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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The One Question You Should Never Ask a Parent Ever

     Holden and I went grocery shopping at Walmart today.  As usual, when we are out in public and he's using his wheelchair, he gets a LOT of attention.  People will tell him, "Nice wheels!" or "look how well he can move that thing!" or "Wow, I've never seen a wheelchair that small before".  We even see flocks of teenage girls point and smile and say, "oh my goodness, look at that little wheelchair, he is sooooooo cute!"  We smile and gladly accept all of this attention.  Sometimes it gets a little exhausting.  I mean, we could literally have 50 comments and/or mini conversations with people in the course of one morning of errands.  Yet overall, my impression has been that everyone is so very kind and supportive of Holden and essentially, he has this little cheerleader section wherever we go.  Yay, everyone!  Thank you for being so kind to my child.

     A few times people have asked, "So he can't walk?" to which I'll just kindly respond, "No, he's unable to stand or walk.  He has a condition called arthrogryposis which affects the joints, muscles, and nerves in his legs."  I'll be honest, it feels a bit nosy to me for a stranger in Walmart, but I can tell that people are just curious and have kind intentions.  I have always responded back kindly.  Once the word arthrogryposis comes out of my mouth, people just kind of leave it at that!  Today at Walmart, we even had a few guys in their early twenties who asked if they could take a picture of Holden and post it on their facebook page with the caption, "Respect".  Since these guys didn't know our names and couldn't easily turn into stalkers or anything, I said, "You can take a picture of him if you can catch him.  He doesn't stay still in his wheelchair for long!"  Holden realized what was happening when the guy took out his phone, and he sweetly posed for the camera with a smile.  It was a little bit awkward, but again, these guys had good intentions.  They were essentially saying, "We think this little kid who is different is cool.  He gets around the world differently and that's ok.  Respect."  Good intentions, and they treated my little boy kindly. 

     As we're nearing the egg section, we pass an older couple (early 70's maybe?).  They don't smile or wave.  They just stare at Holden blankly.  I think nothing of it until the man stops and walks over to me as I'm looking at eggs and says, "Excuse me, what's wrong with him?" as he is pointing to Holden.  I cringe.
Can I pretend he didn't ask this question?  Can I pretend I didn't hear him?  As I'm trying to compose a response, he asks again, "Did you hear me? I asked what's wrong with him?"  (still pointing at Holden and has yet to say hello to him or acknowledge him as a person). 

The root of this question just hurts me.  Chris and I think that Holden is perfect.  We believe that God carefully creates each life and values each human equally.  We believe that everyone is "fearfully and wonderfully made" Psalm 139:14.  We also believe that God, in His providence, chooses to give disability to some, not because He loves them any less, but because He has plans and ways much bigger than ours.  This is illustrated in Exodus 4

     10 Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past      nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”
11 The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

Some may say that God is cruel or unfair to make some with disabilities and others without, but we disagree.  I know with my whole heart that God looks down upon Holden and sees a beautiful person created in His image, and I will protect my son with everything I have from a world that will point their finger at him and ask, "What is wrong with him?"

My adorable owl at Halloween.  He is fabulous and perfect and everything wonderful and right about the world.

I took a deep breath, and composed my response:

"I think he is perfect, but he has a condition called arthrogryposis.  I think your question is inappropriate.  You don't ask someone what is wrong with their child."  

The man stares at me blankly, then raises his hand to his ear, and says, "What? I didn't hear you."

So again, I repeat my spiel a little louder.  This time I just lead with, "Your question is not ok.  It's not ok to ask someone what's wrong with their child."  I am visibly flustered, but I am saying this in a direct and calm way.  My voice is raised to a loud talking voice so that he can hear me (no yelling or shouting, just talking).  He still looks very confused.  His wife, who is 10-20 feet away, says, "Are you done getting your lecture from the smart-mouth, honey?"

At this point, my eyes widen in shock.  I am frozen.  Since when did telling someone that what they said was inappropriate make you a smart-mouth?  I used no offensive language.  I stated my case plainly.  I was not sarcastic or sassy. 
The man starts walking away, as he does so, he turns to say:

"You know what you can do? You can go to hell."

My eyes nearly popped out of my head.  I was standing there mouth open, in absolute shock.  Where had all this anger come from? 

My eyes started filling with tears.  Another lady was nearby and heard what this man said.  She asked, "What was that about?"
I briefly explained and at this point tears are coming down my face.

She said, "You are absolutely right.  Your son is beautiful and perfect, and that man was out of line."  

Then she gave me a hug.  

(Holden chimed in with "Mommy no hug!" I don't think he likes seeing me hug anyone but him.... rude awakening when Daddy gets home, buddy!)  

I pulled it together and we quickly finished our shopping trip.  

In my head, the whole interaction just keeps running over and over.  What did I say?  What did I do? Should I have humored him?  He could have asked that question 100 different ways and I would have graced him with a response.  How about, "Why does he need the wheelchair?" or "What is his diagnosis?"  (Again, it's a bit nosy to be doing this with strangers in Walmart, but still, I would have obliged.) 
Conversely, if this had been a child asking, "What's wrong with him?" I would have gladly responded.  I would have said, "Well, we think Holden is just great, but he has arthrogryposis...."  
This was a very, very grown man who knew better.  This was a grown man who acted like my son was an object or a spectacle and not a person.  A child has never treated Holden that way.  Honestly, I love it when kids ask questions about Holden.  They're curious.  They want to learn.  I love sharing more about him!  

Again, this was a grown man who knew better.  

Yes, we have all said things we wish we would have phrased differently.  We have fumbled over words or realized later, "Yikes, that was hurtful and I totally did not mean for it to be!"  Even when normal people are confronted with someone who they might deem oversensitive or easily offended (I don't count myself in this boat, but still, for sake of comparison, let's say I am in the boat.)  If said person states that they were offended, said offender usually says, "Oh my goodness!  I'm so sorry!  I completely did not mean it that way, but I see what you're saying.  What I mean to say was...."

Said offender does not tell the other person to go to hell.

I began thinking, "Is there ever a situation where it's acceptable to point to a child and ask their parent, "What's wrong with him or her?"
I cannot think of any.

If a child was throwing a temper tantrum in the store, this would not be an appropriate question.
If a child is unable to speak or see or move in the way that we are used to seeing others move, this would not be an appropriate question.
If a child is way shorter than his or her peers, or way taller, or way thinner, or way larger, this would not be an appropriate question.
Even if a child is on the floor having a seizure, the appropriate question might be, "What's wrong? How can I help?" Yet it would still not be appropriate to point to said child and ask, "What's wrong with her?"

If after this older man told me he couldn't hear me, and I said, "What's wrong with you? Why can't you hear?" This would not have been an appropriate response. 

It's decided, then.

There is no case ever no matter what in any universe or realm or state of altered consciousness where a person should ask a parent of their child, "What is wrong with him or her?"

Not allowed.


I'm putting this one in the rule book.
But wait, guys, this story gets better.

                                                                 I know, I can't believe it either.

I promise you, this really happened.

 I'm putting my shopping cart away in one of the parking lot "corals" if you will, and all of a sudden, I hear a quick, "beep beep!"  I turn to look.  The older lady (wife of man who likes to damn people to hell for caring about their children) is flipping me off.

I am not even kidding you!  

Again, I am in absolute shock, and at this point, my eyes are popping, and I just have the biggest grin on my face as I'm shaking my head back and forth because I'm in disbelief that any two people could be this angry about what happened in that discount superstore.  I just had to smile.  I mean, is this for real? 

The best part of the story is this:

I was fortunate enough to be right behind them waiting at the stoplight, so I kindly memorized their license plate.

So to all my dear, local friends.  If you ever see a gray Toyota Tundra with South Carolina license plate EFC-149 , please pray for them!

And keep your children far, far away.




  1. I have no words. I am super impressed by your reaction though. I've had people say some pretty inappropriate things to me about Jonathan, but never anything even close to that and my reaction, sadly, has been much less gracious at times. You, my dear, are an awesome mom. Keep loving that boy of yours with all of your heart!!

  2. Wow. That really takes the cake. I am sincerely hoping you never, ever have to have another conversation like that. I don't know if this will happen for you because of the zippy wheelchair factor, but for us, the questions diminished as my daughter grew older. Age 3 and under, she received a lot of attention and people would talk about her (and sometimes ask offensive questions) right in front of her, as though she couldn't understand English. But I also learned not to make eye contact with people at the grocery store, etc., because that seemed to be an invitation to them. Or I would ask back to people who asked a rude question, "Why do you want to know?" That seems to expose people's motives, and protected my daughter. (Then I could follow up with "Sorry -- we don't share private information about our kids with strangers.") I think that helps our kids realize they can choose to share information with people who are safe (or innocently curious kids), but they are not obligated to share with everyone who asks. Anyway -- kudos to you for surviving the encounter, and realizing it was not your problem at all!

    1. Nancy,
      I really do hope it diminishes as Holden gets older as he realizes more of what's going on. In a few more years, I will be directing people to talk to Holden, and he can decide how he would like to respond. (Or if he is feeling insecure and wants Mama to respond, we'll talk about what he would like me to say.) No way will they talk over my child. You are so right that our kids can choose to share information but they are not obligated to share with everyone. I do struggle with that. Sometimes in trying to be kind and polite I wonder if I am teaching Holden that he has to oblige everyone who is curious.
      I love what this Mom whose child has arthrogryposis shared about an experience she had:

      A lady at a children's museum was staring at my son, "What's wrong with him!". I just said "nothing" and walked away. She just caught me off guard. She then came up to me and started telling me of some "miracle" pill. I was furious! I walked away again. We then went into the play room and D began to play with another child on the floor. His mom was in the play room too. She kindly asked me, "Do you mind, if i ask what is your sons condition or disability".
      I thought, "Now that is the way you ask questions!" I didnt mind telling her at all.

      Phrasing it, "do you mind if I ask..." that leaves the parent or child to say, "No I don't mind, or yes, actually, I don't feel like answering today..."

    2. Yes -- the way people ask makes all the difference. And I think you're wise to already be thinking about the difference between being kind or educational, and making Holden feel talked about. It's good to figure that stuff our before our kids get too much older.

  3. ...when an ableist microagression feels so much bigger than "micro"...

    Beth Anne, I'm so impressed by your ability/poise/patience/grace to respond to such a rude dickhole (sorry, that's the only way I know how to describe him) and your bravery for sharing this story. Calling out that offense is an important part of making the world a better place for your family and for other people who struggle with the same injustices in this world. You're such an incredible parent and advocate.

    I wanted to also say something about this part you wrote: "Even when normal people are confronted with someone who they might deem oversensitive or easily offended (I don't count myself in this boat, but still, for sake of comparison, let's say I am in the boat.)." I think part of sensitivity is just plain awareness, combined with empathy. There should be no shame in that. Most of the people I've encountered who are dismissive (and rude) and say that so-and-so is "just too sensitive" are really just bad listeners - they don't care about the hurt person's experience, they don't care to learn more, they don't care to open their minds and grow their perspectives. You have a right to be hurt/annoyed/bothered by insensitive, abrasive, and/or poorly-worded questions and comments, and people should learn that there are experiences outside of their own, and the world would be a better place if you take half a second to consider the other person's feelings.

    I wouldn't be surprised that the more you learn as a parent to Holden, the more sensitive you truly do become, but that's not a bad thing and that is not "overly" sensitive. It's called being a good person.

    1. Khiet,
      You bring up a really good point! You always have a unique take on things and make me think about something I hadn't considered before.

      "Most of the people I've encountered who are dismissive (and rude) and say that so-and-so is "just too sensitive" are really just bad listeners - they don't care about the hurt person's experience, they don't care to learn more, they don't care to open their minds and grow their perspectives."

      This is true in so many cases. The person who fails to acknowledge or understand someone who was hurt by racism, hurt by comments regarding a serious illness, hurt by comments regarding the loss of a loved one, hurt by comments regarding the number of children they have or don't have, hurt by comments regarding their parenting, hurt by comments regarding their spiritual beliefs, and the list goes on forever.

      We can choose to listen and seek to understand and have a productive discourse, or we can be rude and dismissive, shutting the door and with it our minds and compassion.

    2. And the world surely needs more compassion. Good thing you are one of the ones with such a big heart full of it!

  4. I think you have answered your question already. The problem is you made assumptions. By your description of the elderly couple, do you believe that they were Christians? If not they have every excuse to be mean and cruel and unloving. I know our first instinct is to protect those which we care for, but as Christ hung on the cross God understood it was sin which nailed him there. As Christians we are commanded to forgive and love one another. Remember that our act of kindness may be the turning point for another's journey.

    1. And how was I unkind? I essentially turned the other cheek for them. Having an actual discourse with them seemed impossible when they walked away and told me to go to hell. There was no unkindness on my part. And, for the record, I think every parent does an incredibly kind thing by keeping their children away from awful people in the world, if they are able to.

  5. ohmygoodness! big hugs to you (sorry Holden - but your Mommy needs a hug lol) I'm sitting here in disbelief! You handled that with true Grace!! And Holden is one lucky lil guy to have you!!

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  7. Great Post! Our daughter doesn't have any condition except she is very obviously a different skin color than both of us. Our question is often "Where did you get her?" I've struggled with answering this. Usually I say Florida, they look shocked and we both laugh because they are just positive I went to China. I'm a flippant/sarcastic person by nature. Occasionally I would say, "The bargain bin at Target" just to be mean but I realized it was a rude response to a rude question AND not something I wanted my daughter to hear so I stopped being mean. I'm not sure what it is about adoption which makes everyone feel like they have the right to ask me whatever they want when they want. I like reading other people's stories to hear how they handle the situation. That couple was simply plain rude but with that kind of anger I usually make up a backstory for them to make them more human. Like they were in a bad mood because they had ran out of little blue pills and neither had gotten any in awhile. Then I can feel sorry for them and not angry back.

    Congratulations on your beautiful wonderful son!!! With your compassionate nature, I'm sure soon you both will be handling these questions like pros.