I’m SO delighted for you to meet my dear friend, Courtney Westlake! We were roommates a couple years ago at She Speaks and I got hear first-hand about her journey as a mom to this adorable, BEAUTIFUL Brenna. I got to sit in a hotel room and listen to the story of Brenna’s birth and their daily challenge to keep her skin healthy so she can live each day. I was in awe of her bravery and dedication – and perspective to see Brenna’s purpose is much bigger than her skin.
Courtney’s quest for writing has never been about exploiting her daughter – it has truly been to bring dignity to a beautiful child and awareness of “true beauty” in our world. She gets an interesting view point as her mother – imagine the reactions they experience each day. Her story has challenged me to raise up KIND kids that look beyond skin and differences. I know you’ll enjoy this blog post Courtney. What a precious soul and mother.
Can We Raise Kinder Kids?
by Courtney Westlake
I saw the boys out of the corner of my eye, just a few of many children lingering around the gift shop at the zoo we were enjoying while on vacation.
But those boys didn’t simply pass by our family. Before I even saw him, I heard the words:
“Look at that girl! She’s beat-red! She looks so weird!!”
My heart pounding wildly, I turned to see this boy – around nine or ten years old –pointing from just a few feet away, his smirk and his finger extended at my four-year-old daughter, Brenna.
His pointing and his commenting didn’t cease until both my husband and I had each told him how unkind he was being and that he needed to stop, and even then, he disrespectfully retorted back at us before finally turning away, leaving our whole family shaken and upset.
On the same trip, just a few days later, we encountered another child around the same age as that boy. This little girl, however, walked by our family at the airport while waiting at baggage claim and detoured back to us.
“Excuse me,” she said politely with bright eyes. “I just wanted to tell you that your daughter is so cute!”
Two children, similar ages, who were looking at the same little girl – yet such opposite reactions. Why was one child able to recognize and express appreciation for the beauty in my daughter’s physical differences while the other child chose to ostracize her?
Our daughter Brenna was born with a severe genetic skin disorder, causing her to have a very unique appearance with thick, deep-red skin that often peels like a sunburn. She wears noticeable lotion, she is small in stature, and she has sparse hair on her head and body.
Over the years, our family has received reactions to Brenna’s visible differences from very positive to very negative, from very kind to almost cruel. We get asked a lot about what is “wrong” with her.
Brenna’s physical differences are extremely noticeable, but what we have realized since her birth is that indeed we are all very different, all created uniquely and wonderfully in God’s image and likeness, and there is certainly nothing wrong about that. And for each of us as parents, it is our responsibility to pave the way for our children so that they can begin to recognize the godly humanity of those around them first and foremost, rather than focusing on differences.
While Brenna may seem “different” at first, her different appearance doesn’t feel so strange when we can agree that we are all different; my daughter is just another kid like your children.
But how do we start? We open these conversations in our home and we begin learning about other people – appearances, abilities, cultures, experiences, backgrounds.
Ignorance is, in fact, not bliss. Ignorance means approaching a situation experience or person without understanding, and when we don’t understand, we have a very hard time accepting and appreciating.
Read with your children. There are so many wonderful children’s books that celebrate looking different or being yourself, and reading with your child can open up opportunities to discuss different feelings, interests and uniqueness in general. (Sign up for my email list to download a free guide to the best ones!)
Model an appreciation for differences. If your children see you socializing with people only like yourself and hear you making comments about someone else’s physical appearance, they will imitate that. However, the reverse is also usually true: if you are genuinely friendly and respectful to all those you come across, your children will naturally tend to model that behavior. Take your children to parks, activities and events where those around them aren’t necessarily mirrors of themselves, so they will be much less intimidated by visual differences. In fact, seeing others who look different than themselves on a regular basis means they probably won’t even notice the differences!
Help your kids relate to differences all around them. It can be very easy for children to forget that behind the “different” is someone just like them – someone who has loving parents and siblings, someone who may enjoy the same movies or like the same kinds of food or laugh at the same jokes.
Whenever a child questions Brenna’s skin, I always try to help them relate, like saying “she was born with special skin just like you were born with curly hair!” so that they better understand that physical differences are a part of everyone’s life. I also like to add that she loves Minnie Mouse and pizza because it shows them that even though Brenna looks different than they do, she is just another a kid! Being able to relate to someone helps a child feel more comfortable with that person, regardless of what they look like.
Kids learn by asking and seeing and experiencing, and that’s a wonderful thing. Young children in particular are inevitably going to ask questions about something they see that is different than what they are used to, and it’s important that difference not be a taboo subject. Even our family is not immune to this – Brenna has asked in several situations about another child’s disability! I simply encouraged her to speak kindly to the child directly, and through this, Brenna was able to connect with that child and learn about them in a very positive way.
Cultivating these conversations and lessons about how God created each of us so uniquely, but all in his image, will help foster the empathy our kids need to grow into respectful and understanding adults who treat others the way they want to be treated.
There are children who reach out to our family, to our daughter, to connect and compliment…and there are children who choose to be cruel about her differences – which are you raising your kids to be?
Visual difference can be found everywhere, from race to disabilities, and teaching our children about differences is essential to help them to become accepting, kind and respectful individuals who love others well, as Jesus called us to do.
Courtney is the author of newly released book A Different Beautiful. She lives in Illinois with her husband Evan and two children, Connor and Brenna. After Brenna was born with a severe skin disorder, Courtney began chronicling family life and experiences raising a child with physical differences and special needs on her blog. Her work has been published on sites such as the Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and Yahoo Parenting. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.