What to Do When Someone Is Different

My sons and I look different from other people, but we'd rather you ask questions than ignore us.
Meg Zucker and family

One clear and sunny day last November, my husband, John, and I decided to take our three kids, Ethan, 8, Charlie, 5, and Savanna, 4, to the top of the Empire State Building. When we described the tall building and the fact that they'd be more than a thousand feet off the ground, they were ecstatic.

As we arrived at the 86th-floor Observatory deck, their excitement became contagious. John and my aunt, who'd joined us for the adventure, took Charlie and Savanna in one direction, and I showed Ethan the breathtaking vista over lower Manhattan and the Hudson River. As we were gazing at the Statue of Liberty, I noticed that another mom and her son, who was probably about 6, were looking at us.

Suddenly, the boy pointed at us. "Hey, Mom!" he called out. Ethan turned around, no longer oblivious to the scene that was about to unfold. The boy opened his mouth to say something to us, but then his panic-stricken mother quickly pulled him away into the crowd of tourists.

We have been in plenty of situations like this before. Born with a rare condition called ectrodactyly, I have only one finger on each hand, shortened forearms, and one toe on each foot. Ethan and Charlie were also born with ectrodactyly. Given our unusual appearance, we're not surprised when people stare at us. Ethan, in particular, approaches the subject matter-of-factly -- almost like, "I have two fingers, and most other kids don't, so what?" After all, the boys' lives are just like those of other kids -- they have school, afternoon play with their friends, sports, and family time. It's just a few moments a day or a week when someone, out of ignorance or just insensitivity, reminds them that they were born different.

Although my Mother Bear instincts often kick in at these times, my mission is not to overprotect them. But I certainly understand how they might feel sometimes. I remember years ago when I visited some friends and their three children for a birthday party. It had been ages since I'd seen them. When I arrived, one of their kids looked at me with terror in his eyes and then ran out of the room. Usually children are interested and ask about my hands, but in that instant I felt like a monster.

Once I found my friend in the kitchen, I told her that I thought her son was afraid of me. "Oh, Meg, don't be ridiculous, he's only 5!" she said. "We decided to prepare the kids about the way you look so they'd be on their best behavior and wouldn't make you uncomfortable in front of other guests. Don't worry, they'll just love you!" Aha! Now I knew why I felt like a creature from some faraway lagoon -- my friends' so-called preparation had simply freaked out their son.

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