Good Kids: How to Empower Your Kids to Love Their Differences with Sinéad Burke
Good Kids transcript — How to Empower Your Kids to Love Their Differences with Sinéad Burke
[00:47] Hi, I’m Sinéad Burke and this is Good Kids.
[01:02] I’m not a parent. I don’t have any children. It’s not an ambition of mine just yet, though I would like to be a mother. Who knows when. And I think I would like to be exactly as my parents. They are extraordinary people, and it’s only now that I’m an adult that I realize how unique and powerful their parenting was. You see, I’m disabled, I have dwarfism, I have a achondroplasia, which is the most common form of dwarfism. I stand at the height of three feet, five inches tall. And in terms of identity and language, I describe myself as a little person. My dad is also a little person. My mom is average height, like many of you listening to this. And my siblings, I have four of them, they’re all average height, too. Having my dad in my life every day — and somebody who looked like me, genetically — transformed my whole existence. There’s that phrase in advocacy circles that if you can see it, you can be it. And it was never explained to me that I was different, or that I would have challenges. I was just like my dad. And I knew innately that everything would be OK because my dad had achieved and succeeded and thrived and survived. So why wouldn’t I?
[02:30] But it wasn’t the fact that my dad was a little person that I think makes me a good kid, or somebody who at least tried to be. What made the difference is the fact that I’m a loved child. It’s tangible and has been for my entire existence. And that love manifested in so many different ways. In care, in security and safety, in nourishment, in encouragement. But more than anything, it was my parents extraordinary belief that I could do anything. In a way in which the world disagreed with every turn, but that social conditioning was never, ever transferred to me. I started school on the day of my fourth birthday, the 19th of September 1994. And I started on that day because my principal worried that my physical disability could have cognitive and learning impacts, and that I needed to start on the day of my fourth birthday, because if academically I didn’t have the same educational attainment as everybody else, I needed to be young in case I had to repeat a year. My parents constantly told the school that I would be OK. That I had reached all of the milestones that a child at four was supposed to reach. But it was a different era. There wasn’t an understanding, or an openness, to what inclusion could look like. There was still segregation in terms of education for those with disabilities, and there still is. But my parents were the advocates I needed when I couldn’t advocate for myself.
[04:09] Simple things such as the height of the coat hook — when I went to school and was taking off my coat, and where would I put it? The height of the tables and chairs that I would sit at. The language that the teachers needed to have to make sure that I was included. The language that I needed to have that in the playground, if a child said, why are you so small? From the age of four, I knew that the automatic response had to be, ‘I was born like this.’ Because I was. This wasn’t something I could control. And yet on my first day of school, when I came home and told my parents that I wanted to be a teacher, they had this fundamental belief that I could do it. But I reflect now on that moment as somebody who’s 28. And if I had a child, I hope that that would be my automatic response. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know if it would be because we live in a world where we are constantly told that only certain types of people can achieve and do and be successful.
[05:09] And yet my parents had this overwhelming sense of self that, why not try? When I went through school and got my place in college, I received this form from the Department of Education, which was called the Fitness to Teach Form. There was two questions on it that I distinctly remember. One, how long can you run for? And two, do you get tired easily? I sat with my mother and I said, what do we do? Will we answer these questions truthfully and risk not getting my place in college, even though I’ve worked hard and I’ve met all of the criteria and I deserve to be there? Or will I lie and show up on the first day like tah-dah! To everybody’s surprise. And she said no, we’ll tell the truth. And if you don’t get it, we’re gonna fight it in court. Because this document has been designed by people who do not look and think like you.
[06:10] The way in which they view teachers is stereotypical and archaic. It’s only right that you exist in those spaces. And in terms of how to raise a good kid, what my parents did that I would like to imbue and mirror should I ever have a child is making sure that empathy, kindness, curiosity and ambition are things to be embraced and celebrated and encouraged. But not to be overprotective in a way that exploration and mistakes can’t happen. But to encourage difficult conversations — I will never forget, I was walking down the street in Dublin and a car pulled over. And there was four people in the car. They pulled over right where I was standing. They wound down the windows. They put their phones at the window. They took photographs and videos of me just walking. And a minute they had captured the content. They drove off.
[07:12] I felt violated and so vulnerable that somebody would choose to act in that way and couldn’t figure out what conversation was had before they decided to pull over. My immediate instinct was to ring my mom and tell her what happened. And I was so upset. Her response was, well, ‘do you think it’s because maybe they just liked your dress?’ We both knew that that wasn’t the reason. But it helped, you know? And later that evening, she sat with me and she said, if somebody needs to make you feel small, to make them feel big or feel better, then they’ve just giving you a gift because you immediately understand the fact that they are not people that you want to surround yourself with. That, you know, nobody chooses how, why, or when, or to how much money, or to what religion, or to what culture they’re born into. But we do get to choose how we behave.
[09:46] When I was 11 I considered limb lengthening surgery, which is the deliberate fracturing of your limbs, and over the course of a year your leg bones are stretched apart, and a new bone grows. It has to be done between the ages of 10, 11, 12 — just before puberty so that you get the optimum and maximum growth. When I considered the surgery, the doctors told me I would get anywhere between two and six inches in height, which at most would have made me four foot tall.
[10:16] I told my parents that I wanted to think about it. We had meetings with the doctors. An appointment was booked, a surgery date was listed and given to me. My parents told me that I had to make the decision, that they couldn’t make it for me, because if they did, I’d be resentful of them as I got older, if it wasn’t the right choice. That at 11 I had to decide whether or not I wanted to transform myself. Maybe it would have helped me reach things. Maybe I could have reached the light switch, or the shower, or the lock on the hall door without thinking about it. But it was only six inches. And as I sat with it, I realized that, you know, the only reason I’d be undertaking this surgery was to make other people more comfortable with me. Because this surgery would somehow make me look less like I had dwarfism. It would teasure me closer to the world’s definition of normality. Whatever that is. And maybe it would help me make friends. Maybe it would make the world be kinder to me because I would look less different. And I realized that if people liked me more, or only liked me, because I was six inches taller, because I had transformed myself to fit with their ideals. Then I wanted different friends. I wanted to be around different people.
[11:42] I didn’t want to change myself — something which I didn’t consent to and had no control over. I don’t want to change myself for them. And the power of being a loved child meant that I had this ability to love myself. And as biblical or as trite as that sounds, I loved myself enough to be proud of who I was physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially, that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice something that transformed me as a person to fit with others. When I told my mom and dad that it wasn’t something I was willing to do, and they said, great, if you want to talk about this again at an another time, if you feel differently and decide later that you want to have that surgery, then we’ll do it. But can you imagine how my dad felt? I don’t know if he was offered that surgery at any time. But his 11-year-old daughter was currently going through this mental gymnastics of whether or not she was comfortable and happy looking like him. Whether or not it was good enough for her or the world, all the while knowing that it was his genetics that I inherited that made me who I was. I didn’t think about that, of course, at eleven. I’ve probably just considered it now for the first time.
[13:06] But how do you raise a good kid? You have to love them deeply. But in a way that gives them space to figure out who they are. You have to be proud of them beyond belief and continuously remind yourself and them of it because the inner monologue that we all have and are conditioned to narrate within ourselves is not always positive. And don’t shelter them from the complexities of the world. Revel in it, and embrace it, and have those difficult conversations. And don’t belittle children because they’re children. Respect them and honor and celebrate their opinions and their perspectives on the world because they’re valuable.
[14:03] Thanks for listening to Good Kids. You can find me, Sinéad, online @thesineadburke or listen to my podcast, As Me with Sinéad.
[14:13] Good Kids is produced and edited by Samantha Gattsek. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Our music is by Dan Milad. Ad sales and distribution is by Westwood One. You can find more about us at LemonadaMedia.com or on all the social platforms at @LemonadaMedia. If you like what you heard, share the gospel with everyone you know and rate and review us on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever else you listen to podcasts.