“My mom said you are welcome to come to our home and play anytime!” I turned, astonished, to look at who said this to my son as we were waiting to cross the street to go into school one morning. A sweet fourth-grade girl, whom I recognized as another student with exceptional needs, was standing beside him smiling.
No child had ever said this to him before.
I knew this kind gesture was for me and my son. I had shared some struggles with this little girl’s mom during a conversation at our public library a few weeks earlier because our children share similar traits and diagnoses. This thoughtful and friendly act warmed my heart and made me happy. There was, however, a flinch of pain as well. Deep down, while grateful for this new friendship, I longed for someone from the church to receive my son so openly. Sadly, I have found that these are the relationships that have been the most difficult to develop.
It’s natural for our kids to gravitate toward a certain kind of person — someone with whom it’s easy to talk to and get along with. There is nothing wrong with that. Yet, I think we, as parents, should become more purposeful about helping our kids get to know children with special needs. They are the ones who stick out because they are always too loud or usually say something awkward — in all honesty, the ones that most kids think are weird or annoying.
Here are five reasons I believe we should encourage our child to be friends with the kid who’s different:
1. Evil can only be overcome with good
Kids that stick out because of disabilities, an awkward social awareness, or other things not perceived as “positive” are often singled out by bullies. It’s not enough to tell our children they shouldn’t bully. In addition, we need to teach them phrases to use that help stick up for a bullied child. We should teach them how to treat others the way they would want to be treated (Luke 6:31). We can even teach them to reach out to that child, and even give a compliment. Children who are teased regularly can store anger, but sweet words can restore (Prov. 16:24).
2. The kid who is different has a lot to offer
The children who are different are made in God’s image. And they usually have special traits to offer: Kindness, generosity, a learned resilience, creativity, a readiness to befriend, loyalty, and humor. We should teach our children to give them a chance. We can help them get over the initial awkwardness of developing a new friendship so that they see more of God’s beauty revealed through their distinctions.
3. It provides growth and maturity
Our hearts will expand as we see the world from the perspective of someone whose life experience is different than our own or whose brain shows them things we cannot see. My son has taught me how to be more gracious because he makes me ask “why.” His logic is so contrasting to my own that if I don’t ask “why,” I risk major misunderstanding. Our God sees hearts (1 Sam. 16:7), and we can learn more about others’ hearts when we simply ask questions instead of drawing conclusions based on our experience of what we perceive to be normal.
4. The parents are often hurting
The most pain I have ever experienced is the pain of watching my child be rejected or teased over and over again. And life gets lonely for the parent of a child with significant needs. It can often be hard, exhausting, and frustrating. Depression is usually around the corner, waiting to swallow that parent in darkness. We can be a flicker of light in their midst. Seeing people, especially other children, enjoy our child is life-giving.
5. Talk means nothing without action
First John 3:18 tells us to love, not just by talking, but by doing. Actions that seem small to us can mean the world to a lonely, hurting child. We should be actively reaching out to those around us who are different. When we see them at church, we can tell them we’re glad to see them. Then, we can show interest by having a conversation. We can help create play dates. It’s okay if things get a little awkward for a bit. Our kids will learn through the experience. And let’s stop judging kids who continually act out, and their parents. Instead, we should pray for and encourage them. We, as parents, will be the ones to set an example of kindness to our kids by treating their friends with dignity and by befriending adults who are different than us.
One of the most loving actions a sister in Christ ever did for me and my son was to pray for God to give her a great love for him. Then, she encouraged a friendship between her son and mine. The genuine love she shows my child — one without annoyed tones or eye rolls — rubs off on her children, who also show kindness to my son. Her love shows the likeness of Jesus.
As a church, we should follow her example. We must recognize that children who challenge us to love more deeply are a gift. They teach us to love more like our heavenly Father who gladly pours out his forgiveness over the depths of our sin. Because of our faith in our risen Savior, and his Spirit in us, we can love all people and teach our children to do the same.
**This article originally appeared on the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission website.