Talking About Physical Differences (a.k.a., “The one where I was mortified in a shoe store”)


Parenting is a humbling thing. Prior to having my own kids, I was a teacher, so I had plenty of opportunities to see other people’s kids on a daily basis. I had lots of theories on what I would and wouldn’t do based on this. I’d seen first-hand what works, and I was confident that I’d have it all figured out right from the start. I had none of the “I’m about to have a kid– oh my goodness–what am I doing!??” panic while pregnant because I truly believed I had nothing to worry about. My inner pregnancy monologue was more like “I got this!”


I quickly (and by “quickly”, I mean within 30 seconds of my firstborn’s birth) realized that the children you see in an elementary school classroom represent years and years of parenting choices that I, as the teacher, knew nothing about. How could I possibly raise this tiny, screaming newborn into a whole entire kid who would was kind to his classmates, had a strong inner moral compass, and also loved reading? If you’re that pregnant mom who was hoping to some kind of guidebook…sorry! However, I will share with you one crucial story that changed my parenting, so that you can at least check one thing off your “How do I raise a good human” list.

Talk about differences with your child from an early age. Talk, and talk some more, then keep talking, starting when your child is tiny. One of my best memories as a teacher is of a third grade student I had who was seemingly blind to the physical differences of her classmates. She was a friend to all, and included everyone in her play. She played with a variety of children, including those who were in wheelchairs, who had leg braces, who had behavioral challenges. She encouraged everyone to join in her games at recess, and modified her play seamlessly to include all. I wanted my children to emulate this. I was pretty sure the best way to teach this was to simply model it and never call attention to differences. It never occurred to me that I’d have to explicitly tell my children that there are differences among us all, and those differences don’t change who we are as people. I was wrong!

When my older son was not quite three, we went to our local children’s shoe store for some new sneakers. It was close to Halloween, and the wonderful older gentleman who had always measured my kids’ feet was was working that day. We walked in to discover our favorite salesman had recently had eye surgery and had a patch over one eye. I will again remind you of how close it was to Halloween. My older son shouted, gleefully, “Ho-HO! Looks like we have a PIRATE on our hands here today!!!” as we approached the counter. I nearly died on the spot. In that moment, I realized that children are literal. Children need us to talk about everything with them. They don’t get the subtly of “my parents treat everyone the same regardless of their differences so I will, too”; they need us to say “Hey! We are all different, and that’s great. Let’s look at some differences people have. Do you have any questions?” Instead of glossing over differences, we started talking about them. We talked about the differences within our own family, within our friend group, within our community. We talked about how it would feel to be the child who is in a wheelchair. What would you want others to do? How would you want people to approach you? We talked about it, and we continue that conversation constantly.

Parenting is not nearly as easy as I thought it would be. I know what I want the end result to be– children who grow into compassionate adults who make a positive difference in their world– but how to get there continues to be something I’m trying daily to figure out! Do you have any surprising tips to share about how to raise kind, empathetic kids? I’d love to hear them!

One thought on “Talking About Physical Differences (a.k.a., “The one where I was mortified in a shoe store”)

  1. OH, this is a great post and great discussion to have with your kids! Like you, I thought modeling would be enough, but nope! Kids ARE literal. Thanks for talking about something so important, Sister!


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