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Identifying with Difference

  • Posted on June 17, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Will is at the stage of his development where he’s forming his own sense of values and his own identity. In short, he’s a teenager. This process starts much earlier, of course. And Will, being both my husband’s and mine, has strong opinions and a will to argue the point. Even when he’s wrong. Even when we can prove, unequivocally, that he’s wrong. Facts are facts. He resents that when he’s on the wrong side of them.

I remember, as a child, being very similar in that respect. Don’t worry. It is possible to grow out of that sort of thing. Unfortunately, far too many people don’t.

Anyway, despite his will to form his own values and identity, Mark and I take our responsibility seriously when it comes to helping him shape those values and his identity. We look for opportunities and we snatch at them.

Will and I still read together. We’ve recently read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead and have moved on to Xenocide. For those who aren’t familiar with these books, they are part of a series written by Orson Scott Card.

In Ender’s Game Ender/Andrew Wiggin is taken from his home at the tender age of six to join a military training facility where they train children to fight aliens. Ender exists specifically for this purpose: his brother was too cruel, his sister was too kind, so despite strictly enforced population controls, Ender was born with the hope that he’d be “just right.” And he was, especially after what they put him through. He was empathetic enough to understand his alien opponents, but ruthless enough to blow their digitized home world to atomic dust. After all, it’s just a video game, right?

In Speaker for the Dead, Ender is a grown man who has survived three thousands year, but is only 35-ish. Ain’t space travel a grand thing? He meets some new young people who have direct contact with a new alien race, but these people are still in the pre-agricultural stage and they’re different in a way nobody quite understands. He’s brought there to solve some serious dilemmas and to unravel some serious puzzles—at least, that’s why he comes. In the process, he starts a war to save the life of a young man who ends up on the wrong side of a fence.

Now, in Xenocide, they have to fight this war. The young man who ended up on the wrong side of the fence is suffering. The fence was electric, except more so. It was designed to create pain too intense for a human to climb the fence, but the young man tricked himself into climbing it and the experience left him with brain damage. So, now every time that character appears as the point of view character, his disability is a central part of the discussion.

All three books have stimulated important discussions. That’s why we read books like this together. But the disability factor is special for obvious reasons. It’s important to me that Will be able to see a similitude between not only himself and his less-functioning brothers, but also between himself, his brothers, and people with other disabilities (and other differences). For example, acknowledging Will’s initial reaction, “I’m glad I don’t have brain damage,” is important. Nobody asks for that, after all. It’s not what any of us want for ourselves.

But so is turning that statement around in two necessary ways:

  1. You have autism and that is not brain damage.
  2. People like Miro, who do have brain damage, are still people and still deserve to be heard, because they still have something to say, and you’re good at listening.

Do you try to help your children identify with those with differences that are different from their own? How do you do it?