My son doesn’t want to say hello.
Honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. At three-years-old he hasn’t exactly reached the height of civility. He shouts in the library and can’t sit still in church. He cries in public and prefers eating with his hands like a wild thing. As are most preschoolers, my son is both obstinate and obliging– a strange blend of delight and difficulty, charm and trouble.
Except when it comes to greeting strangers.
I’ve shared in the past about what it’s like going out in public when your child uses a wheelchair. I’ve compared us to a zoo exhibit or a band of circus clowns. It’s hard for folks to truly understand the commotion this kid creates until they spend an afternoon out and about with us. Our friends, the ones who join us from time to time, can tell you it’s a lot. Is it friendly? Yes. Nice? Almost always. A lot? Yes, that too.
Up until now, my kid was unfazed. He acknowledged onlookers with a princely wave and returned greetings from strangers with enthusiasm. Up until now he worked the room like a politician. He thrived in the fuss and took the attention in stride.But recently, something changed. I noticed it last weekend when two little girls approached us at the movie theater. I looked on as one of them watched him curiously while the other said hello, waving her mittened hand in awe.
My son’s reaction? Stony silence.
I tried to coax a response, “Buddy, these ladies are saying hello. Can you say hi?” But he tucked his chin, stared daggers at the floor, and chiseled a frown onto his face like a warning sign– exhibit closed. For a moment, I thought he might cry.
I offered the girls an excuse as we hurried past the ticket counter (“Thanks, ladies– but I think he’s feeling a bit shy today”), thinking his mood would pass.
But then the gentleman at the concession stand greeted him.
And later, a family of three who wandered over from the vending machines.
And then those two little girls again, trying to get his attention and asking about his wheelchair.
It was the same story every time. My three-year-old social butterfly, the Wal-Mart greeter of tot-dom, returned their advances with a scowl while excuses spilled from my lips like overzealous popcorn kernels– Sorry, he’s a bit shy today… Must be too excited about the movie to say hello… Maybe next time.
Like I said: my son doesn’t want to say hello. It feels weird.
It also feels right.
The thing is, as much as I want parents to encourage their kids to say hello, to let little ones ask questions, to show them we don’t shrink away from differences or shove curiosity under the rug– that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes we get tired. Sometimes, even strangers doing the right thing feels overwhelming– especially when the right thing happens over and over and over again. Sometimes advocates need a rest period. Sometimes zoo animals and circus clowns and mommies and little boys in wheelchairs want to frown and cry and shout in exasperation saying, “Stop looking at me! Stop saying hello! Today I am invisible.”
I’ve decided to be okay with that.
Because, audience elicits performance. Spectators elicit a show. But what if the show is a Saturday morning trip to the movies with your mother? And what if the performance is your life? And what if you’re only three years old and today you just want to be— without greetings or pleasantries, without questions or production?
The cheetahs at the zoo aren’t always sprinting.
The lions don’t always roar.
Even circus clowns stop their joking and rest from time to time.
We can’t be “on” at every moment. Seizing every single opportunity for connection would be madness. I want my son to understand his limits when it comes to sharing who he is with others. I need to remind myself that we are not obligated to be champions of differences or to spread disability awareness at all times. We are allowed to take a day off.
Still, I mean it when I tell people to keep saying hello. I really do believe it’s okay to ask questions. But if you come across a preschool scowl or a politely dropped excuse, just know that sometimes we are sleeping cheetahs and napping lions. Sometimes we are circus clowns, and we’re taking the day off.
Because maybe today isn’t about the world. Maybe today isn’t about awareness.
Maybe today is just about us.
I find it very difficult to strike a balance between seizing opportunities to spread awareness and not feeling obligated to preform for the benefit of others– and I almost always err on the side of performance because I’m afraid of missed opportunities. For those of you who have kids living with differences, how do you guys do it? How do you decide when to be super-duper open and when to say “It’s time for me to step back and dial down the openness because today is just about me and my kid”? How do you avoid awareness burnout? And, for those of you with “typical” kiddos (whatever that means!) would it bother you if my son totally shut down your kid’s friendly advances? How can I help make that less awkward?