I have a confession to make. I judge other people’s children. All the time.
You know when you’re in the supermarket and you see some parent pushing a trolley past, piled high with rubbish, followed by their kids who are kicking off loudly about something or grabbing more stuff off the shelves? Or you don’t even see them – you can hear a child having a tantrum three aisles away? And you shudder and think ‘What terrible parents. I’ll never be like that’.
I used to be one of those superior people, judging other people’s parenting skills, or lack of them. But since Pudding was diagnosed with MPS I’ve read so much more about autism, PDA and other conditions and try to be more understanding. I know now that the child in question may be having a meltdown because of the challenges of being in an unfamiliar environment like a busy supermarket. That parent may want to get some vegetables into their daughter, but may have no option but to cater to a restricted diet (some children WILL starve rather than eat unfamiliar foods). That boy may have severe learning difficulties and be unable to keep their voice down or be compliant. Yes, of course there can be some terrible parents out there but how can we ever know what is going on with someone we encounter without actually walking in their shoes?
No, what I’m talking about now is the way other children react to Pudding. I judge them by the way that they judge him.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now – ever since witnessing a particular game of football that Pudding gate-crashed in our local playground. The reactions that he got, even from children who knew him already at school, varied really widely. Some fantastically accepting and others…not so much. The same holds true of other children we meet when out and about.
They seem to fall into distinct categories.
The Embracers – these are the children who don’t just accept Pudding and all his marvellous ways: they encourage him to join in their games and welcome him with open arms. They quickly realise that he can’t perhaps do as much as them physically or mentally, so they set the goal-posts lower (as it were) and celebrate what they have just helped him to achieve. Goal!
The Questioners – these children notice his difference and want to know more. Why won’t he talk to me? Why is he being so loud? Why is he in a buggy? The other day in a cafe a little girl asked question after question and her mother told her off for bothering us too much but I really don’t mind all the questions. Children can only learn about the world around them if we give them the information they need. And very often the Questioners end up becoming an Embracer. When we left that cafe, the girl waved goodbye to him and was rewarded with one of his brilliant smiles.
The Borderliners – although I can read Pudding like a book and know that most of the time he is approaching someone to make friends with them, some children don’t see it like that. Some, often smaller ones, find him a bit scary. He’s big. He doesn’t act the way they are used to. I understand. I usually explain that he can’t talk and he just wants to play. Some will run away crying. Some will tolerate him but not really engage. And that’s ok. It is hard to take in something new, but at least they are not being actively horrid. Unlike…
The Sneerers – can you guess, my least favourite category! These children have ‘that look’ on their face as soon as Pudding appears. Annoyingly, he seems drawn to them. On a recent trip to Yorkshire Wildlife Park, we spent some time in one of their fabulous playgrounds and Pudding approached three boys who obviously didn’t want him there. I tried to direct him away from them but he went back again and again. On the third time as he opened his arms and smiled at them with his usual ‘Ehyyyy!’ one of them wrinkled his nose and said, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ I could feel my shoulders tensing up but I still tried. I told them that he was just a little different and asked if they had not met anyone different to them before. I knew I wasn’t going to win them round though. The answer I got was a sneering ‘No’. The next time he approached, Pudding kicked one of them. Although I told him off, inside I was secretly cheering.
I’ll be honest with you: the Sneerers stay with me. After those sort of encounters I’ll play it back in my mind, invent responses I should have said to them. Wish I had told them that if their brain was being destroyed by a genetic condition they might act a bit differently too. Wonder if I could have handled it better. And it makes me sad to think that they might grow into the sort of adults who go on social media to throw vile comments at anyone who is ‘other’.
It can be a challenge going out into the world and never knowing what we will face that day. But this is how disability becomes invisible – if the pressure of everything being too difficult (whether that is lack of facilities or the attitudes of chance encounters) makes us stay at home instead then we become part of the problem. I’ve come to realise that we will always encounter the Sneerers, but if I let them get to me then the negative has won. What I should be doing is celebrating the Embracers and welcoming the Questioners. They are the good ones, the ones who can change the world for the better. They are the people that I would want to stand up for Pudding and others like him. Even the Borderliners might be brought to see the benefits of accepting difference eventually.
What sort of child do you have? And what can you do to ensure that they become an Embracer if they aren’t already?
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