Incident on a Plane

At the end of the flight, two boys sitting one row apart stood up and discovered each other. Neither of them could have been more than 7-years-old. One little guy held a Buzz Lightyear action figure; the other gripped a pile of Pokémon cards in his hands. While waiting for people on the plane to file out, they boys introduced themselves and chattered about their love for Minecraft and Legos.

“We have lots in common!” Jesse announced.

For a few minutes, the boys lived without fear of loving or not being loved. Neither was afraid of being rejected. They stood with their hearts open, unafraid of being hurt. And they were actually doing a pretty good job of it.

“Also, we both have something wrong with us.” Mason pointed to his mouth. Anyone could see the brackets and rubber bands on his tiny teeth. “I have braces, and you have those things on your ears.”

Jesse’s mother pressed her son against her hip. “Are you talking about Jesse’s Super Special Auditory Amplification System?” she asked. I could practically hear her inner monologue. Stay calm. He’s just a child. He’s not trying to be cruel.

hearing-aids-heart“No,” Mason shook his head. “I’m talking about his hearing aids.

The plane was emptying quickly and Jesse’s mother asked her son to take one last look around to make sure he had all his belongings. As Jesse bent down, she leaned in to say something.

“Work with me here, Mason,” she whispered. “One day, your teeth will be straight. This hearing loss thing is forever.”

Jesse popped up like a meerkat. He handed his mother some candy wrappers, which she pushed into her pocket. Grabbing her suitcase from out of the overhead bin, she guided her son out of the row so he could walk down the narrow aisle in front of her.

“Jesse!” Mason waved his plastic Buzz Lightyear in the air. “Bye Jesse!” But the boy with the Pokémon cards didn’t turn around, and Mason looked wounded.

“You shouldn’t have mentioned his hearing aids!” Mason’s mother scolded. Throwing her purse over her shoulder, she pulled her son out the door.

The boys didn’t mean to hurt each other.

They didn’t.

But mothers love.

And a mother’s love, which sometimes seems weak can also make us fierce. We want the world to appreciate our most precious people the way we do.

But isn’t this life? And don’t we, adults, sometimes find ourselves in these kinds of situations? Sometimes we make the wrong assumptions. We may inadvertently touch a tender place near someone’s heart. We may injure someone and never understand what it is that we did to hurt them. Or we may feel injured or rejected ourselves.

In airports, people carry suitcases and backpacks, but people lug around invisible baggage, too.

With friends, we like to think we have an inkling, but this is not always the case. Sometimes the feelings in our friend’s hearts are as far away as a distant galaxy or an exotic sounding destinations, like Kamakura or Fuzhou.

If only we could all activate our own Super Special Auditory Amplification Systems and really hear what’s going on inside each other’s heads. If only we weren’t so quick to believe the worst about each other.

Ever had an interaction with a stranger that wasn’t well received? How about a positive one? Do you talk to strangers on planes?

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65 responses to “Incident on a Plane

  1. On your last comment prompt: yes. I talk to strangers on planes, in airports, while waiting for my turn at the grocery store…

    I didn’t realize I had this never-met-a-stranger trait until several years ago, and it’s blossomed. I come by it honestly. My dad could talk to anyone, learn the pertinent and unique details about them, within minutes of meeting them.

    Used to embarrass (and impress) the hell out of me.

    Frequently Sometimes, my brain gets ahead of my mouth and a statement is misunderstood. I remember joking with an old boss when we moved into new offices and everyone pitched in to vacuum, dust, etc. I said I had something new to add to my job skills. He took it to mean I thought I was above cleaning and fired back at me. At least with that encounter, I had the opportunity to clarify. “You mistook my meaning. I meant if my sales figures don’t improve, I’ll be doing this for a living.”

    The worst are those where I know I’ve somehow alienated someone important to me, and they play their hurt close to their chest. I’m guilty of that myself. If only we could be open and honest…

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  2. I believe that we adults often speak first and think later. If the mom had only let the conversation play out, she might have realized that interjecting her feelings into the boy’s conversation wasn’t necessary. If she had been patient maybe her son would have said something to her later about his hearing aids being forever and that the boy would someday get his braces off and she could have turned it into a teachable moment. But she couldn’t, which I understand, but she maybe should have. I’ve learned through my daughter that often it’s best to say nothing and let her come to me if she needs my help. I have jumped in to quickly in the past but am now trying to let her lead the way and only ask me if she needs me. (she’s in college so it is slightly different, I know.)

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    • Betsy: You are so right. We parents are so quick to jump in and want to rescue, but I can only assume that this mother has gotten used to having to be on the defensive to protect her cub. As the mother of a teenager, I think “learning to shut up” is the most challenging lesson I’ve had to learn…so far.

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  3. I’m still working on talking to people because I always think that I’m not an interesting person. My initial nervousness is often taken as snobbery by new people I meet and that always puts me on the back foot from the very beginning.

    With strangers, my interactions are generally quite positive. They mostly involve people asking for directions and I’m always able to help out there. It’s the interactions with the new female friends that generally hit a few bumps before finding their way to a comfy place.😉

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  4. So sad and touching, too. Since I’m blessed to have three boys who are healthy (mostly, but nothing severe like hearing loss), I can’t fully experience what the mother is going through. (Of course, the mother’s instinct to protect is pretty universal). It must be so wearing, day after day, when a mom is battling with her own worry and sadness in seeing her child struggle with a lifetime disability.

    That being said, I wondered what Jesse’s reaction was to Mason’s comment. You didn’t describe that. If he was super-hurt, then certainly the mother jumping in was the best thing to do; if Jesse was taking it in stride, the ideal approach (do we EVER get to implement the ideal approach? I’m only speaking academically here) might have been to let it play out between the boys. I do hope this mom gets to the point where she can do that – it will save her sanity and enable her son to tap into his own sense of resilience. He’s going to have these sorts of conversations hundreds of times in his childhood, on the playground and elsewhere, without his mother there to jump in.

    Fab topic, Renee!

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    • Jesse’s face. He hadn’t have a chance. His mother gave him a directive and then she intervened. I am learning to say less, now that my son is a teenager; I can only assume this mom is used to defending her cub. People can be pretty insensitive. I’m sure she’s had to handle plenty of miserable situations, but this wasn’t one of them — at least in my opinion. And I’m with you: this boy is going to have to find his voice and learn to answer for himself. I’m sure he will. Eventually.

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  5. I only talk to the stranger on the train.

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  6. The interesting thing about children is their innocence and lack of filter in these types of situations. That boy was just trying to find common ground with his new friend, and in his mind, both of those things were the same. Both of them had something they were wearing to adjust a problem. He wasn’t criticizing, he was only bonding. It’s the parental protection and filter worked into that conversation that turns an innocent connection into a more serious and provocative statement. Children are sponges and mirrors, and always absorb and reflect what those around them are displaying and projecting. It’s just how children learn. This boy was not being mean, but there are both children and adults who have and will, so this mom has honed her protective skills. Unfortunately, her protectiveness also projects a sense of there being something wrong to protect. Sometimes, as parents, the best thing to do is nothing. That would have been best in this situation. But, parenting doesn’t have a rulebook, so there is no way to know when to protect and when not to. Instinct is all we have. That mom was just trying to protect her cub, which is completely reasonable and understandable.

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    • Hi Misty: Yes. That’s it, exactly. This mom had her protective instincts so refined that her claws came out pretty quickly — and she took a swipe at a little boy who, in my opinion, was just looking to connect for a few moments. It kind of bummed me out, but it was understandable, too. I thought of all the moments where I’ve probably done something similar. We all have, right?

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  7. Naomi Hattaway

    I wish people were better at listening. I wrote a piece not too long ago about that … women seem to often forget to just listen. It’s pretty powerful when you realize how hurtful it is to not be heard … (and yes, I talk to “strangers”)

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  8. I talk to anybody and everybody who will listen, and sometimes to those who won’t the same way I do here in the comments or on Twitter, so you can imagine how well I’m received by certain people. I often pray to have long layovers or delays so I can go to an airport bar and meet new peeps! It drives my wife nuts that I can make new friends almost instantaneously, but I just can’t help being so lovable.

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    • You are an interesting paradox, Don. You are naughty and raunchy — but you have a heart of gold. I know that better than anyone because of the beautiful letter that you sent to TechSupport. I can’t wait for the world to see part of it here.

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  9. blowingoffsteamandmore

    I love this story. I agree with what some of the others above are saying about the mother interjecting her own feelings into the conversation which may have otherwise remained innocent. I have to stop myself all the time with my son when I see him doing or saying something that makes me cringe and think others will judge him but I stay back and let it happen as it should. He needs to find his own way without my baggage, as you said. Most of the time I discover that I am wrong in the way I thought he would be received. No one said being a parent is easy! We all learn as we go and we all make mistakes. All you can do is try your best! Do I talk to strangers? All day long! Staying at home with a 3 & 5 year old means I jump on any and all adult interaction. I can only assume the cashier’s at the grocery store want to hear about my day, right?

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    • I’m learning to shut up too! It’s soooo hard, especially since we spend so much time with our children when they are defenseless. We learn that we need to protect them, that we need to keep our claws at the ready. But once they find their voices? Well, we probably would do better to let them hash things out. But boy… it can sure be painful to stand by on the sidelines and let things play out. So much easier to just use one quick paw swipe.

      Hold onto those babies, darlin’. As the mamma to a soon-to-be 14-year old son, I can tell you that I’m craving conversation more than ever. Talk about silence. *weep* Those poor cashiers at the grocery store. I’m heading there now with a big order!

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  10. Loved your story! I have witnessed interaction between kids and parents who feel they need to intervene in conversations. I would love to say I have NOT been that parent…but alas, I cannot make that claim. We do have a tendency as parents/moms to be protective of our children, but under those particular circumstances I think I would have been more understanding that the statement came from another child, not an adult. THEN the mommy claws would have come out because adults know better…where kids do not. It was an innocent statement.
    I talk to people all the time, all over the place….on planes, trains, grocery lines, the post office and restaurants. I love asking questions and getting people to talk, but I try to be sensitive to their space too. If they don’t want to talk, I leave them alone. But my life has been made so much richer by making friends in the oddest places. The gift of gab….it’s a good thing!🙂

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    • Hi Courtney. I’m learning to be quieter when it comes to rescuing my kid. This year was rough for me. He had a disorganized teacher who really didn’t provide the best guidelines for his students. My son was going nuts, which made me go nuts! I got too involved with the school but eventually I realized it was time to stop. My kid needed to figure out how to deal with his crappy teacher. It was hard, but I think we both learned a lot from that one stinky teacher.

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  11. Great story about perspective – kids don’t say mean things on purpose – they notice things that are different, it’s natural and it wasn’t meant to be mean, it was just interpreted that way and the mom’s response about the audio system seems like she’s carrying some baggage and related to her son…

    We truly don;t know the bags we are all carrying.. thanks

    The last time I flew I was seated next to a woman who was holding a small child – less than a year old. She was older, not as old as me, but not young either, maybe early 40s’.. I wasn’t certain if the child was hers or her grand daughter, or a niece… so I said – ‘you have a beautiful child, she seems to enjoy flying.’ The woman responded ‘Oh she’s not mine, she’s my granddaughter, I am holding her for my daughter a few seats back.’ We had a nice conversation and it could have been very awkward if I had started the conversation another way…

    I have been mistaken for my daughter’s grandfather – I have grey hair and this was a few years back – I was offended – I don’t look that old, nor do I act that old…..but where that incident happened it is possible for me to have been a grand-dad! They start young, too young..

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    • Clay, I’m sure that woman didn’t mean to imply that you looked old. And I’m guessing she didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. She was just looking for a way into a conversation, right? As awkward as it was, it sounds like she was trying to reach out and, perhaps, from her limited life experience, men with grey hair had to be grandfathers. The exchange obviously stuck with you and made you more sensitive about how you interact with others; maybe you changed her assumptions and changed the way she interacts with people, too. You think?

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      • No, she didn’t mean on offend me – it’s how I took it… You are right she was trying to engage me in conversation. We all bring our way of looking at the world with all our experiences and values – thanks

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        • I just meant that I’ve been that woman, accidentally stuck my foot in my mouth and not known quite what to do to make it better. These days I try really hard not to take things so personally, but I’m much pretty cautious about my words. I know they can and have hurt people in the past.

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  12. I love this post. Sometimes, many times, I think we protect our kids too much. I think they’re far more resilient than we think we are, especially when words are spoken out of curiosity and matter-of-fact-ness rather than mocking.

    I speak to strangers a lot of the time, trying to find the commonality, trying to find what I’m supposed to learn from them. My husband laughs at this trait (lovingly).

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    • Thanks for bopping in, Leanne. You know I agree with you with the overprotecting thing. Sometimes it’s hard to know the exact line, when to jump in and when to stay out.

      I used to talk to strangers more than I do now. I’ve become more introverted of late. Kinda weird.

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  13. I work in retail and so I have many, many random interactions with strangers. I tend toward humor and often enough I joke around with strangers in a very familiar way, which can go wrong. I’ve done it in comments as well. It’s awful when you say something in humor and it’s taken the wrong way.

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  14. Exceeeeeeellent.

    I love the way your writing has substance and depth, Renee.

    I’ve learned that kids “figure it out.” Standing back without intervening, I ‘ve continually been surprised at their intelligence, acceptance, & tolerance.

    SOOOOO unlike adults!

    Xxx

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    • Unlike adults, indeed. Adults are so quick to pick at each other, so fast to assume the worst. In my experience, children keep their hearts wide open, even if they have been wronged many times. That said, I understand the mama on the airplane acting a bit like a lion. I’m sure she’s had to deal with plenty of insensitive people and has learned to protect her cub.

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  15. I always tell my friends, when they start bitching about so and so did such and such, that you never truly know what goes on in other people’s houses and hearts. This post is a great reminder–thank you.

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  16. Because I’m hyper-sensitive about my little dude, I’m hyper-sensitive about other people’s kids, too. So I’ve been on both sides many, many times.

    As for talking to strangers on planes, whaddoyouthink? I’m now Facebook friends with the guy who sat next to me coming back from Paris last year.😉

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  17. I almost never speak to people on planes other than I always say hello when someone sits down next to me. If they initiate a conversation I’ll usually open right up, but I’m not the one who starts it. Just not my thing I guess. Regarding the situation on the plane, I don’t think I would have had any input as I guess I didn’t see that the first kid really said anything insulting or out of line. Sometimes adults should slow down and think like kids more often!

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  18. I feel like I very often touch the tender place near someone’s heart, even those I know, because I have a tendency to do what I consider nervous talking or I can’t find the right words. I think things come out wrong a lot. Great post.

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    • K: That’s how I feel, exactly. I often walk away from conversations wishing I hadn’t said something. I definitely feel safer behind my keyboard, where I can delete delete delete before i ever push PUBLISH, y’know?

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      • Even then I’m horrible. I write and rewrite. Then I think, maybe I shouldn’t have said that. You can’t hear a person’s tone of voice. Then it’s just out there.

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        • I do that, too — second guess myself. It can actually be a little paralyzingly, ya know? Working on it. Yeah Write pushes me to release my words into the world, and I meet so many other wonderful writers.

          Do you ever edit after you have pushed publish?

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          • Not unless in the middle of the night I realize I’ve misspelled a word! To a copy editor, that’s a nightmare and I’ll remember at the oddest times that I didn’t go back and look something up.

            I’m tempted to try Yeah Write but I have trouble with writing prompts. I get stumped majorly and it feels like homework. Does it feel that way to you or is it inspiring?

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  19. This gave me goose bumps. Poor little guys, they just didn’t understand and meant absolutely no harm.😦

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  20. I think in general, people can be too defensive and judgmental here in the US. I just got back from a trip to Europe where we traveled by train, plane and subway. People there had very wide parameters. They were very generous and understanding with us even when we didn’t speak the language very well.
    It was a very nice break… As soon as we got into the Dallas airport, the mood completely changed. People working there were very rude.
    The kids should have been left alone to enjoy each others company. Sheesh!

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    • I remember having a similar feeling when we returned to the US after an extended stay in Europe where people seemed to be much more kind and patient. Oddly, this was NOT at all how I felt when I made the same trip in the 1980s. On that trip, it was the reverse: coming home felt so much more relaxed. I think we have lost track of just how ramped up and angry we are over on this side of The Pond. Welcome home, Soooooz.

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      • I think things have changed since then. This generation is very open and compassionate. The internet has made the world very small. I LOVED the people there! They were also respectful in subtle ways. I will be writing about it soon!

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  21. I have a very tall child, he is eleven but looks older because of his height and I am protective of him because of it. People expect more of him, to act older than he is. I wish I could put a badge on him “I’m only 11.” I have spoken up a few times and told people he’s only eleven to which the predictable response is, wow he’s so tall, as if that is an offence – I know, by then I am on edge and anyway they said it would be touchy for me.

    We really do love them so hard.

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  22. So sad these moms had to get involved prematurely. In my mind, the moms intruding on this conversation just reinforced Jesse’s hearing loss as a shameful thing, something to be tiptoed around instead of embraced and treated like any other fact of life. I could see myself doing the same thing as a mom and feel sad for all of them. What a gorgeous post, Renee. Your writing is beyond evocative and rich here. Gorgeous!

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  23. I’ve been a mama bear to my cub at times, too. As I’ve commented before, my daughter was adopted from Central America and, due to her mocha skin, she is frequently asked (even at her job), “Where are you from?” This always rankled me as she grew up. Recently, I read a great explanation of it–you are “otherizing” the person, instead of waiting for a related moment in the conversation. Made sense to me. Having taught young children for many years, I know kids usually observe differences innocently, as on the plane incident. It was a teachable moment for later, gone badly.
    This was a great post, Renee–well done! Thank you.

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  24. I try to be friendly but am such an awkward person I tend to stay quiet instead. I once told a five year old she was a mean little girl, though, when I caught her pointing and laughing at my daughter’s clothes. The quiet swoop in so elegantly written about here? That is a skill I would give my right arm to have when it comes to protecting my kids’ feelings.

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  25. This is tender and touching, Renee. I can so understand that mom’s desire to protect. But much as we might want to do battle for our kids, we adults are over-equipped to fight with children. We have to let them work it out themselves whenever possible.

    I am by turns friendly and guarded with strangers, depending on the mood. I like to THINK I am outgoing, but not always. How about you?

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  26. 😦 I feel bad for Mason.. More than likely his mother was the one who made Jesse uncomfortable..

    I have the hardest time conversing with people:/

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  27. I love the way the children struck up a conversation with no reservations. I tend to be wary of adults who do this, always assuming someone wants something from me. I need to be less cynical and more childlike, I think.

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  28. I talk to everyone. But ironically I was going to write about a similar incident this week and never got to it…When my boy was about 3 he insisted on wearing red boots and a red clown nose wherever we went. I was not about to fight about silly stuff so no biggie to me if he wore it…one day in the grocery store he is in his usual gettup and another kid about his age is walking with his father down the same aisle in a similar outfit…he had a pair of anttenae de-le-boppers and yellow boots…no one said a word but the boys just smiled, hugged each other like long lost pals and then went on their merry way…if it could only be that easy for adults.

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  29. i love zoe’s moment too!! i can see it!! it’s beautiful!! as for the plane kids, it seems the mom was oversensitive and overreacted. the boys were 7, at that age, things like that don’t matter at all. but of course, i’m not that mom and i wasn’t there..

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  30. I am polite to strangers on planes but I don’t go out of my way to chat them up. I have to do so much talking/listening/getting to know you stuff at work so it just seems like more “work” to me. Though I sure do love people watching and conversation listening when I travel. I HARDLY ever travel alone so there really isn’t much opportunity for me to make new friends.

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  31. Very thought-provoking post. Kids can be so candid yet still so naive to sensitivities.

    My mother talks to everyone, everywhere. There are no strangers to her. As a sort of reaction, I suppose, I really don’t talk to strangers on planes. Well, let me amend. I don’t initiate conversation, but I’m happy to participate in one if it’s started. Of course, we don’t really travel by plane these days. It’s all road trips for us.

    But a little while ago, I was at a Burlington Coat Factory, and the cashier was someone who I made some judgments about (shame on me, I know). We ended up getting into a conversation, and it was the nicest treat. She was a real doll, she just expressed herself and held herself in a way that was very foreign to me, but once we started talking, it was so easy to see the similarities. I try to remember that interaction whenever I sense my own walls going up.

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  32. LOVE this! I’m a habitual people watcher and am constantly amazed at how much life goes on around me. This post reminded me of my son and how he would have behaved with that little boy. Sometimes I think kids don’t really see the differences like we grown-ups do. They just see another kid.

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  33. I really loved this. The assumptions and how to deal with differences and learning how to speak in ways that are “right.” It’s all so hard. I want to protect my kids so hard, and I know that life is just going to come at them with life. Great way of putting this.

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  34. I love your message and ideas, yet am so sad for Mason. Such a shame that Jesse’s mom heard what she expected to hear, but didn’t listen to what Mason was seemingly trying to say.

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  35. Great piece Renee, I could feel that moment, all the joy and the pain. I agree with Betsy and several other comments, parents have to butt out and let the kids do their thing, that’s how they learn. Sometimes kids say things that hurt when they don’t mean to, but sometimes the casual way they deal with things, that parents worry about, are the best. I think we can learn from them. My kids say that all sorts of strangers talk to me and tell me the darnedest things, I’m a magnet, maybe it’s cause I enjoy hearing the stories. Lately though, I find myself blurting out the wrong thing (I was always so sensitive) more often now so I’m a bit less gregarious, think it’s the menopausal mind mash.

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  36. I really enjoyed this piece. That interaction between the boys was so sweet and honest. I thought it was great that Mason named the hearing aids. How awesome that he actually knew the proper name for them. However, I can totally understand why Jesse’s mother would feel protective of her son.

    I’ve worked with many people who have disabilities, and children are always curious about difference. Actually, adults are too, but most of us don’t really know how to express that curiosity, or we’re kind of uncomfortable, so we look away instead of engaging, and sometimes that fear and/or discomfort keeps us from being open and making connections.

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  37. I talk to everyone everywhere. Strangers beware. Typically, I’m well received, but not always. And I feel for Mason, who has no idea what’s going on here. On the one hand, I love that Jesse’s Mom had a great way to explain things to her son in a positive way. But in another, I wish she had given him a script for the inevitable questions from other kids. Mason was observing a similarity between them (in his mind). If Jesse could have said, “Nah, these are my Super Special Auditory Amplification System” and pointed to the hearing aids himself, I suspect the encounter would have gone better. But I am, of course, blessed with hindsight the kids didn’t have.

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    • Hi Sue.

      I think that is at the very heart of this piece: the difference between the way adults and children handle difference. Kids are utterly fearless, naming the obvious without judgment. They inquire, but they don’t judge. They try to understand. It is us, the adults around the children, who don’t know quite what to do or say. We are the ones who are paralyzed. I tried to convey how I was paralyzed in this post, a bystander watching this drama unfold. I don’t think I conveyed that very well… I’m glad you got it. But I’m not surprised. After all, you have those new Super Cool Sunglasses.

      PS: Loved your piece this week as well as your comment about your grandmother & her ophthalmologist friend.

      Like

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