Whilst we were idly reminiscing the other day, hubby remembered when daughter, as a much younger kid, refused to hug a friend of ours. In fact, she screamed the house down at the seemingly benign request and the only reason she would give was that he was “too black”.
It was, for a brief moment, awkward. “We’re not racist…?” I thought silently to myself. OMG. Did we have some kind of subconscious heightened racial awareness in our family?
I’ve just deleted two long paragraphs analysing and justifying why she said that. Autism spectrum, sensory sensitivity, blah, blah, bleurgh, bollocks. Honestly, I don’t know. Kids say all sorts of stuff.
I do know that she didn’t mean “black” as in the learned descriptor that we apply to people whose skin falls within a range of browns and whose hair has a certain texture. A lot of adult-sized learned crappage brought the possibility of that meaning and context to mind.
I have since decided that asking your kid to kiss, cuddle or accept the same from random “uncles” and “aunties” of any size, shape, ethnicity or whatever is pretty shit parenting.
Bodily autonomy sounds very PC but I don’t see how you can effectively teach kids about ‘stranger danger’ whilst forcing them into uncomfortable contact situations. Perhaps especially true for kids on the spectrum but perhaps not, perhaps universal.
Ah well, you live and learn. We don’t do that now. We’ll still unintentionally mess her up some other way, I’m sure. And I digress…
Some people, notably some of my daughter’s teachers and the SENCO at her previous school, say that children don’t notice difference until they are older. I don’t agree.
I can say from personal experience as a rather fat person that this is completely untrue.
I can say from personal experience as the mother of a child on the autism spectrum that this is completely untrue.
Daughter regularly inadvertently makes little kids trip up because they are staring at her and “she doesn’t look autistic” so I wonder what tiny nuance they are already picking up on: her mismatched clothing or tangly hair or strained eye contact or scowl or…?
If daughter wasn’t so perfectly lovely and kind, I would teach her that this was their punishment for staring and that she was allowed to point and laugh loudly and aggressively at them whilst they wailed over a bloodied knee.
As I am not so perfectly lovely and kind, I happily gift my “No you silly billy! There’s no baby in here, just lots AND LOTS of sausages and cakes and poo poo and windy pops!” big tummy explanation to under fives whilst their Mums stand there mortified…
I can’t see how it’s complicated or far-fetched to accept that difference-spotting may historically have been an advantageous evolutionary trait, albeit not needed now.
Young kids are walking, talking, seeing, pointing, identifying, describing, cataloguing machines*. Identifying something as being like, or not like, something else is a key learning process, we all play card games like Memory and Snap.
In my opinion, anyone who has dealings with young children and maintains that they do not see difference either doesn’t really listen to children, auto-shushes them when they say something that might be deemed inappropriate, or has their own issues dealing with difference.
Cries of “Look dat!”, “What dat dere?”, “Wuffwuff!”, “Airplane!” “What is it?” punctuate the air at play parks everywhere, everything in the world from the wheelchair user to the dried out worm is up for analysis. Parents and carers follow these little open, expressive people around and add rules, meaning and conditioning to their observations… how these little difference-spotters react and behave in future is then mostly learned behaviour.
If you put the things that younger kids encounter in any one day in the context of their overall much smaller world experience, a lot of the things that they come across are “firsts”. Exposure and experience needs to accumulate before all those new and different things can be categorised into common, uncommon, rare. Normal, abnormal.
Skateboarders, cats, snow, helicopters, blind people, fire engines, mobility scooters, double decker buses, pigeons. Urban pigeons with no toes.
All rather interesting until they become everyday unremarkable.
The other cannot-breathe-did-that-really-just-happen memory from when daughter was young occurred in our local pound shop. It was just before Halloween, the shop was covered in skulls and ghosts and witches, all sorts of decorations, and spooky music was playing. I thought it was a little too real but daughter didn’t seem particularly phased…
I was engrossed in the mental maths of some kind of buy-this-get-that-free type offer vs another and I wasn’t consciously aware of the group of people who were next to us, (a group of women accompanying some very profoundly physically and intellectually disabled young adults).
Suddenly one of the lads made a loud growling and yelping sort-of noise and caught (mine and) my daughter’s attention. As she looked round, the spooky music track ended with some pretty loud scary laughter that probably didn’t help. She screamed the most ear-piercing scream, and yelled “ALIENS ALIENS!!!!!!” and completely lost it in panic.
Her exclamations were so sudden and loud that a guy stood the other side of us did the most amazing jump-in-the air-full-body-spasm, like a mix between punk pogo dancing and that super jump thing cats do when you spook them, and wiped out a massive Halloween display.
Thankfully and somewhat miraculously the group of women and disabled youths were so busy chatting they didn’t notice and had already started walking off in the other direction.
I muttered sorry at the guy (sat on the floor surrounded by trick spiders and covered in fake cobwebs), grabbed daughter and walked out. I was mortified.
True story, and shock factor to one side, on reflection it’s a perfect example of a young child’s inexperience, not prejudice, cured by teaching, not chastising. Sometimes a child’s natural response is that something is weird or not right, or maybe just generates feelings of discomfort.
Explanation and reassurance is the only way to deal with situations like this but often an adult’s own discomfort causes them to react angrily or impatiently… even the adult who genuinely believes that they don’t discriminate can do damage by suppressing a child’s natural ‘negative’ response to difference:
Don’t stare, don’t ask questions.
Do not smile or say Hi, just shut up and walk on by.
“You can’t say that, we can’t say that, we can’t think that, you don’t think that…”
Sometimes we do think that. Children won’t always initially feel comfortable with difference and we need to make sure that we tell them that’s OK.
That’s the primal caveman bit: fight, fright or flight. If they feel they need to suppress these reactions, or worse start to be ashamed of them then we do a great disservice to our kids and to all of those who aren’t quite like us.
Guidance is what stops innocence becoming ignorance. We need to be comfortable about talking about those feelings or else difference becomes difficult, wrong.
This is how prejudice is formed.
Not brick-throwing, swastika-wearing, arsonist prejudice but the more prevalent and insidious silent prejudice that can develop from awkwardness and embarrassment driven underground. Where it’s easier to ignore and avoid (and therefore, passively discriminate) than accept, include and support everyone equally.
Our first discussions about homosexuality brought out some feelings in my daughter, she felt a bit funny about it, she wasn’t sure about men kissing men or women kissing women in a “love way”. It was new to her.
I didn’t tell her she shouldn’t feel like that, she did.
I told her the simple thing that I always tell her. That all people are born different, that’s how it is. That sometimes when people are different to you, it’s something you might need to get your head round, that’s OK, as long as you never forget that everyone is fundamentally the same, we’re all human and we’re all equal.
We are born with different eye and skin colours, different neurologies and sexualities, we don’t choose these things and we don’t need to change them either.
More recently we were discussing transgenderism, at first she couldn’t even believe it. How could your brain and your body be out of sync? Then I reminded her that sometimes, in a different way, a sensory way, hers is too…
We can imagine (and sadly daughter has experienced) what it feels like when someone doesn’t accept you when you feel, well, just ‘you’.
Autistic, homosexual, Syrian… we are all born equal. We can’t always walk in each others’ shoes or truly know how someone else feels but that is not necessary.
So we talk about everything and anything. We observe others, their differences in appearance, belief or behaviour and we talk about the feelings they evoke in us, and why; and we decide how we feel and how we will behave, hopefully our conclusion is always ‘without prejudice’.
I hope that, if you’ve read this far and you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, mentor, manager, leader, and especially a politician, you can say the same.
*(OK that is ableist but you get my point)