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.