“It’s often difficult for parents when their children see someone who is different, perhaps disabled, and their child blurts out, ‘What’s wrong with him?’” says Jane Healy, child development expert and author of Your Child’s Growing Mind. First, says Healy, it’s important to consider what a child is experiencing — and then help him find words to name what he’s seeing:

“It depends on their cognitive stage. Let’s assume the child is 7 years old. It’s important to realize that the child is asking the question because they are worried, frightened that they might be like that, too, eventually. Let’s say they are looking at someone in a wheelchair. A 7-year-old thinks, ‘Good grief, that could happen to me!’ He won’t understand that the odds are unlikely.

“It helps if you put language around it and name what it is. It’s also best if you define it not as ‘disabled’ but as ‘differently-abled.’ You can say, ‘That child needs help with walking. Walking is challenging for him, but he might be very good at drawing or thinking or being a friend. We all have our differences, we are all challenged in different ways, but what is important is that we want to look at what our talents are. If the child is older, like 13, you could mention Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist, who is in a wheelchair but has had a very rewarding life.”

Here’s how 4 other parenting experts say to respond…


YouTube video

Richard Weissbourd
It’s a question that makes parents cringe, but the author of The Parents We Mean to Be says to treat the moment with compassion to avoid making the situation worse. Format: Video (1:37)

Betsy Brown Braun
Kids notice difference, says the renowned child development specialist. A parent’s job is to deftly deal with the situation to avoid embarrassment. Format: Article

Heidi Allen Garvin
The popular Mormon mom blogger suggests treating children’s questions with tact… and a big dose of compassion. Format: Article

YouTube video

Johanna Stein
“It’s OK. The legs are in the closet.” A series of unfortunate events followed when the comedienne’s daughter asked this question. Here’s how she responded. Format: Video (2:20)