differences.
#6: Go back to #1.
You can’t, however, have any of these meaningful conversations unless you get started. So begin the conversation, continue the conversation, and show your children that you are here for all the big conversations to come.
Want more help guiding this big conversation on diversity? Turn to the experts!
There are many individuals and organizations who are doing the hard work of teaching diversity education to people and families. You can find some of them here:
PBS Kids has curated a wonderful library of resources and children’s books
Chicago Children’s Museum lists helpful, conversation-starting articles and resources
The National Association for the Education of Young Children has many resources for diverse families
A Mighty Girl offers a deep collection of books, toys, and movies on social issues