Dropping off your child at school for the first time is an emotional experience for most parents, but for moms like Brittany Denison, there is an added layer of concern.
Denison’s son Michael, 5, was born with a rare condition called Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by distinctive abnormalities in the head and face. Even though mentally he is “exactly the same” as other children, Denison was worried that kids would bully him over his physical appearance.
So she decided to make a heartfelt plea on Facebook, urging parents to teach their children about “acceptance and kindness.”
"I was inspired to write this post by a gentle tug on my heart I can only describe as a God moment," Denison tells Yahoo Life. “I was bullied as a child, just like many of us are, and I imagine that down the road this will be the case for Michael as well as many other children. As a mom, I’d like to change the dynamic of bullying as much as I can before it affects Michael."
Denison is far from being the only parent concerned about their children’s mental well-being as they head back to school this year. Other moms have shared similar concerns on social media recently.
“I’ve been a nervous wreck,” one mom wrote on Facebook about her daughter Kate, who lives with Pfeiffer syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the body's bone structure.
“Please world, be good to my sweet Kate!” the caption read. “Please see past differences and say hello back. Please, be kind. Please, be her friend. Please, see her the way I do.”
Deonna Wade chimed in with her own story in the comments section, writing alongside a picture of her daughter, who uses a wheelchair, “I had the same fears last week, like probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. When a girl said hi to her I almost burst into tears."
The pressure for kids to fit in is much harder for those who are different, which is why instilling lessons about kindness, inclusivity and empowerment at an early age is paramount.
"Daily conversations are a must," Denison says. "We pray in the morning on the way to school. Whether I get answers or not, I always ask how my kids' day at school was and listen as well as I can. I ask them what they are struggling with daily so that when something upsetting does happen, I’ve laid the foundation that they know they can talk to me about it."
"When I tuck Michael in every night, I give him a really tight hug and whisper in his ear, 'You are miraculous, you are so perfect, and I love you exactly the way you are,'" she adds. "It will be a big priority of mine to make sure that his confidence comes from within."
But teaching kindness to children takes a village.
How do we teach kindness?
According to experts, it starts by creating an atmosphere where it's safe to ask questions.
Dr. Laura Kauffman, pediatrician and child psychologist, explains that even embarrassing or awkward queries can be learning opportunities. She says that as a parent, asking questions back — and leading with empathy — is equally important. One example she gives is, "OK, so tell me what you were thinking when you saw this child or when you said the things that you said? Tell me what was going through your mind and help me understand."
As a parent, it's easy to make assumptions about what kids are thinking — but beware. "I think it'd be really important to first understand what was going through their head because it actually may be a little different than what you are thinking," Kauffman advises. "They may be thinking, Oh he's different and I'm uncomfortable with different so that's why I'm being mean to him. But it's important for your child to be able to come to that awareness and recognition [themselves]."
In other words, you're "helping [the child] do the work of putting themselves in the other person's shoes."
Making a conscious decision to expose your child to those who are different is equally important, notes Stephanie Mihalas, a certified school psychologist in Los Angeles. That way, they recognize that kindness is universal and can be received and given by anyone, no matter what they look like.
"Kindness starts fundamentally from seeing it, doing it and then finally feeling it and believing it," Mihalas tells Yahoo Life. "It's extremely important that children get to see kindness in as many different places as possible from as many different kinds of people: different genders, different classes of people, different races, different ethnicities, so that they understand kindness is pervasive."
3-pronged approach for parents
Mihalas recommends a three-pronged approach for teaching kindness and inclusion to young children:
Build their self-awareness
Increase their social awareness
Increase responsible decision making
"Oftentimes kids don't have an awareness about what their feelings are and what their reactions are, specifically to people with [physical disabilities]," Mihalas notes. "What a parent can do with these kids is to help them learn ... what their feelings are and what their reactions are."
For increasing social awareness, Mihalas doubles down on Kauffman's advice — ask questions. She says it starts with basic questions. "That's how you start to increase the kid's awareness of their social impact on others. By slightly tweaking their perspective, it enhances their connection to others."
The third step, responsible decision making, happens when you start to support their beliefs and behavior change, according to Mihalas.
"There are other alternatives in supporting children rather than just telling them they made a bad decision," she explains. "These kids who are allegedly 'problem children' are not problem children. They just don't have the awareness, both of self and others of how to change."
Still, Kauffman points out, for those kinds of lessons to last, parents and family members need to be committed over the long haul.
"It's really important that parents understand this is going to be the long play," Kauffman says. "This is really about making a commitment for yourself as well as with your family to really try and make an effort to explore and instill the values of openness to diversity of all types. Parents really need to be thoughtful about taking inventory and stock of how those kinds of conversations are already happening in their household."
Mihalas notes that it's equally important to encourage children who are different, especially those with disabilities, to be ambassadors of their lived experiences.
"We're having parents empower their children to be advocates at the school level and seeing if they can talk to their administrators. Even children as young as kindergarten and first grade can become ambassadors for disability rights," she notes.
This strategy teaches kids to own their identities instead of being defined by them. Plus, it gives their peers an opportunity to learn.
Mihalas adds that one of the most powerful messages an adult can tell a child is probably the most simple: "You do you."
"When a child has their own identity formed, whatever that is — heteronormative, health compromised, autistic, you name it — then they don't care if someone says, 'You're gay, you're stupid,' all the horrible things that children say to each other. Instead, they say, 'Yeah, I am and so what?'"