Another discovery was made today. I hope you don’t judge us or think we are insensitive jerks but we had an eye-opening experience while on a swimming outing to the YMCA that even surprised me. Anna was super excited to go for an indoor swim as she happily skipped into the Y. Before entering the locker room, we heard a strange, loud moaning noise. It was a severely mentally handicapped man who was getting ready to enter the swim area. As many times as we’ve read Manners Mash-up and discussed it being rude to stare, there they went with the nervous staring.
It probably wouldn’t have been so uncomfortable for them if it hadn’t been an entire group, as we discovered upon entering the pool area. Now, Anna was mouth-dropped, full-on, terrified staring as we discovered the entire shallow end of the pool filled with adults with disabilities. Some were playing with balls, a couple were severely disabled and got out of wheelchairs to enter the water, and then there were a couple really loud men. It was wasn’t what we were expecting.
I hadn’t realized or even ever thought about my children not being exposed to disabled adults or even really many handicapped children either until today. This is not intentional, of course. In fact, it’s something I’d never realized until that moment we entered the pool room. My anxious daughter really looked scared, I am ashamed to say. I’m even more ashamed to say that she starting having a small panic attack when I told her we were going to stay. She literally starting shaking and crying and begging to leave.
She was so upset I had to take her to the locker room to calm her while trying to explain that it was ok and these people are just a little different and they were born that way. She wasn’t in a place to take in new information, though; she acted overwhelmed and wanted to immediately leave. This is where, as a parent, you have a choice. And, we stayed.
Brody, God love him, looked uncomfortable (and I know he was) but did not ask to leave. He agreed we should stay. He got in the water with me as I begged Anna to just come off the bench. The lifeguard even went over to explain that loud Thomas was nice, as she must have noticed what was going on. Still, Anna wasn’t budging until we went to the other deep end of the pool and she got in for about 3 minutes. She got back out and went back to the bench and sat nervously waiting to leave, but she did stop crying.
These are my children. These are my children that I want to have empathy, care for others, and tolerate differences. These are my children that I teach to act kind, to have good manners, and to meet people who are different than you. So, their reactions were disappointing, at first, and definitely surprising. They do have a mother who voluntarily was a peer mentor in both middle school and high school. They do know children of different races, religions and cultures. But, today was different.
What I realized as a parent, and as a person, is that children and adults really are scared of things they don’t understand. It’s not hate; it’s ignorance. It’s one thing to explain what the handicapped sign means in parking areas. It’s quite another and much more real to experience seeing, hearing, and being with a group that is like something you’ve never seen before. It was more challenging to Anna than I’d like to admit.
It was a great opportunity for a really good conversation in the car on the way home, though. Brody admitted he was scared and wondered if he could catch a disease and become handicapped like them. Anna opened up and told me she was scared they would hurt me. Brody said it was “freaky” because of the moaning man that sounded like a zombie. Again, I was shocked that they could think such thing. (And, it goes without saying that I did a lot of explaining and clearing things up.)
But, they were scared. Scared of people unfamiliar to them. Scared of the what-ifs. Scared because they did not have accurate information and what they imagined was way worse than reality. It’s much like racists or homophobic adults; they don’t understand or they are misinformed. Or, maybe like my children, they haven’t had a real-life encounter to help them understand. The unknown is scary for many, including my own. What I thought and had hoped was innate, empathy and acceptance, must be taught and learned. It must be modeled.
I hope this doesn’t come across as offensive. That’s anything but my intent. One of my life-goals for myself and my children is to constantly keep learning and experiencing new things and people. Today, we were all surprised with this new experience. There’s always room to keep growing, learning, and changing. I hope my children are one step closer to love and acceptance today as we watched and swam with a special group of people.