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Different, But Not Less.

April 8, 2012

It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.
~Maya Angelou

There is a conversation happening in this country that our children are picking up on. They are listening to us, and they are absorbing it, bit by sickening bit. It is an election year, and the stakes are very high. The adults align themselves with their chosen political party, and then speak of those in the opposing party with a distinct level of loathing. We cast insults to the other side, some idealogical, some just disgustingly prejudiced.

And our children are listening.

It is in a sea of sameness that we find our security. A sea washed with dogma and propaganda, telling us that we should not listen to those with ideas different than our own. Sadly, there are too many groups of supposedly Christian thinkers that criticize our fellow citizens for looking, acting, believing or thinking differently than they do. I say supposed, because Christ taught us to love on another and to leave judgement to God. These groups have it backwards – they fear and judge and condemn, all in the name of God.

And our children are listening. What are they learning? They are learning that different is less.

The other night, I took my younger girls, Joyce and Mary, to the play area at the local mall while my son was at his social skills group. Both girls happily started making their way around the play area, with Joyce’s therapist keeping a close eye on her as she practiced social skills, and not wandering off. This left me to focus on Mary. She is still very unsteady on her feet, but she loves to just pace the enclosed play area, exploring at her own speed. A little boy about her age, approached her happily. From across the small play area, I smiled.

Then he stopped and shoved her.

She fell to the ground and cried, while he stood over her laughing. I ran to her, scooped her up and walked her away from the boy, who was noticeably not being scolded by any adult. This proceeded to happen three more times, each time the shove being more direct and violent. Finally, I scolded the child myself. He looked hurt and confused, as though he thought he was supposed to be shoving Mary. A while later his mother approached me with him and his five year old sister. Apparently she had left a teenager in charge of the children while she shopped. She apologized and made both children apologize to Mary. I was confused as to why the older girl was being made to apologize, until the mother explained that the five year old had been telling the three year old to go and push that funny-looking little girl over there. I felt sick. While the mother was obviously appalled at the behavior of her children, I was left wondering how children could learn cruelty like this at such a young age.

They are learning from us. Every time we criticize someone for being different – whether it be their size, the color of their skin, their political or religious beliefs, or their disabilities – we tell our children that different is less and therefore somehow less human.

When we speak of some human beings as less valuable than others in our society, we are implying that it is somehow ethical to demean them, to bully them, to hurt them, and in some cases to murder them. The special needs community has recently been rocked by a series of murders where society somehow finds reason to forgive a parent for killing their child because of the stresses involved with raising a special needs child. (Feel free to read more on this here and here.) What about the child?

All over this country children are bullied and sometimes murdered because of the color of their skin, where they are from, the beliefs that they hold, and who they love. Society manages to forgive these acts by focusing on the victim’s differences, whether they are autistic, have a darker color of skin, are from Mexico, practice the Muslim faith, or they are gay. By focusing on the thing that makes them “different” we tell ourselves that they were somehow worth less. And this all starts when some conservative right-wing activists start talking about our president – our own president- not in terms of policies, but in terms of the color of his skin, his birthplace, and his faith. It starts when we tell people who they are allowed to love simply because their type of relationship is different than ours. It starts when we casually use the word “retarded” to describe something as worthless, useless, or stupid. When we somehow allow this type of conversation to be relevant, it doesn’t only hurt the politician, or the person we are talking about- it hurts our own children. The message trickles down. It teaches little girls on the playground that it is funny to tell her brother to go shove that disabled kid over there, because she looks different, so she is worth less.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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I am different, not less.
~Temple Grandin

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