We’re having a Sunday morning walk in the park. Fynn is sound asleep in her push-chair, and Rose has paused our perambulation to play on the witch’s hat. A man, enjoying the fresh air, waves hello, comes closer, puts his hand out to greet Rose. She retreats behind me, clings onto my skirt. He persists. She starts to cry. Eventually he moves away. Some time later we walk back to where our car is parked. The man happens to be coming down one of the paths. He reaches out his hand to Rose again. She bolts for the car and scrambles in, slamming the door.
The man in question is a quadriplegic, who doesn’t seem to be able to speak. He is often seen manoeuvring his electric wheelchair around this fairly large stretch of open land, interspersed with sports fields and children’s play areas. He is always accompanied by an assistant, who, a bit weirdly, never seems to talk or interact with him and hangs back about 50 meters. I have often thought he looks lonely and surmise that he has probably had a stroke. He is almost certainly not a threat to my child.
Later, when I ask Rose why she didn’t want to say hello, she said, very articulately, that he is a stranger. So, I affirmed her decision and we talked a bit about not talking to strangers and why she should be careful.
But I’m not sure. Was she freaked out by the man because he is a stranger who was insisting on touching her hand? Or was she freaked out because he is a stranger who is different? To be honest, probably a bit of both. Therein lies my dilemma; I want her to be able to avoid danger, but I don’t want her to be uncomfortable around people with disabilities.
I want my child to be relaxed around people who are different in all kinds of ways. We have explicitly chosen schools for her, from babyhood, where she is exposed to diverse groups of people, including race, religion and disability. She has had kids in her class with autism, cerebral palsy, speech impediments, visual impairment. These children are simply accepted by her and she makes no real special allowances for them, other than what is required by their disability. The little boy in her class whose leg and arm function is diminished as a result of cerebral palsy is assisted with walking and so on, but she doesn’t feel compelled to like him, has no compunction about telling me that he has been naughty.
Does this “normalizing” attitude apply to the adult man in my story? Should I expect that he read the very clear message being broadcast by my five-year-old to back off? Do I prompt him to do so? Having no idea what the full extent of his disability is, this is impossible to answer.
And what do I teach Rose about this situation? Do I encourage her to assert her distrust and run away? Or do I promote politeness and empathy and encourage her to say hello? Is she old enough to adapt her response based on the fact that I am there next to her?
We’ve discussed strangers with Rose in the past; warning her not to accept sweets from people she doesn’t know and never to go off with someone who doesn’t know the family password but it’s really not that simple. It’s all very well to talk about stranger danger, but children need to learn a whole bunch of skills to help them navigate the world of strangers. Who exactly is a stranger? When a three-year old Rose asked me this, I was stumped. Is the shop attendant whom we see every week but don’t actually know a stranger? Is the person in a police uniform whom you have never seen before in your life a stranger? And when is a stranger safe and when is a stranger a danger? It’s very difficult for small children to consider all the cues that go into making an assessment of whether or not someone is a threat.
I want Rose to develop good instincts and I want her to be able to trust them. My own compulsion to be nice is a hindrance and has many times prevented me from speaking out when I should have, or leaving a situation when I should have done so. I have never gotten into serious trouble as a result, but that is only because I have been extremely lucky. To develop good instincts, I believe she needs to encounter strangers, not totally shy away from them. She needs to practice being polite but not too engaged. She needs to work out strategies (with my help) for getting out of uncomfortable situations. She needs to learn to trust her gut.
So I have not apologized for my child’s unwillingness to greet a disabled stranger in the park. I won’t label it rudeness. I have told her that I thought as an adult he should have seen that she didn’t want to say hello and leave it at that. I have told her that she was right not to talk to strangers. And we will continue to talk about this and other situations. We’ll role play scenarios giving her time to work out her responses and talk them through with me. We’ll play games that allow her to develop her sense of personal space. We’ll chat about disability and difference and empathy. And we’ll consider any advice we can get from people who understand difference better than we do, to help us respond safely and with empathy.
Photo credit and copyright: the author