Sometimes you find the most significant parenting lessons in the strangest places and at the most surprising moments.
Earlier this week I was at home and stepped outside to get something from my car. As they are wont to do, my kids, 6 & 4, followed me outside. A woman happened to be walking her dog by our house and my kids, neither of whom has a shy bone in their body, immediately ran to check out the animal and make conversation with the woman, their new BFF.
We quickly learned that her dog was friendly and that he only had one leg. The kids were surprised. It’s not every day that you see a 3-legged dog. Doctors amputated the dog’s leg because it was cancerous and the dog was undergoing chemotherapy. He let the kids pet him and then he and his owner walked off.
Later that night, 4 asked me if people lose their legs because of cancer. I told him that it’s possible and that cancer is a very bad disease. A short time later he told me, “Daddy, I don’t like that 3-legged dog. He wasn’t cute.” I asked him, “Are you upset that the dog lost its leg?” He nodded and seemed sad. Despite his concerns, I didn’t want to let this moment pass without a conversation that might help him grow or deepen his understanding about an important issue.
First, I wanted him to understand that just because a pet or a person is different or has a disability, we shouldn’t pass judgment based on the differences we see and perceive. I tried to find an example that he could comprehend and I focused on the animal in our house. We have a cat and 4 loves him. He’s truly an animal lover at heart.
I asked him, “What if our cat only had 3 legs. Would you love him any less?” He shook his head no. “What if he was sick would you help take care of him and try to make him feel better?” He shook his head yes.
Next, I wanted to make sure he understood that even though there are sad things in life, we cannot avoid them. We discussed the fact that even though this animal only has 3 legs, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve love, attention and support. I reminded 4 that when people are hurting, they need even more care, like when he or his brother get sick and we can respond with a smile and kind words to brighten someone’s spirits.
Finally, I told him that if someone singles him out someday for something different or distinguishing that makes him feel marginalized, stereotyped or hurt, that he needs to know that he is loved and can take pride in who he is. It’s important for him to know that his opinion of himself is most important, and no matter what anyone says or thinks, his belief in himself is paramount.
These are challenging conversations to have with a child because they deal with adult themes they may not be ready to grasp or put into practice. However, I believe that when a moment becomes available, we must recognize it, think about how to engage on the topic and do so in the moment or shortly thereafter when the topic is fresh.
My goal was not to reinforce anything negative about this animal or to harp on a sensitive topic. Rather, it was to show my son that even though we are often confronted in life with uncomfortable or awkward moments, we need to respond with compassion and acceptance. I’m sure that he’ll encounter many more 3-legged dog scenarios in his life.