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I turned to Oliver and said, "Can you wave bye-bye?" He did.
Then the little girl asked me a question I had never been asked before:
"Why doesn't Oliver talk?"
This was a perfectly innocent question coming from a 4-year-old.
It caught me off-guard, though, and I didn't know what to say, so I just shrugged and said, "Yeah, he just says 'yeah' and 'go' a lot, doesn't he?"
That didn't really answer her question, and afterwards I pondered how best to answer it in terms that she might understand. Here's what I came up with:
"He has a boo boo on his brain. This makes it hard for him to move his mouth. It's kind of like when you have a boo boo on your knee and it's hard for you to move your leg."
"Everyone is good at different things. You're good at talking. Oliver is good at making people laugh."
"He's working hard to learn how to talk. He just needs some extra time to learn. People learn at different speeds."
Another option would be to say "He has cerebral palsy" and then let the kid's parents educate themselves on the condition and offer further explanation to their kid as needed.
I hope the little girl's dad wasn't too embarrassed by her question. It was a good question, sparked by observation and curiosity—both good qualities to nurture in a child—and it deserves an answer. What kind of world would this be if questions about differences were always shut down with a response like 'We don't ask that kind of question'? It would, of course, be a world with less understanding of differences, and thus less acceptance.
Let's all do our part to make the world a more accepting place by answering our kids' (sometimes tough) questions about differences. By doing so, we encourage their development of empathy, and the world could certainly use more of that.