Arizona mom Stacey Gagnon was attending church with her family one Sunday when the biggest lesson didn’t come from the pulpit.
As Gagnon shared on Facebook, after one of her youngest children was embarrassed because of his appearance during children’s church, she chose to take a step back from teaching other parents’ children about acceptance.
Gagnon and her husband, Darren, have six children — four of whom were adopted with special needs. Her son, Joel, was born with a “craniofacial impairment” in which he lacks some bone structure in his face and is missing his right ear.
When the church service that day paused to let the youngest members of the congregation out for the children-only portion, Gagnon walked her three kids to the room, where many of the kids were already seated at the tables.
When she and Joel walked in, the room fell silent:
The minute we walked inside, the room became silent and every child stared or pointed at my son, Joel.
As she stood in the doorway she watched as every child looked at her son “with eyes wide and mouths open” as they were about to enter.
Mortified, Joel scurried to the back of the room and covered his face in his seat:
He had buried his head in his arms because you cannot hide in plain sight.
As Gagnon explained, she was about to address the curious tots about accepting differences in others but stopped short when she noticed Joel was hiding in the back:
My heart sank and the room remained silent as I walked back to Joel. I touched his shoulder and he raised eyes shiny with tears and a face red with shame. I knelt down and asked, “do you want to leave?” “Yes,” he whispered, and he stood and ran from the room.
In the past, Gagnon said she would have normally intervened to give a lesson to the other children about differences. But this time, she didn’t:
Today, I did not teach someone else’s kid because I was too busy holding my broken-hearted son.
Gagnon sat for the remainder of the service with Joel on her lap, reflecting on her decision to take her distressed son out of the room instead of forcing a lesson, when she saw what her little boy had written on her hand:
Today hurt. We went to a new church because our oldest son was speaking about his camp experience. The church dismissed…
Tears welled in my throat. My beautiful and loving son deserves so much more than stares and pointing. And I thought about what I didn’t do in that room today.
Then it dawned on her — it wasn’t her duty to teach other children about accepting people’s differences. The responsibility was up to their own parents:
So I ask all parents this, teach your children. Teach your children that many people look different. Show them pictures of people that look different. And then explain that it is not okay to stare at someone that looks different, it’s not okay to point. Teach them that my boy is the same on the inside as your child is. He loves Dodge Ram trucks, and Minecraft, and digging in the dirt. He loves ketchup, but does not love broccoli. And mostly, he does not like people staring or pointing out that he looks different. I don’t think he needs this pointed out, it’s something he lives with everyday.
Gagnon clarified she didn’t believe the other children were mean-spirited or intended to hurt her son, it’s just that they didn’t know how to respond when they saw someone who didn’t look like them:
I think no one has ever taught them. And so this post is asking you to take a moment tonight and talk about what to do when you see someone that looks different.
Gagnon’s post explained it’s as easy as parents showing their children pictures.
In a separate post, Gagnon admitted she had to tackle the issue in her own family when her children mocked a couple with dwarfism:
So I sat down and pulled up pictures on the internet and shared beautiful children around the world. I showed them Down syndrome, limb differences, wheelchairs, hydrocephalus…and for every child I shared about how they probably liked the very same things they did. And how on the inside they had the very same feelings.
In an interview with Mamamia, Gagnon said in light of the attention on her social media post, she’s had messages from parents around the world telling her they now share photos with their children to learn about differences as the first step toward acceptance.
And as Gagnon wants parents to know, the lesson isn’t limited to what a child may see: “Now teach your child that a beautiful person is found with the heart; not the eyes.”