The benefits of encouraging kids to embrace their differences

As parents, we all want our children to feel confident and proud of who they are. We go to great lengths to ensure they feel seen, heard, cared for and nurtured. But what do we do when our children feel like they don’t fit in because of their differences? That question was one of my motivations for writing “The Gift of Being Different” with my younger daughter Abigail.

For Abigail, decoding words seemed impossibly daunting from the start. There were days when, in second grade, Abigail was so deeply frustrated and confused that we were concerned she’d give up entirely. She began to compare herself to her classmates who grasped reading with relative ease. She was unusually observant and keenly aware that she didn’t learn the same way her peers did. “The Gift of Being Different” follows Abigail’s journey as she learns that dyslexia is her superpower and allows her to think and problem-solve in unique ways. Through the story, Abigail discovers that the thing that makes her different is, actually, the greatest gift of all.

Most kids will experience the realization that they are different from others in small and big ways. It could be something as simple as hair color, accent, height or something more serious like a diagnosis of dyslexia or ADHD. I’ve learned that the danger in having a diagnosis is that it can become a label and labels can significantly affect outcomes. As parents, our job is to reframe these differences. For example, a child who has trouble making friends in grade school may believe they are unlikeable and not good at making friends for the rest of their lives. And those thoughts, if not caught, can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Our job as parents is to communicate to our children that whatever their difference is, it is a challenge, not an impossibility and a difference that can become a strength.

As a mother, I work never to label my children as anything. Nobody is the “smart” one or the “funny” one. And they certainly aren’t the dyslexic one or the one with all the allergies. They are so many things and labeling them as one thing limits their potential. Our thoughts are always ours to change. We can accept, reject, adjust or revise any of them. Have those talks with your kids now so that you can help them reframe how they feel about their differences.

The beliefs we form about ourselves when we’re young have a powerful impact on our future.

For example, if we think we’re smart, we’re going to do better in school. Or, like me, if we think we’re bad at math, we’re going to be bad at math. So as a parent, I keep a close eye on the beliefs my children adopt about their character traits, worth and potential.

But what happens when your difference is so noticeable that it feels like you’re the only one who has it? Our intention in creating this book was for other children who face learning challenges to find courage and know they’re not alone. Many children do feel alone, and coupled with the fear of being ostracized, it can be overwhelming for them.

Another important thing is to teach our children to be kind and compassionate towards others. Children whose differences aren’t as apparent often fear being a friend with someone who is different. Talk to them about empathy and putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. Teach them to stand up for themselves and others when they see injustice. Show them that being different is not a weakness but a strength that can help them positively impact the world.

Embracing our differences as strengths instead of weaknesses isn’t something that can be taught in a single conversation or through one book. We need to continually reinforce these ideas and model them in our own behavior. Then, we can help our children develop a positive self-image and the confidence to embrace their unique qualities.