Confessions of a Special Needs Parent: Please Don’t Praise Your Kid for Playing with Mine

The following post speaks to why inclusion matters. Thank you so much to Ellen Stumbo for allowing us to share her beautifully-written post. She teaches us to be intentional about how we discuss choosing diverse playmates with our kids. Playing or interacting with people with disabilities is not community service. It’s not something we do to be nice to people who are less fortunate. It is a celebration of diversity and an opportunity to learn about people who are different in some ways, but also similar in others. What we say, and how we say it, matters. It sends a message to children. Please make sure you are sending the right message.

It happens, a kid plays with a child with a disability and the parents are proud. They want to praise that friendship, and you might hear statements like, “Oh honey, you are so wonderful!” “You are the kindest person I know!” “You are the sweetest thing!” “You have a heart of gold!” “I’m so proud of you!” 

friendship and disability

Yes, it’s true, not every child takes the time to slow down and play with kids like mine (I have a child with Down syndrome and one with cerebral palsy), I’m aware of that, so when your kid plays with mine it makes me smile. I’m so thankful for your son or daughter. And I want to encourage that friendship. I think you do, too.

But can I be honest with you? I don’t want you to feel bad here, but I hope you can see what some of those statements say to me, as the parent of a child with a disability. When you say your kid is great because he/she chose to play with mine, at that very moment, your child went from seeing just another friend, to seeing kids like mine as different. They become someone defined by their disability, as someone who is somehow flawed, and only an exceptional person plays with them or becomes their friend. I know that is not what you are trying to communicate, I know that, but unfortunately, it does.

You encourage your children to be friends with everyone and to embrace differences, thank you! Unfortunately, with statements of praise of how exceptional they are for playing with my kid, you might be communicating two things:

1. The friendship is all about your child and how wonderful they are. The friend with the disability becomes the outward display of that greatness.

2. It teaches a mentality that separates and makes those with a disability appear as less than those without disabilities. “They are the disabled, they are different, poor them, we should help them.”

Suddenly, I feel as if your child playing with mine is more about pity rather than a real friendship.

Would you praise your child like that for playing with a typically developing kid? Probably not.

Our words are so powerful. They shape our kids, their attitudes, their perceptions.

We all want to show our kids we’re proud, we want to encourage them when we see positive traits in them. But playing with a child who has a disability should not be seen as heroic or exceptional. Be proud because they see a friend first and not the disability; please help them to keep it that way. You can do that by avoiding the praise and instead asking questions about their friendship, questions that sound more like, “I saw you playing with Nichole, what were the two of you playing?” “Hey, you were making Carlos laugh, were you telling him your new knock-knock jokes?” “What was your favorite thing about playing with Micah?”

Is it okay to ever bring up the differences? If appropriate, yes! For example, your child might even ask you why my daughter, who has Down syndrome, is hard to understand when she talks. Believe me, if your kids have questions, they’ll ask! But it’s very different for a parent to say, “You are so wonderful for playing with Nina because she has cerebral palsy,” as opposed to saying, “Hey buddy, did you ask Nina if she wanted to play tag again? I noticed she was really tired and having a hard time keeping up.”

Let’s teach our kids that playing with other kids, even those with a disability, is about friendship. Genuine friendship. If you want to praise your kid for being a good friend, then praise them for the same reasons you would praise them for positive interactions with a friend of any ability.

“You are the kindest person I know, you gave Charlie your last piece of candy!”

“Oh honey, you’re so wonderful, I loved that song you were singing for Tina. You made her smile and you made me smile even bigger! Will you sing that for me again?”

“You are the sweetest thing, you know? I love how you treat all your friends with kindness.”

“You have a heart of gold. I would have been mad if my friend had laughed at me, but you just laughed it off and kept on playing.”

These are the qualities we need to be cultivating in our kids.

And follow in your child’s lead, make a new friend, maybe even someone with a disability. No, you will not be an exceptional person for doing that, you will just be a little bit richer for having a new friend.

–Written by Ellen Stumbo, edited by KIT staff.

Ellen Stumbo is the founder of Disability Matters. She is a writer and speaker who focuses on sharing the real -sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly – aspects of faith, church, disability, parenting, and adoption. Ellen’s writing has appeared on Focus on the FamilyLifeWayMomSenseNot Alone, Mamapedia and the Huffington Post.  Ellen blogs at ellenstumbo.com and you can also find her on twitter and Facebook.

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

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