Nurturing Compassion in Your Child's World
- Judith Lavin Author of "Special Kids Need, Special Parents"
- 2002 25 Oct
It occurred to me that being asked to address nurturing compassion was actually a Divine calling. After all, what is God's work about if not accepting human frailty and nurturing compassion?
Today more than 20 million families in the United States have a child with special needs. What's more, two laws -- P.L. 99-157, passed in 1975 and P.L. 99-457, passed in 1986 -- state that children with disabilities have the right to a "free, appropriate, public education." Therefore, more children with special needs are being mainstreamed into public schools. This can present problems.
First of all, too often, those without special needs feel uncomfortable around a classmate who seems out-of-sync or different. They can translate their discomfort into ugly behaviors, such as verbally demeaning or physically hurting the individual with differences. It's our job as parents to teach our youngsters to tolerate those with limitations. Here are some specific ways we can help.
Emphasize that kids with physical or mental disabilities may appear different on the outside, but have the same feelings as everyone else. Remind them that we all have challenges, but theirs are more apparent.
Find a way to make your child feel grateful for his abilities. "It's important for the child to realize that he can and should help another who may not be as fortunate as he is," says Bonnie Senner, a licensed clinical social worker in Highland Park, Il.. "Remember that helping others is the best way to make you feel good about yourself."
It's normal for children, who are still developing emotionally, to erroneously fear a child who looks or acts different as someone who has a contagious disease. Reassure them that the condition is not harmful.
Look for attributes that the child with special needs may have. Maybe Johnny can't walk, but he can play an instrument. A good example of this is world-famous, master violinist Itzhak Perlman, who had polio at age 4 that left him unable to walk. He became a violinist. Many children with issues have wisdom and insight beyond their years that helps everyone. The key is to look for the person's strengths and point them out.
Give your child insight. Kids with special needs can behave improperly which inhibits friendships. Explain that often, kids with special needs who act out can't control their behaviors because of neurological or other problems. To further help him understand the inappropriate behavior, say that Johnny is bragging or acting angry from his own insecurities and unhappiness. The repeated and unfair rejections that Johnny has experienced throughout his life have left him feeling shaky and upset. Understanding can breed acceptance.
"Encourage your son or daughter to befriend someone with a disability," says Aileen Weiss of South Carolina, whose daughter, Vicki, was born with Sturge Weber, a rare syndrome giving Vicki physical and mental differences. "Such a friendship, promises to be most rewarding." Your child will learn about compassion, courage, perseverance and strength."
Invite a child with a disability to your home-include him or her at group events. "Even if the parents say the child can not attend the party, they feel better being included," says Hogan Hilling, a California father of three, one of whom has Angelman's Syndrome, a chromosomal disorder affecting mobility, mental and verbal skills, and the author of The Man Who Would Be Dad. "You may also invite the child with his nurse or caregiver." When the child is at your home, remember to introduce him to your other guests.
For non-ambulatory students, parents and teachers should ask classmates to wheel him or her to a destination. At Keshet, a school for those with disabilities in Northbrook, IL, well-students feel it's an honor to help a child in a wheelchair, even someone who has a temporary problem, such as, a broken leg. Remember too, to talk to the person in the wheelchair, make eye-contact with him instead of talking to the person pushing the chair or standing nearby.
In religious schools, we can also encourage respect for those who are different. One thing that Christian educators are working to change is the portrayal of Jews in curriculum, children's books and bibles so that there are no inaccuracies or misrepresentations that would in any way belittle those of the Jewish faith.
Think of the Tower of Babel tale. The story takes place before religion, as we know it, existed, and after the flood. People spoke one language and had the same belief system. They decided to build a tower to Heaven so they would become God-like and all-powerful. The underlying goal was that everyone would share their language, religion and political outlook.
God knew that the lack of diversity would make people conceited, selfish, lazy and destructive. He also knew that without differences, freedom would be crushed. So, He made everyone speak different languages and scattered them so they could not finish their tower. God told them that they would have to learn to accept and work with differences because human beings are unique.
The lesson? For me, it's that our variations in language, culture, traditions, appearance, mental and physical abilities ensure our freedom and enrich our lives. After all, it's our freedom to be different that makes us who we are.
So to truly nurture compassion, we need to remind our children of the importance of accepting all types of differences. It may not be easy, but it's crucial to making our world a kinder and a better place.
Judith Lavin and her family spent nearly 16 years struggling with and triumphing over the complex medical challenges faced by her two daughters. Lavin, author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, Berkley Books, 2001, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them.
Lavin's work has been featured in numerous publications. She and her husband live in a suburb of Chicago with their two teenage daughters. Her step daughter is married and lives in Chicago. You can visit Judy at www.specialkidsbook.com