Sticks and Stones

June 22, 2006

The other night, I received an e-mail from my sister. Among other things, she said this:

“I have to plan for the talk I am giving Tanner’s class about Muscular Dystrophy. It came out last week that some kids are telling Tanner he is going to die soon…”

Children in my nephew’s kindergarten class are telling him that he is going to die. Which is especially disturbing – for those of you who do not know the full story about my nephew - because it is true. He has Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. His muscles are wasting away. When the muscles that are his heart and lungs give out – most likely while he is still very young – he will die.

Which is something that, as you can imagine, is handled with the utmost delicacy by his family. Tanner knows that there is a problem with his muscles. He knows that he has to see doctors all the time. He knows that he has to use leg braces, and that there is a wheelchair waiting for him. He knows that he has a very special wish because of these things. But he has not fully understood that this all means that he is going to die, and what it means that he is going to die.

Death is pretty abstract for young children. But even in kindergarten, they know that it has something to do with going away forever. They know – they worry – that it might hurt. Tanner worries. He knows that death has something to do with him. He just can’t yet understand what or why that is.

Which is why it is that these children taunting him about death is so hurtful. His proximity to death isolates him. It’s what makes him different. But unlike having red hair or an accent, it’s not something that he can embrace. The fact of death being in his future in a way that it is not for other children is a painful thing. And so, by calling him out for it, these children are hurting him. Badly.

I’m not angry at the children. They’re confused by death, and by Tanner. But they’re confused because they don’t understand, and they have not been encouraged to understand. Tanner has been excluded from the social world of children since he was diagnosed with DMD. He has never been invited to a playgroup, or to a birthday party (and in the latter case, he is always the only child in the class that is excluded.) When his mother approaches other mothers about playdates, excuses are made. The other children do not play with him. He is isolated among them because they have been taught, however unintentionally, that it is okay to isolate him.

And it’s this, I think, that has created the conditions wherein these children think that’s okay to tease him about dying. And I’m angry about that.

Maybe I’m not being fair. Kids are kids, right? But Kristen’s post today reminded me that WE shape our children. We are responsible for whether or not they are considerate and kind. For whether they pinch or punch or pull or tease. For whether they hurt other children. For whether they understand that ignoring or isolating others can be as hurtful – can be more hurtful – than any pinch.

Please, fellow parents, take the time to find out whether there is a child in your childrens’ class or group who is seen as different. Ask your child why. Ask your child whether that child is teased or bullied or just ignored. And then encourage your child to not participate.

And ask yourselves whether you do anything – however unintentionally – that teaches your child that it’s okay or acceptable to shun those who are different. Have you ever turned away from, or refused to make eye contact with, someone in a wheelchair? Someone who looks funny, or walks funny? I realize that this is a tough one: we don’t want to teach our children to embrace absolutely everybody (this is not safe), especially people that make them uncomfortable. But we should be able to teach them how to discriminate considerately. They don’t have to be friends with everybody. They can and should ignore other children who are mean to them. But shouldn’t we teach them that it is never okay to single out one child for exclusion? That difference in and of itself shouldn’t be a basis for discrimination? That being hurtful is never okay?

Maybe I’m wrong. (Am I wrong? Am I being too judgmental here?) But if I could say one thing to the parents of the children in Tanner’s class (who, I think, need the talk that my sister is going to give more than the children do) it would be this: ask yourselves what you would want and expect from other children and parents if your child were in Tanner’s shoes. And then conduct yourselves accordingly.

Golden Rule, Categorical Imperative, whatever. Do unto others. Play nice, be nice.

And teach your children to do the same.

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    hautemama June 26, 2006 at 7:12 pm

    Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. WTF is wrong with us humans?

    Sending healing vibes you way


    Nancy June 26, 2006 at 9:21 pm

    I am so sorry that Tanner is going through the pain of being taunted by the kids in his class, on top of the other pain that he’s undoubtedly going through with his illness. I do imagine the other parents are acting out of fear — the “There but for the grace of God, go I” kind of fear that scares the dickens out of us parents. But it’s unfortunate that they have such an opportunity to teach kindness and unconditional love and they’re missing the boat.

    Kudos to your sister for being so willing to go and address this with the children. Kudos to you for being able to write about it and educate so many of us (and hopefully help to get it off your chest.)

    Beanie Baby June 27, 2006 at 8:49 am

    I’m so sorry, HBM. That is a terrible situation for you and your family. You all have my deepest sympathies.

    I’m not sure if you’ve been reading Beanie Baby long enough to know, but Frances is a dwarf. I’m always nervous using that word because it conjures up such a specific mental image and it doesn’t fit Frances in the slightest because she has none of the 250 known varieties of dwarfism. She is dwarf-sized but has no other symptoms except for a slightly large head, hands and feet, low-set ears and a fontanelle that won’t close. Still, you know, I know this is coming, and I dread it. So thank you for doing your part to remind people that tolerance and respect have to be taught. I can’t tell you how much it drives me nuts to get those pitying looks from people. She is the best thing that ever happened to me and the happiest person I know, but they feel sorry for me because she is small.

    Amber July 1, 2006 at 1:28 am

    I am so, so sorry about what Tanner and your family is facing. And I am so upset at the thought that on top of everything, he has to deal with heartache, too. :(
    I wish parents would realize that parenting is about so much more than buying your kids the best toys, or clothes, or if they play soccer or not… We are raising emotional and spiritual beings, who will matter to the world around them. I wish parents would make creating good human beings, REALLY GOOD human beings, the first priority! What problems that alone would solve. I am sure I fuck up a lot of things with my kids– I am too pms-y too often, I cuss too much, I could be more patient… But I know that I have taught my son to be a kind person. And every time I see it in him, I am thankfull and proud of his loving heart. I wish he went to school with little Tanner, because he would play with him! He would.

    Sending good thoughts your way.


    Dawn July 7, 2006 at 12:00 am

    I saw the muscular dystrophy links in your sidebar so I did a search for it on your blog and it led me to this post. I am a bit familiar with the muscular dystrophy foundation because I have a neurological disorder CMT.

    Your nephew is the same age as my son. That must be really tough on him and your family.

    It is hard to say how much kids know about death and dying. My kidneys failed last September and I almost died. I think a family member said something to my son about it although I have no way of knowing for sure. But for months after I got out he was worried about me dying. I think he was traumatized some because it happened so unexpectedly.

    I also wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog. I have been reading your basement for awhile now and I sometimes read your blog here. I have been a lurker though lol. Guess not anymore!

    urban-urchin July 9, 2006 at 2:47 am

    Delurking to say I’m so sorry, my heart is aching for you all. Tanner is a beautiful boy with an amazing heart, and these kids are missing out on the honor of having a friend like Tanner.

    I truly hope that these parents can see and use the opportunity to teach their children that “it is truly better to have loved and lost then to never have loved at all.” for lack of a better way to put it.

    apostrophe s December 2, 2006 at 11:05 am

    My son is three and has Down syndrome. My biggest fear when he was born was that he would have no friends.

    I know he’s young, but he’s yet to be included in a birthday party or playdate of a ‘typical’ kid who doesn’t have Down syndrome. He goes to a regular preschool and we have had no luck yet.

    I’ll be honest and say that for every six playdates you invite over for a child who is ‘different’ – one might be reciprocated.

    It is a sad but true fact about the world today. People are terrified of anything that is different. And that sadly includes little children. ((hugs))to you and your sister. I totally understand this heartbreak.

    Iheartfashion January 26, 2009 at 10:15 am

    This is just heartbreakingly sad. And no, I don’t think you’re being judgmental enough. I would want to pound those little brats for ignoring my nephew. I can’t believe that he doesn’t get invited to birthday parties! What can the parents be thinking? Your message of inclusion, despite physical differences, is so important. My best best wishes and prayers go out to Tanner and his parents.

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