She gazed out the window as we pulled out of the grocery story parking lot, a look of thoughtfulness across her face.
“Mama,” she said in a tone not hurt, but pondering. Perhaps a little confused. “Why does everyone always ask why my face is red?”
My body reacts – chest tightening, stomach turning – each time I am presented with this kind of situation… an experience where Brenna’s skin differences are called to the forefront, when I know all she wants is to engage as a typical child, not as someone who is viewed as so “different” that all conversation and reaction revolves around her skin.
I was glad she couldn’t see the strained look on my face, because she notices the slightest changes in expressions, as I responded. “Well, your skin looks a little different that most people’s skin. And since those people haven’t seen skin like yours before, they want to know why you have special skin.”
She contemplated that and was appeased by my response.
But I didn’t give my full answer to that question on that car ride home. There is a second part to explaining why we field questions about Brenna’s appearance nearly every single time we go out in public.
Yes, adults want to know why because they are curious, maybe even concerned. But the hard truth is that they then choose to ask why immediately because they place their own curiosity above another person’s feelings.
We’re not four-year-olds trying to figure out the world. As adults, we know people are different. We know disabilities and differences exist, and we know what genes and chromosomes are, and we know that accidents and war and illnesses happen.
So maybe the first words out of our mouths shouldn’t be a question about someone’s appearance or disability. Maybe the first words out of our mouths should show that we value another person as a fellow human.
I believe that God gives us a unique opportunity when we encounter someone who is different than we are: to choose connection over curiosity.
When we can begin a conversation with a smile, with a “hello, how are you doing today?”, we seek to bridge by recognizing our sameness instead of divide by pointing out our differences. It is in this same regard that we can address a child’s (often inevitable) questions about differences – helping them to relate, showing them how to connect by introducing themselves, and educating them that we are all different.
I’ve been told by other adults that they feel uncomfortable when they see someone with a disability or physical difference, not knowing what to say, how to say it. Let’s not make this harder than it is; simply treat them as you would anyone else. A person is a person is a person.
I offer this gentle reminder to myself, to my children, and to others: while this is the first time you may have seen this condition, disability or physical marking, it has likely been the opening question or topic of conversation for that person nearly every time they go out in public.
I can’t speak for other parents who have children with differences and disabilities. But many whom I’ve talked with agree that they don’t mind educating about their child’s condition or illness… yet they would rather not have to field questions all day long. Life is much more beautiful when we can see our sameness first, and then find appreciation in learning about our differences.
A couple of years ago, I was pushing my kids on the swings at the park on a rare warm day in the late winter. We were thrilled by temperatures that were ideal for Brenna (since she has trouble regulating her body temperature and the outdoors can be tricky) and jumped at the chance to spend some time outside.
A woman was pushing her child next to me and pleasantly struck up conversation with me. When she mentioned how nice the weather was, I told her I was especially glad for the temperature because “my daughter has a skin disorder that sometimes makes it hard to be outdoors if it’s too hot or cold.” And the conversation continued on from there.
I’m sure she was wondering, and I gave her the answer. But it was within a nice conversation where she made it clear that we were just another family at the park to her. She chose to connect with us first, instead of immediately asking. She chose to listen before questioning.
What an opportunity we are given when we meet those around us every day who are different than us…and what a gift we can give, and receive, when we choose to prioritize another person’s feelings and humanity above satisfying our own immediate curiosity.