Recently in our family there was a change in one of our family members lives. The Reverend Randy MacKenzie lost a leg, and it took a community effort to help overcome this with a new prosthetic leg. The Rev is still getting used to his new leg and won’t be comfortable moving around on it for some time yet, but the question of how to explain this to the young children of friends and family came to mind; which is why stumbling upon this story by the CBC came so fortunately.
It is called “How To Help Your Kids Ask About My Robot Leg” by Christa Couture
I only have one leg. My left leg is amputated above the knee and this is obvious at a glance — the prosthetic leg I wear is covered in flowers, and I almost always wear clothes that show not only its colours but its mechanics.
“What happened to her leg?” is something I hear kids say on the daily. They tug at their parents and point, and I totally understand that they can’t help but stare. It looks pretty different. But I hope you’d encourage your little ones to ask questions. Here are my tips on how to have those sorts conversations:
‘That’s How She Walks.’
“That’s how she walks, and look at the flowers, isn’t that beautiful?” Is one of my favourite replies that I’ve overheard.
It’s true, I use a prosthetic leg to walk. It works a lot like a regular leg and is my favourite mobility device, but I have also used crutches and wheelchairs (your kids have maybe seen those before, if not fake limbs). Seeing my prosthetic leg is a good chance to talk about the different types of ways people get assistance, like canes, braces, glasses and hearing aids.
All Bodies Are Different
“But why?” is a frequent followup from a lot of kids no matter how their parents first answer. There are generally only three possibilities here you can explain: some people are born with limb difference (just like different hair or eye colour), some people have been in an accident and some people had to have surgery due to illness (like cancer or diabetes).
I’m in the third camp. I had bone cancer as a kid, and ever since Terry Fox started being talked about in schools more regularly, this explanation has become a lot easier to make. Now, many kids have a reference point not just for amputation, but for cancer as well.
No, it’s not polite to stare, but it is definitely OK to be curious.
When kids ask me directly, “but why do you have that?” when “I use this to walk” hasn’t satisfied their curiosity, I try to follow the caregiver’s lead, and I make a guess on what might make sense for the kid’s age.
For instance, if a kid is maybe four or five I might say: “A long time ago, I was really sick and my leg wasn’t working. The only way I could get better was for doctors to take away my old leg, and I got this one instead,” at which point I describe the pretty flowers or point to the flashing green battery light at the back (instant cool points). Kids can realize all bodies are different, it just takes a bit more explanation sometimes.
Not everyone with a disability is going to appreciate this, so use your intuition and observation on whether approaching someone about theirs is an OK thing to do. Me, I don’t mind! Especially with kids.
“Would you like to ask her about her leg?” you can offer. Or you can take the first step with me, “Is it OK if my child asks you about your leg?” At this point, I’m usually smiling and making eye contact and I’ll add: “Did you notice my leg? It’s different, I know.” And I tap my fingers on the hard shell (really banging it like a drum impresses a certain age group!).
If we lead without discomfort, without embarrassment, then kids will follow suit. I’m happy to talk about how it works, and the most frequently asked questions are usually if it can get wet, do I sleep with it and do I wear socks and shoes? (No, no, yes.)
‘I Don’t Know’ is OK.
I’ve heard many parents reply “I don’t know,” to “why is her leg like that? What happened to her?” And that is a good answer! Following it with any of the above possibilities are a great next step.
Ultimately, talking to children about my difference is one part of raising their awareness about disability. There are a growing number of books out there that have characters with disability that can do that, too. I’ve also seen various dolls with disabilities becoming available. These are great for raising awareness of disability, and are wonderful for kids with disabilities themselves. Because to see yourself reflected in stories and toys is to be visible and acknowledged.
Learning about and normalizing differences is important, but so is acknowledging barriers. Once, a kid asked to try my crutches — I let them and watched as they wobbled a few steps. “That’s really hard!” they said. “It is!” I replied, and watched as they looked around, seeing bumpy grass and stairs in a new light.
Above all: please do have these conversations with kids. No, it’s not polite to stare, but it is definitely OK to be curious. And yes: it’s totally awesome that I’m part robot.
Different can be a challenge and the questions of children are usually genuine. Being able to handle a situation like this can seem daunting, a challenge to balance compassion and understanding without discomfort for those involved. The advice Christa gave will be invaluable in informing the choices I make when dealing with exactly such a situation: Gauging how the person involved feels, being honest, being open, and making sure it isn’t awkward, uncomfortable, or scary. Here’s hoping you found it helpful as well.
– Richard Huskisson
Story from the CBC.
Photo of Christa Couture by Jen Squires.