On Teaching Kids (and Ourselves) Not To Assume

24 Apr

Televisión escolar(Image by Antonio Jose Fernandez used under CC 2.0 via)


I was about to help a 5-year-old remove her tricycle helmet when we were cut off by a man staggering slowly down the street. Unnerved by his sudden presence and unusual gait, she stepped back and did a double-take. She stared at him and then turned to me. “He walks strange.”

I smiled but waited a few more beats until he seemed to be out of earshot. In the meantime, I wondered what to say to her. The adult/cynic in me was responsible for my gut feeling that he must be struggling with drugs or alcohol.

But then I considered how useful gut feelings really are in such situations. Annette Funicello complained of being accused of drunkenness when she was struggling with the early stages of multiple sclerosis. I have had enough questions about my sway back and achondroplastic gait to the point where I can only guess how many people aren’t bothering to ask me and simply making their own silent assumptions.

And while some have claimed gossip can be beneficial, it is so often responsible for misinformation and arrogance – the bedrock of ableism.

“He might be sick,” I said to her. “But we don’t know. He hasn’t told us. Sometimes when you’re sick your legs don’t work right. Do you remember when I had a brace on my leg last year?”

She nodded, and then peered once more down the street at him. “I think it’s ‘cuz he’s old! He has a gray beard and lots of old people have gray beards…”

 “Some do!  Like Santa Claus, right?”

 She nodded.

 “And my dad has a gray beard and lots of people call him Santa Claus!”

 She laughed.

 “But [my husband] has little gray whiskers, too, and he’s not really old yet, is he?”

 “No… ”

 “Does your daddy have little gray whiskers, too?”

 “One or two… ”

 “Yeah. Do they scratch when he gives you a kiss?”


Neither she nor I will ever be fully liberated from the temptation to silently classify many of the strangers we encounter throughout our lives. But the idea that we can remind ourselves that we ultimately cannot know for sure, and that such conversations need not be engulfed in tones of complacency or pity is an idea worth considering. 




6 Responses to “On Teaching Kids (and Ourselves) Not To Assume”

  1. athanasia April 24, 2016 at 11:10 pm #

    Hi Emily, I have dealt with these situations with Alexis before…it’s very interesting to hear his gut reaction and then to talk about it. We had a situation where we had left the keys to the building in the outside door. We put a note up and someone called to say they had them. I had been so upset about thinking they were gone that I was overjoyed to get them back BUT then the neighbour who returned them is someone that is a bit off somehow, so I had to explain how it would’ve been different if a little old lady had returned them..then we talked about judging people based on looks without knowing anything…and how actually isn’t it a good thing that he returned them? It made for some very interesting conversations:-) Thanks for your thought provoking blog posts!

  2. carriedouglas22 April 25, 2016 at 2:50 am #

    Enjoyed your post. I’m a mental health counselor and I find myself rallying to banish the stigma of mental illness and hyper-vigilant to the needs of this population–hope that makes sense. Irregardless (I must have just naturally gravitated to the notion of this person suffering in this way), I think the message you conveyed was remarkable. I try to encourage my clients to be dialectical and is “open-mind” thinking. As a mother, I try to teach my kids the necessity of kindness and open-mindedness as well….Thanks for sharing this experience.

  3. worldlytwirly April 28, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    Humans use heuristics everyday, sometimes we assume the worst as safety mechanism – seeing a man who appears to be drunk (hence posing a danger) would alarm more than assuming that he may be sick. I agree though – try not to judge a book without reading it first!

  4. Mágina Cruz Caballero May 1, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

    Hola! por tus interesantes post te he nominado en los infinity dreams awards. Saludos!. Puedes acceder en este enlace:

  5. stanley23 May 6, 2016 at 8:18 pm #

    Good read

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