How To Talk To Your Child About Difference


As the Fall TV lineup starts up again, I am reminded of exactly how much time I don’t have to watch TV. Literally, if a show is an hour long, it better be pretty darn awesome for it to fit into my schedule.

This year’s crop of sitcoms has many potential contenders for my evening viewing pleasure, and I have already found a few keepers. One such show, Speechless, has really captured my attention. I was able to play it one day during naptime, and my three-year-old woke up early so I decided to finish an episode with him watching. What ensued was definitely a learning experience.

If you haven’t seen the show, let me give you a brief synopsis. It features the DiMeo family who moves to a new town to seek academic accommodations for their special needs child, J.J. This character has cerebral palsy, and he is confined to a wheelchair and is unable to speak, so he uses an eye-tracking sensor to spell out words on a computer screen attached to his chair (a lot like what Stephen Hawking uses).

There are several awesome things about this show aside from the humorous plot lines, including the fact that ABC is attempting to bring diversity to the small screen and the fact that the actor who plays J.J. also has cerebral palsy. The network and show are doing a good job of reminding us that not everyone looks exactly like us and that this is what makes the world great.

So when my three-year-old came in and saw the character J.J. in the wheelchair, he asked a very three-year-old question: “Why can’t that boy walk…what’s wrong with his legs?”

Now, I admittedly stumbled and stalled a little bit because I like to provide my kids with honest answers to their questions and answers that are scientifically accurate if possible. I also like to explain things that their little brains can comprehend. So while I searched for the words, I started with the obvious: “Because he’s in a wheelchair.”  

That bought me some time because my son could figure out from context what a wheelchair was but he took a few seconds to mull it over. I knew follow up questions were coming, so I told him the best explanation I had. “That boy has a special chair that helps him get around because his legs don’t work like yours do.” That seemed sufficient enough for him, but if a “why not?” followed, I would say that “he has a condition that affects his brain’s ability to help him move”.

I’d like to think that this would be accurate enough and would also satisfy my son’s curiosity. Down the line, however, I hope to be able to sit down and talk to my son about the fact that the world is made up of different kinds of people and that difference is normal. I’d express that there are different genders, skin colors, body sizes, ages, and ability levels for starters and that these visual differences make up the kinds of people that are in his world. This is my hope anyway.

Now, it is inevitable that as a parent, you will have an awkward encounter whereby your child will make a vocal public observation about differences that he or she observes in others. It could be relatively benign like a friend who’s three year old pointed out just how old the lady at the grocery store was. Or it could be an uncomfortable conversation when a child who is learning about gender identity asks whether or not another person is a “boy or a girl” and the answer is not a seamless one. 

The important thing to do as a parent is to realize that this WILL happen and that it’s ok to not have all the answers. It’s also ok to have teaching moments right then and there where you explain to the child what they are seeing.

Try to be honest and say things that the child can understand, but also make sure that you are using inclusive language whenever possible. And this language starts at home, long before the awkward encounter. Try talking about differences whenever they come up, whether it’s on TV or in a book. Make your child aware of the rainbow of people that exist in this world and don’t shy away from hard topics like religious or cultural differences either.

Attempt to be respectful when you can, and always put a quick stop to teasing or other negative statements about difference so that your child learns that it’s never ok to make fun of others. And if your child understands their own differences, make sure you enhance the fact that these differences are a positive thing and that they should take pride in who they are.

Most importantly though, you need to start a dialogue, even if it’s choppy or there’s a miss here and there. Not talking about things that exist in your child’s world makes those things taboo, and taboo things tend to turn into feared things very quickly. So stay within your comfort zone and keep the dialogue going. You don’t have to have all the answers, you just need to be open to the conversation.


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Megan Phillips is a licensed clinical psychologist who owns a private practice that specializes in helping women and moms in Orange County ( She is from the Pacific Northwest, but she and her husband decided to escape the rain and move to warm, sunny Southern California in 2012. Since then, she became a mom to a smart and funny little boy and an adorable baby girl. Megan enjoys cooking and taking in the local sights, and she is always up for a fun mommy’s night out.


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