How I’d Like You to Treat My Son


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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30 Responses

  1. Avatar Miss Mary says:

    I wonder if I would behave in what might be precieved by some as inappropriate since I’m an advocate in the field. People with disabilities are just people. I tend to treat them like everyone else. If I’m having a good day and I’m standing in line next to you and James, I’ll probably be friendly. If I’m having a bad day, I will look at people in the same line, but I won’t chat with them. Although, he’s got the whole cute kid thing going, and I have a son around his age, so I’ll probably look longer and smile. Can you tell someone’s intent behind their aloofness? There is a fine line between treating someone like a person and doing something out of pity. I see it all the time when I’m with someone I support. I tend to assume that the public gets that people are people, there are some real knuckleheads, but I don’t read too much in to short interactions in public. Am I naive, hyposensitive, overly optimistic??? Do I assume too much?Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      No, i don’t mean everyone has to come over and say hi. I meant in a situation when you normally would interact. Party, etc. I do find that people chat on grocery lines more if I’ve got one of my other kids with me, but that’s not really what I’m talking about.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

        To be more clear, I’m talking about situations where you might normally socialize (e.g., playground, waiter/waitress). The pretending-not-to-see thing is totally different from being in one’s own world.Report

  2. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Thank you, Rose.

    Depending on the circumstances, I might be the sort of person who says nothing, or might be the sort who says a lot. If we’re in line at the grocery store, I’m very much of the, “I’ll go about my business and you go about yours,” mindset. If eye contact is made, I’d give a friendly smile. And should James (or you) initiate conversation/interaction, I would respond in kind. However, I would be unlikely to initiate with either of your because in such circumstances I’d be unlikely to initiate with everyone. Just not my style.

    Now, at a social gathering, I’d be much more likely to engage. I’m big on that. The extrovert comes out. And when kids are around, given that I spent most of my days hanging out with 4- and 5-year-olds, I’d like to connect with the little guy. I may flub it, not being fully aware of his needs*, but I’d try, and hopefully work through the flubs.

    All in all, I think we’d all be better served to be more open and honest with one another. The mantra of “Don’t look, don’t stare, don’t ask, don’t say anything,” that we beat into kids is very harmful, if you ask me. It is the “safe route”, but what is gained by being safe? Sure, looking, asking, and saying something may lead us to step into it, but if we are genuine in our efforts, most people will see that as such and appreciate the effort more than they are bothered by the gaffe. So, again, great piece, one I very much appreciate you having written.

    * This assumes I didn’t know you or him, were I a complete stranger.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      “Don’t look, don’t stare, don’t ask, don’t say anything,”

      Last week on my poverty post, I mentioned this sort of situation with a kid asking about a man in a wheelchair.

      I think it probably is necessary for there to be some instruction. Stop, stare, point, and ask a question loudly is probably not the best way to proceed, but neither is freezing up.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        The goal should be showing basic respect. Asking about asking, for instance. “Can I ask about your wheelchair?” is better than, “Why can’t you walk?”

        Kids tend to look/stare/ask because they are curious. If you were walking down the street and happened upon a horse — something out of the ordinary — we would applaud a young child noticing and asking. We’d appreciate their curiosity. Yet when they apply the exact same type of thinking to people — or certain types of people — we get all squishy, usually because it exposes our own adult anxieties. Anxieties that arise from what was beat into our heads when we were children*.

        So, teaching children (and eventually adults) to be respectful in their interactions as a general rule should be the goal. Most people will forgive transgressions if they seem to be honest errors.

        * You see the same thing around race. If a kid says, “That dog is brown like a chocolate bar,” we say, “Great observation!” If a kid is playing with blocks and puts all the green ones here and the red ones there, we say, “You sorted!” But if a kid looks at a black man and says, “That man is brown like a chocolate bar,” we say, “No, no, nooooo…. shhhhhh!” If he is playing with action figures and puts the brown ones here and the white ones there, we say, “That’s not how we play!” Admittedly, people are not blocks and shouldn’t be treated as such. But children are not burdened with the same luggage around these issues and shouldn’t be chastised for displaying the exact cognitive processes we want them to display.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        It’s probably not the best thing to do, but it’s a kid thing to do.
        Kids don’t need to not be kids all the time.

        When someone’s got something physically wrong with them,
        everyone’s generally got questions about it. We train each
        other to keep them to ourselves. But… I’m not so sure that’s
        a good idea.Report

  3. Avatar Darwy says:

    I’ll admit I’ve pulled my son to the side more than once – but to remind him that he has to be careful with other kids (neurotypical and/or abled or not.) I don’t whisper – I tell him plainly – “M – remember you have to be careful (or gentle) with other kids. They’re not all as big as you, nor as strong as you.”

    My son is big for his age. He’s not quite 5 1/2, but he’s over 48 inches tall and about 60 pounds. He’s already in a youth size 1 shoe, and his bicycle helmet is an adult small. He doesn’t know his own strength and he could very easily injure another child with his boisterousness – especially in something like a moon walk. I can just see him bounce, bounce, bouncing over someone and giving them a cracked rib.

    As far as the ‘introduce yourself’ part – I’ve done that – and been told, “Duh – does he look like he can talk to you?” by the child’s caregiver (I sincerely hope it wasn’t his mother.) I did get a smile from him, at least.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      About the introducing yourself: Oh my God, that is so horrible it’s almost hilarious except someone actually has that mother/caregiver.

      I totally regret writing this now. It was late, I was annoyed at the party I went to. It wasn’t drunk-blogging, since I didn’t drink.

      I recognize some parents are trying to get their kids to be gentler – I have no problem with that, and usually say (as I did above) that he’s tougher than they think. (I mean, I was right next to him, and would have been able to block a projectile child anyway.) But I wish parents would not discourage kids from asking questions.

      And what I would have done before I had James is felt uncomfortable, pretended not to notice, be terrified of saying something offensive, and warning my kids to watch what they say.Report

      • Avatar Darwy says:

        I never discourage my son from asking questions – it’s how he learns. Sometimes the way he phrases the question could be… less than optimal – but hey, he’s 5.

        He’s not Emily Post.

        He saw an older gentleman in a wheelchair at the zoo and went up to him and said, “Hi, I’m M. Did a shark eat your legs?”

        I was the recipient of the ‘hairy eyeball’, to say the least.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

        Darwy, once my older son (then age 4) saw a guy in a motorized wheelchair. James at that point still used a regular stroller. My son was staring at him. I was thinking no…noo…please…don’t….oh God, here it comes. Son asked, thankfully not too loud, “Why is that guy so fat?”

        We live in a very ethnically diverse neighborhood. His school is maybe 25% white. So this one came out of the blue. He asked me loudly about a dark-skinned man working at Whole Foods, “How did he get to be so black?” Of course the guy heard. I just answered “He was born that way.” Luckily, the guy thought it was hilarious.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

        And I love that his inference to best explanation was a shark…Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        his inference to best explanation was a shark

        When my son was somewhere in the range of 3, he noticed the cracks in the asphalt parking lot we were in, and asked how they’d happened. I explained that the sun made the asphalt hot, and it swelled and grew; then at night or in the winter when it got cold, the asphalt shrank and got smaller, and that this was how the cracks got there.

        He looked thoughtful for a minute, then said, “Maybe squirrels did it.”

        Which is of course now my default explanation for any phenomenon not easily explained.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        “Luckily, the guy thought it was hilarious.”

        My experience tells me that the vast majority of people do find such interactions with children hilarious, or otherwise innocuous.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    A question of good manners, here…

    Put me in a situation with other people’s children, I will always first interact with the parent or caregiver before I spoke to their child, particularly a special needs child. It’s always seemed a bit creepy to speak to someone else’s child without some sort of prior interaction with the parent, getting that crucial little bit of assent.

    It’s at that moment of dialogue with the parent where things get a bit awkward for me. I mean, I wouldn’t ask for your son’s diagnosis — that would be prying. Could it be people aren’t quite sure how to start up that bridging conversation with you? A kid, well, nobody with good manners talks to a child without establishing a bridge to the parent, first…. how would such a bridge be built?Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      I am absolutely certain that they don’t know what to say to me. I have never thought that most people are hostile. Just uncomfortable. Some almost certainly want to say something, but don’t know what to say. I guess what I’m saying above is I’d rather people say the wrong thing rather than nothing. It is, to put it simply, an unpleasant fact knowing that the presence of your family makes people uncomfortable.

      Not only is it awkward for you to ask my son’s diagnosis, it’s awkward for me to tell it to you, even if you might be interested. It might be an unwelcome overshare.

      So some families won’t want you to say anything. I like it when people do. I think starting with the parent is fine. As I suggest, asking how old he is, where he goes to school, do I like his school. Whatever.

      And I think I was misconstrued. I don’t expect everyone to just walk over and say hello. But people don’t say hello when they really ought to say hello. FOr example, there was a nurse recently who gave him an exam without saying a word. One of my son’s friends moms came to pick up her son. I opened the door carrying James. We carried on a conversation for a couple of minutes. She didn’t say hello. The person at the shoe store who fits his shoes. Etc.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        wow, that sounds… tremendously horrifying.
        treating a kid like he’s not even there, not human at least.

        Man, people (well,at least me) greet dogs, half the time!
        To not greet a kid… wow.Report

  5. Avatar Damon says:


    I’ll take up the mantle of speaking for those who are not uncomfortable speaking just to special needs kids, but are uncomfortable speaking to kids in general.

    I don’t have any kids and most folk that I know have older kids. I generally don’t react well to kids. They are unpredictable, below my sight line, and easily stepped on. They are the center of a small vortex of chaos and loud noise that encompasses their parents past the point of distraction, which I find disconcerting. And the parents all seem to only want to talk about one thing, their kids. I’m not interested in listening to potty stories or what have you, I want to have a conversation. Me listening to you (the parent) isn’t a conversation. At neighborhood parties I’ve attended in the past, all I heard were stories about the kids. Steering the convo to good restaurants in the area resulted in names of places that were good “for the kids”. Sigh. Additionally I try to avoid being alone or isolated with kids because of the pedo paranoia about and will usually only interact with ones I know well (my niece and nephew) or are with their parents.

    If I have to interact with a kid, it’s usually from noticing them staring up at me for a period of time and it seems like someone will have to break the ice. So I’ll wave. For babies, who I most often meet in a line, and who always seem enamored of me, I’ll usually smile or grin or make a funny face, but that’s about all the effort I can muster. So it’s not necessarily that people like me are uncertain how to proceed around your child, it’s that we preferReport

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      Vey iz mir. You are not who I am talking about, although I appreciate your taking the time to take up the mantle. I don’t expect non-kid-folk to interact with any of us, at all. The soft bigotry of low expectations….

      No really, I do not expect strangers to come up and say hi. If you happen to see us, a polite smile is better than dear-God-I-don’t-see-them. I’m talking about people and situations where people do normally interact with children (wait-folk, kids’ birthday parties, etc.)

      When I say something about this, people often say I’m mistaken, etc. etc. honestly, I tend to think I’m on the low-sensitivity side for insult. See dishwasher guy. And I have two other kids with whom I often go out into the world without James. So I am aware how the world generally behaves to children out on the town.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        Yes, I understand that my response was not directly on point to you topic, but I used it as an example to show that there is a contingent of folks that could appear to be behaving in ways you described above and yet something entirely different is going on with them.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

        @damon I always try to remember that may be the case, in this and every other area.Report

    • @damon

      I’d say you sound like a self-absorbed jerk. However, since your approach to children is almost exactly the same as mine, I shouldn’t cast the first stone.

      I do wonder wonder whether we’re right or if we (i.e., you and I and like-minded people) need to grow more patient or tolerant of children. I say that as an abstract proposition, because deep down, I don’t see myself changing much. But I think on some level, not changing means coming to terms with the proposition that I too am a self-absorbed jerk.

      I hope it’s clear I don’t mean this as a criticism of you, or at least I don’t mean this as any more a criticism of you than I mean it as a criticism of myself.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

        @pierre-corneille @damon Actually, my oldest had an interaction with one of your kind recently. Not mean, just clearly wanted nothing to do with children. We explained to my son that some adults don’t feel comfortable around children. He thought it was a bit odd, since they were once children, but then it seemed to make perfect sense to him.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        I feel you Pierre.

        And it wasn’t taken as an insult. I am more self absorbed than perhaps others. Those that I deem important to me are my world however and I’d gladly make sacrifices for them. Others, not so much.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I don’t think being uncomfortable or unfond of children makes someone a jerk. Or anything worthy of criticism. Different strokes for different folks. Children aren’t just little adults. They are humans, undoubtedly, and people, but people of a very different type than the sort most of us interact with on a regular basis. So, I wouldn’t say anything ill of @damon or @pierre-corneille because of their preferences on this matter.

        Regarding all the kid talk, I am just the second of my various crews of friends to have a kid (the total now stands at 3 with one expecting). However, many social situations result in only myself and Zazzy being parents, sometimes with the lil’one in tow. It leads to people talking endlessly about him. I often feel as if I have to steer the conversation away. “Just because there is an infant on my lap doesn’t mean we can only talk about him!” I know some people are just genuinely interested in something a bit foreign to them, but some seem to feel obligated. Not necessary. Asking how he’s doing and how we’re doing is sufficient to meet any and all obligations.Report

      • @kazzy

        Truth be told, I don’t think it’s too much for my parent friends or coworkers to ask me to listen to their stories about their children. I realize people’s children are important to them, and they tend to listen to me whenever I talk about things important to me. (Also, I really like Rose’s posts, including the ones on child rearing and special needs children.) All things in moderation, of course.

        Also, thanks for not judging. I am still a little bothered about my attitude toward children. And I sincerely believe I can’t completely avoid the charge of selfishness that my attitude might elicit. So I don’t know how much of my attitude is a decision and how much it’s a matter of temperament over which I have little control. (This attitude, by the way, is something my wife and I share and are on the same page about.)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I think moderation is the key… whether the topic is children, one’s new fregan lifestyle, or cats, we should make room to share in the stories of each other’s passion, but not feel so consumed by them that true dialogue is stifled.

        As for your feelings on children, how much contact have you had with them? Very early in my teaching career, I was very uncomfortable around people with special needs. This was largely borne out of a lack of experience and familiarity and therefor discomfort about how to act. Having gotten to know a range of people, children and adults, of varying needs, this is long gone. Similarly, I am still uncomfortable around the elderly as, again, I have limited experience there and fear “doing something wrong”. It is not a paralyzing discomfort… I generally get along just fine when the situation calls for it, but their is an initial response at the proposition that still remains.

        I also wonder how much of your discomfort is with the children themselves and how much is with the parents. What I mean by this is that most children, when properly situated, can be quite fun to be around. Sure, there are more difficult stages and more obnoxious stages*, but by and large, the real experience is often different than what we assume it to be like. When it tends to go wrong or fulfill those poor expectations, it is usually because the children are not well situated, which usually (not always) falls back on the parents. Some of which is to be expected: parenting ain’t easy.Report

      • I haven’t had a huge number of interactions with children. I have several nieces and nephews, and because I was born relatively late compared to my siblings, I interacted with them when I was still very young. I had a reputation in my family for being very good with children. But it got very hard, because I really wasn’t all that good, especially when it came to setting boundaries (I thought I needed to do whatever the kid wanted to do in order to keep up my “good with kids” reputation), and it became a huge expectation on me that I didn’t want to bear.

        Therefore, when I was about 13 or 14, I decided that I couldn’t handle dealing with nieces and nephews (and children of friends of family) any more, and I started to mentally check out and not engage them. I don’t remember exactly when I decided it, but I do remember that it was more or less a conscious decision.

        I’m also pretty sensitive to loud sounds and other forms of what can be called “overstimulation.” I really cannot go to concerts, for example, and when I hear sirens or cars honking, especially for any sustained period of time, I sometimes get really upset and want to escape. (It’s hard in a city like Chicago, where honking a car horn seems as natural as breathing, and where because the traffic is so congested, it takes siren-screaming ambulances a very long time to go a very short distance.) This is all relevant to my responses to children, who through no fault of their own, tend to be loud and demanding. I think part of this is just the way I am, but I also think it’s an attitude I indulge. Perhaps if I tried, I could tolerate it more. But I haven’t been willing to make the effort.

        Also (and perhaps this is oversharing), my father had a very hard time controlling his temper, and I think part of it had to do with the fact that he had 6 children and tended to become overstimulated like I do. (He never beat us, but he could get very, very angry for seemingly arbitrary reasons, and was very scary when he did.) I don’t really have a desire to put myself through that, and I think it would be unconscionable if I had children and put them through that, too.

        Some of my attitude is probably attributable to the way some parents I know seem unable or unwilling to control their children. However, I imagine that framing it as an issue of “control” is probably not the right way to frame it. Children, I realize, are people with their own will and cannot be (and perhaps ought not be) “controlled.” And although my wife and I, when we’re along, might complain about how parents “control” (or don’t ) their children, deep down I realize that it’s not for me to judge.

        Wow. I’ve written a lot. If you eve catch me complaining about people talking about themselves, please refer me back to this comment.Report

    • Avatar Reformed Republican says:

      I have a kid. I still have no idea how to act around other people’s kids. I somehow managed to do alright with mine, but I get super awkward when interacting with others.

      Then again, I get super awkward when interacting with adults as well.Report

  6. By the way, @rose-woodhouse , I know I commented on the “not being comfortable with children” subthread/tangent, but I thought I’d say that the reason I commented on that and not on your main post is that I find your OP very well-put and useful for me to keep in mind in the future. Therefore, I didn’t really have anything to say about it, while I had something to say about the sub-thread. So yes, good post!Report