By Macaile Hutt
I was in the self-checkout area of the grocery store the other day and I found myself between two mothers with daughters around the same age. To my left, one bored little girl, pulling at her mom’s coat and sighing deeply with each item scanned, and, to my right, a nearly identical scene with another bored child, rolling her eyes and exhaling deep, dramatic sighs as she reluctantly tagged along for all the torture that comes along with any grocery store visit when you’re a child. The only visible difference between the two girls was that one of them wore AFOs or “ankle foot orthotics,” which are supporting braces that help control the position and motion of the ankle, compensating for weakness or correcting deformities. These braces come in lots of different colors and patterns, sometimes more muted and colorless, and other times covered in rainbows or sparkles or the child’s favorite sports team.
“Psst, mom,” I heard the girl to my right whisper in a hushed but emergent tone. “What, honey?” the mother replied as she continued scanning her items. “What’s wrong with that girl’s legs?” the daughter asked. I watched from the corner of my eye as both moms froze. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife. I felt the panic in the mother to my right as she attempted to silence her daughter’s question as quickly as possible.
As a pediatric therapist, I’m super familiar with AFOs and many other physical and non-physical differences that children might present with and I’ve asked and answered countless questions about these differences throughout my career. Without thinking twice, I jumped in. “Nothing is wrong with her legs, friend, but she was born with special legs so she gets to wear special braces to help her walk. Some people are born without needing special braces, and other people are born with legs that need them. Kind of like how some people have black hair and some people have red hair, or how some people have freckles and other people don’t have any freckles at all. Nothing is wrong if someone doesn’t look or walk or talk the same as we do, they’re just different. I bet our new friend got to pick out the pattern on her braces,” I continued, as I glanced over to see the unicorns and rainbows that adorned her legs. “Do you like unicorns too?” I watched my friend to the right as her eyes widened and she began nodding her head. “I love unicorns! I even had a unicorn birthday party last year and also have unicorn pajamas and unicorn stuffed animals and…” the little girl trailed off as I gathered my bags to go.
I watched both of the mother’s eyes soften as their lips upturned with relief-filled smiles. The mother of the girl to the right mouthed “thank you” as I smiled back and exhaled a deep breath that I didn’t even realize I was holding in.
Being a parent is hard. You’re expected to feed and bathe and clothe and house these tiny humans, all the while helping to mold and nurture them to become strong, kind, brave, resilient adults. A lot of the time, children learn these skills by asking questions about things they’ve never seen, heard, or experienced. Our society has trained us that it isn’t polite to talk about other people, it isn’t kind to point or ask questions or single someone out for being different than we are. But being a pediatric therapist has taught me to live my life quite the opposite. I welcome the questions of children, and I love seeing little glimpses of the world through their eyes.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is in helping children learn how to ask questions about people who are different than we are. In helping them learn that it’s okay to ask questions and seek information or understanding when we want to learn more about something, but the way in which we ask these questions can make the difference in whether the encounter is positive or negative for the people involved.
Children are always watching, always growing, always soaking up every bit of information around them like adorable little sponges. When they ask a question such as “what’s wrong with her legs” it gives us an instant opportunity to help them rephrase their question next time by our answer alone. I always try to start by correcting the question in a gentle way, such as, “Nothing is wrong with her, but some people are born with __blank__.” Next time, we might notice this child phrases his or her question from a “why does she wear those on her legs” rather than “what’s wrong with her legs” simply by the way we’ve answered questions in the past.
I also love to bring the person being spoken about into the conversation as soon as possible, if the situation allows. If a child asks me why another kid uses a reverse facing walker or a wheelchair to get around, I might say something like, “That’s a good questions, let’s ask her. Hey friend, do you mind if we ask you why you use your special walker/wheelchair/etc.?”
Sometimes the biggest source of anxiety is found in trying to silence a question rather than answer it, but I’ve learned time and time again from both my sweet patients and their wonderful parents that asking them the question directly feels a lot better than being spoken about right next to them as though they aren’t even in the room. I encourage the children in my life to ask all sorts of questions and have considered it such an honor to help them learn how to phrase questions in a way that it doesn’t hurt the feelings of someone else. I’ve even found myself feeling braver in social situations when someone looks or acts differently than I do, and rather than ignoring or avoiding it, I allow it to become an open and gentle conversation.
It’s a natural tendency to be afraid of the unknown, and sometimes it feels better to turn our heads or shush our children when they ask questions that make us uncomfortable; but the only way to get rid of discomfort is to face the things that are making us uncomfortable head-on. The more questions we ask and the more we learn along the way, the more we will see that differences aren’t so scary when we learn about them. Just as the scary monster in the corner of our dark room becomes a mere coat rack when we turn on the light, the things that make us different and unique from one another become a lot less scary when we learn how to call them by their name and see them for exactly what they are.
Help your child see and be seen by answering all of the questions they ask with a gentle, fearless smile.
Together, we can step out of the scary unknown darkness.
Together, we will turn on the light to see all of the beautiful unicorn braces, lightning fast wheelchairs, and beautiful differences this world has to offer.
Macaile Hutt is an occupational therapist in Boise, as well as a writer and contributor for The Sensory Project. Her therapy style takes a holistic and child-directed approach, with the goal of children succeeding across multiple environments. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy from A.T. Still University and has received continuing education in Handwriting Without Tears, pediatric kinesiotaping, Interactive Metronome, and Beckman Oral Motor. She is co-owner of the company Human Code, a candle and retail company with a larger purpose of promoting kindness and generosity. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, backpacking, and traveling.