In multi-national cities like Vienna, we find ourselves on this adventure called life, alongside people of different cultural, linguistic, and ideological backgrounds. And this makes the adventure both trickier and more enriching at the same time.
A few years ago, in our local playground in the Netherlands, a woman and her grandson noticed that our second son doesn’t have a left hand. I explained that this was how he was born. And I shared what others with a similar arm had told us – prosthetics can be uncomfortable, heavy and unnecessary for much of day-to-day life. Some choose not to use a prosthetic at all.
Her response, “But still he’d want one (a prosthetic) so that, you know, he doesn’t stand out…”
A simple statement and yet the bigger context– that you should cover up or hide the things which make you different – was deeply felt.
Humans have an inbuilt desire to belong, to ‘fit in’. For our ancestors, belonging was a question of survival – not being part of the group made you more vulnerable to the outside world and could mean not accessing vital resources held by the group.
The woman’s suggestion of a prosthetic was probably kindly meant. But I struggled at the idea of my son needing to wear something uncomfortable and unhelpful, just so he would be allowed to belong. As a Black woman living in Europe, I know firsthand that any belonging which requires you to hide parts of yourself away, isn’t really belonging at all.
I want a different message to accompany my sons on their life journeys. Together we are learning what it means to not be afraid to stand out but to pursue lives that are out-standing. In how we live, treat others and care for the world.
Here is a bit of what we’ve learnt so far….
According to some studies (and a quick search on google), a 4-year-old can ask up to 300 questions a day! For all the caregivers out there, this is likely nothing new.
Yet, often, if adults see their child looking at our son’s ‘little arm’ they will tell their child to be quiet or pull their child away.
And I get it –as adults, we don’t want to say the wrong thing. Fear of ‘cancel culture’ has us keeping a lid on our curiosity and opting for silence instead. But, as children instinctively seem to know, asking questions is how we grow as humans.
Being curious opens our minds to possibilities beyond our own stories and can help break down the barriers that our differences can create.
Flip the Script
Ever heard the saying “you can’t be, what you don’t see”?
It’s a helpful reminder of how much my own children learn by example, by what they see me doing and how they hear me talking.
As we embrace our children’s curiosity, we can also guide them by modelling questions to ask.
For example, if your child sees our son and asks : “What’s wrong with his arm?”
You can model a better, kinder question back. Like, “Yes, I noticed his left arm looks different. I wonder if he likes playing with [your child’s favourite toy] like you do? Maybe he has things that help him, like [another person] has glasses to help them?”
Equally, book series like Little People, Big Dreams have been a favourite of ours for introducing stories of humans from all over the world who have made a positive impact to those around them.
Flipping the script through modelling questions and storytelling can spark important and interesting conversations with each other.
Not that I need any excuse for cake, but celebrating our differences and similarities has been a big part of our journey, too.
International/Global Days are great for raising awareness and sharing diverse stories that makes our world so beautiful. As I write this, it is National Inclusion Week (25 September – 1 October). In April, it’s Limb Difference Awareness Month. I’m glad these special weeks & months exist.
But these reminders of our collective power, creativity and kindness are not one offs. It’s a daily practice for us all.
Out of our experience with our son’s limb difference – we love it when adults and children ask questions that include but are not limited to his left arm.
It fills our heart with joy when no-one assumes that he can’t do something and instead offers support only after asking or being asked.
And there is nothing better than seeing all our children being invited to join in group play with others and being shown, in no uncertain terms, that they belong.
Just as they are 🎉
Dominique van Werkhoven
A dual citizen : British (by birth) and Dutch (by choice), Dominique has lived in Vienna since 2020. When not playing around with her little crew of three gorgeous sons, she is found working on the business she runs with her husband (The Werks) or sharing thoughts and memes on Instagram.