“You have a yellow tooth.” Occasionally, a child notices the discoloration on my front left tooth and states this. For a while, I marveled that only children commented on this. Then it dawned on me: adults notice too—they just don’t say anything.

I was reminded of this recently while waiting for an elevator with my children. A woman with dwarfism walked by. They wondered aloud, “Why is she so short?” I hesitated, knowing my response would set the stage for future interactions of this nature.

I want my children to understand the way we ask questions can make a big difference. We should avoid saying things that might hurt someone’s feelings. Yet I don’t want to shame them for their questions. After all, many adults say nothing when we notice differences in people. Sometimes we don’t even look others in the eye, as if they’re invisible. I’m not sure that’s much better than saying something awkward.

There are ways to respond to such observations and teach children to see their neighbors through a lens of faith. In our household, we talk regularly about how God created us in God’s image and that everyone has unique gifts from God.

That day by the elevator, I told my children, “That’s the way God made her.” It’s what I tell other children when they ask about my tooth: “That’s the way God made me.” God made all of us in God’s image and called it good.

Practices

To acknowledge differences and discuss them in a positive, faith-filled way:

  • Research what’s developmentally appropriate for your child. Children ages 3 to 5 often ask about the world around them. At this age, their observations aren’t linked to positive or negative judgments unless that’s been conveyed to them by adults.
  • Make children’s observations and questions about differences teachable moments. Acknowledge their observations and remind your kids that God made everyone with different gifts and abilities. You might say, “Some people don’t have two hands like we do. What could you do if you only had one hand?”
  • Practice what you preach. “Talking to your child about the importance of embracing difference and treating others with respect is essential, but it’s not enough,” wrote Dana Williams in Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice. “Your actions, both subtle and overt, are what she will emulate.” Help your kids (and yourself) become comfortable with a variety of people by greeting and sitting in worship next to someone with special needs.
  • Add new neighbors you encounter to morning or evening prayer. Try this one: God, thank you for making each of us special. Bless the people we met today, including [name people]. Help us use our gifts to share your love with others. Amen.
Kari van Wakeren
Kari van Wakeren is a pastor of First Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Minn., and author of Bubble Wrap Girl (Beaver's Pond Press).

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