When Lamoni was fixin’ to get a new foot a few months ago, we started the usual “fabric search”. We were scanning the Internet for a small amount of cool, fun, amazing fabric that his prosthetic guy would use to cover the carbon fiber socket of his new leg. (Technology is so amazing!) Why search the Internet you may ask? Because we live in a small, middle-of-nowhere town, and Walmart’s fabric section can be somewhat lacking in “coolness”.
Lamoni narrowed his search down to two fabric patterns: sharks, with blood in their teeth, and a SpongeBob SquarePants pattern. We couldn’t choose, so we ordered both! When he returned from his prosthetic appointment in the city I asked him what fabric he chose to leave with them. He replied, “The SpongeBob one.” I asked him why he chose that fabric and he answered, “For the kids.” Now, as much as I knew he meant it was for our kids, I also knew it was for ALL kids.
Kids stare. Heck, even some adults stare. And that is totally normal. When they see someone, or something that is “different” than what they are accustomed to they will stare out of curiosity. That’s usually what it is – just plain curiosity. There is no harm in that.
When Lamoni and I were first married I noticed the stares a lot. When we would walk the mall, I would notice the extra attention he would bring. This never bothered me, but I did find it curious. It was something I never thought of before. I mentioned the “extra attention” to Lamoni and he just shrugged and almost laughed with a half-smile, “I don’t notice it anymore.” He had grown up being the “different” one and he was no stranger to stares. It doesn’t bother him, and after so many years it just slips through his filter and is a normal part of life.
I will tell you this: When a child stares or points with an exclamation of “Look Mommy!”, the situation only gets awkward when the adult tries their hardest to “shush” the child, tells them to not stare, or tries to ignore the whole “embarrassing” encounter. We have an idea . . .teach the children that it’s okay to be curious about something that seems different. It’s okay to ask questions. Knowledge will eliminate any fear of the new and unknown to the child. Yes, I understand that most adults are worried about the child’s “manners” but shushing the child and telling them not to stare can plant a small seed of fear, fear of the different and unknown. If they point and exclaim “Look Mommy!” gently acknowledge the new discovery and explain that people are all different and different is okay. It’s as simple as that! No need to go deep into a discussion on differences and shapes, sizes, yadda yadda. Simply have a small conversation with your child about the situation they are pointing to and move on. (Unless you are fortunate enough to stop and have a chat with the “different” person. What a great experience for your child!) Don’t try to hush your child and push away/ignore the whole encounter – this only teaches your child that “different” is bad and not to be talked about. It all comes down to being an example to the children.
Now I’m not saying that you should take your child and approach every amputee (or handicapped person) and ask them about their life and experiences. I cannot speak for every amputee and not all are ready to share their story. The best advice is to pay attention to their body language; you will be able to tell if they want to share their story and ease the child’s curiosity.
Lamoni loves to talk to kids. If we have time and he sees that the child is willing and interested, he will answer any questions that are asked and he might even take his foot off and let the child touch the prosthetic foot. Now reading body language goes both ways because Lamoni will only go as far as he senses the child is comfortable with.
The child’s smile and amazement that this “man with a SpongeBob foot” is normal, not scary, and can do everything they can do is a great reward to witness. Just for fun, Lamoni will sometimes tell the child that a shark bit off his foot while he was surfing. A quick back-story: when I met Lamoni, he was a bushy-blond Southern Oregonian who surfed the California/Oregon coast, so this story is very believable. (But not true of course!) When he laughs and tells them that the real story of how he lost his foot was because of a faulty lawnmower, I tell you almost every time the mother (Yes, it’s always the mother) gets huge eyes and enthusiastically points to Lamoni’s leg and says, “See! See! I told you kids, this is why you should never play outside when so-and-so is mowing the lawn!” *Sigh* If only we had a dollar every time this was said. The mother’s rant quickly turns Lamoni into the poster boy of why the kids should not play around lawnmowers. But again, he is used to this. Then the mother will usually ask if he uses riding lawnmowers himself. Almost expecting him to say “No I don’t use them, didn’t you just see how dangerous they can be?”. Instead he surprises them with this comment, “Yep I sure do! I even started a lawn care business once. It was great!”
Why not work on the cycle of “good manners” and of hushing the curious child. Lamoni hopes to “break the ice” with children and help them not to be afraid of something, or someone, different. So, with his SpongeBob foot on Lamoni knows that the kids are going to stare . . . might as well make them smile.