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March 3rd, 2009
01:40 PM ET

Teaching kids and adults about differences

By Andrea Kane
CNNhealth.com Producer

The other day, I stumbled across an article about Cerrie Burnell, the co-host of a British TV show for toddlers. Turns out she has an incomplete right arm, which some parents fear might scare their children. Other parents thought that the BBC was trying to be too politically correct, too inclusive, in the name of diversity by featuring her so prominently.

After my initial flash of incredulity (what, scare kids??!! pish!) it got me thinking: How would my children react?

If past experience is any indication, their first response would be wide-eyed amazement: Are they seeing what they really think they are seeing? This would be followed by intense curiosity (What happened to that person? Why is she like that? How does she tie her shoelaces?). If they could, they would (much to my embarrassment) certainly want to touch, examine and ask.

Last summer, there was a boy with one arm (or, rather, like Burnell, an incomplete arm that ended just below the elbow) who appeared at their day camp. While he was not in either of their groups, the girls (who are 7 and 9) got plenty of chances to peer at him as their paths crossed throughout the day. By the time that same boy showed up at another camp they attended later that summer, he was old news. They didn’t much like him, my youngest confided - not because of his missing arm, but because he was mean.

Their eventual comfort with him is not to say that my eldest didn’t struggle. She would get a bit haunted at night when he popped into her thoughts. I think it was equal amounts of fear and pity and empathy. But she and I talked about him, and how he looked to be happy and to be enjoying himself, despite his “disability” (which I suspect didn’t stop him much). And we talked about how he is loved by his parents, just as she is loved by hers.

I think this struggling is good for her. It allowed her to work through uncomfortable feelings – of pity, of fear, or fascination, or whatever - and eventually came to peace with them - and with the boy, and with his difference.

At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, I think it is good for kids and grown-ups to struggle against what they fear just because it’s different. It helps us grow and grow-up as human beings. Think about the strong public reaction, 50 years ago, to interracial couples. Or 10 years, ago to gay couples. The more visible they are, the less unusual - and less threatening - they become. It's about perceiving others, including their differences, as ordinary people, just like you and me, which is what they are, after all, aren't they?

Some may think that making Burnell co-host is a bold move. But it is only by making such a move that we can show kids that people who are “different” have just as much right to be visible as anyone else.

Should people be forced out of their comfort zone? I’d like to hear what you think.

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Filed under: Body Image • Parenting

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