Wednesday Wisdom

June 12, 2024

The Value of Belonging

By Dr Kathy Weston

The Value of Belonging

Reflect

For many around the world this coming weekend, it will be Father’s Day; a day when we think about thanking the dads, grandads, ‘brathers’, foster or adoptive dads, step dads who love us, nurture us, sustain us, provide for us, mentor us, play with us and teach us.

Last weekend, I attended a marvellous family dinner at a friend’s home. There was a grandad present (clearly revered by his family) and five dads around the table; all deeply committed to their parenting role and to their children. The grandad however left a mark on me because when he left the room for the evening, saying goodnight to the crowd seated at the dinner table, I felt the same pang as for my own father when he used to go upstairs at night, leaving the ‘young ones’ downstairs enjoying themselves. You could feel the respect for him held by his children and the gravitas he had within family life, particularly during the moments when he arrived into and exited the room.

At that point, I felt deeply nostalgic for my own family home and that sense of deep connection and belonging that we can only really feel when we are with those who have known us our whole lives. In this particular family home, there was an acute sense of belonging that had been beautifully established and that was generating impact; the children were socially confident, comfortable in their own skin and brimming with joy. They did what children do when they feel they really belong; they were motivated to participate in dinnertime conversation and even to perform a musical number!

Belonging is ultimately about feeling accepted, valued and understood. Belonging is also intricately linked to identity and, in this home, there was a palpable sense of pride in the family’s ethnic and cultural heritage mirrored in the decor and the extraordinary menu (all new to me, but everyday sustenance for my kind hosts!). The family, whilst clearly economically affluent, possessed a wealth far greater than anything material: that of high-quality, loving, enduring family connections.

I had a sense that the values of courtesy, connection, good humour and generosity shown by my guests had been modelled by the grandparents I had met earlier in the evening, who could now enjoy their legacy - children who supported one another and grandchildren who enjoyed each other’s company. What more could anyone ask for in life? Witnessing the fruits of a lifetime of love and labour was humbling, moving and inspiring at the same time. I returned home with a renewed motivation to spend quality time with my own parents, my own family, and ensure that my children enjoy a deeper sense of connection to their own diverse and dual heritage.

Motivate

Talking of dads. I bumped into another phenomenal dad recently when I met Andrew Smith through the charity ‘Little People UK’ when Tooled Up was researching the topic of dwarfism for one of our schools. Andrew, Chairperson for the charity, started telling me a little bit about himself and about the charity that was established to create a sense of community, belonging and support among families affected by dwarfism. I asked him to write a little bit about himself here.

“Hi, I am Andrew and I am a father to two giants. I work for the local police force, I have an amazing wife and I am also the Chairperson of Little People UK. However, my story begins way back when I was a child and I was coming to terms with the reality of my life.

When I was young, I loved sports. I enjoyed playing basketball and football, and I love swimming, but there was always one problem; my peers were taller than me. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it and just carried on regardless. But there were comments, niggles from others about how I looked different to everyone else. I didn’t notice too much and just found a way of doing things that others were doing. If I couldn’t reach something, for example, I would find a way to climb the shelves to get it.

Sport gave me success and allowed me to travel (before Ellie Simmonds’ time!). I was extremely lucky to visit Chicago USA, for the first World Dwarf Games. When we arrived, we were greeted by amazingly friendly people, and when we got to the hotel, there were so many people in the lobby that it was overwhelming. As we got in the lift, I asked my parents, “Who are all those people?” and I answered myself, “Oh, they’re just like me”. I felt an acute sense of belonging, perhaps for the first time in my life. Being part of that event, part of something bigger than myself, definitely increased my acceptance of my disability. However, exclusion and discrimination are clearly the opposite of belonging and feeling accepted. I have always come up against the obstacle of ignorance, having to educate the educators, teach those who should know and ignore those who don’t.

Sadly, I have lost count of the times a child has stopped in the street and said, “Look at that little man!” or, “Why is that man so small?”. These are clearly teachable moments for children but, unfortunately, 90% of the time, these children are scolded or the question is left unanswered. This will do nothing to change the world. Children are naturally curious and hugely open to learning, and parents should model attitudes and responses that can reduce marginalisation and increase knowledge and acceptance. Now, I always try to respond even before the parent does and I do so in the same way, every time. “I’m the same as you”, I say. “I just have short arms and legs”. That’s it! Bang, done, educated and satisfied. If they ask further questions then I will go deeper, but the foundations are laid.

Getting married and starting a family has also given me a strong sense of belonging and acceptance. Yes, we’ve faced hurdles together (notably, difficulty conceiving and the stress that caused). But once Laura was expecting our first child, we also had to face another hurdle; our genetics. Our genetics mean that there is a 50% chance that our children will have achondroplasia (dwarfism) like us, a 25% chance that our children will not carry the gene and be average height, or a 25% chance our children will carry both dwarfism genes. Well, guess what? We defied the odds and have two amazing children, two giants, neither of whom carry the dwarfism gene. This is a double edged sword. As parents, we were initially relieved that our offspring wouldn’t face the same issues as we did growing up;  teasing, commentary and questions in the street, the ‘dwarf life’ so to speak. How wrong we were.

From day one at primary school, our daughter was bullied and picked on, purely because her parents were shorter than other parents; that we look ‘funny’, have short arms and legs and big bottoms, that we look ‘like children’. The impact of this bullying was clear when our daughter lashed out in frustration, anger and sadness. At various points, she was scared to go to school, or refused to attend at all. All because her parents were different. Our daughter wanted to be like everyone else. She wanted to belong, and we wanted to be treated with the same respect as every other parent and family.

Help came in the form of a new headteacher who had the courage to educate the school community with my support, help and input. I did a whole school assembly, explaining dwarfism and answering all manner of curious questions. Since then, every September I go into school to do an assembly, reminding everyone that differences should be celebrated and that it is our differences that make us unique. This great work should be done in every school across the world (gentle reminder that October is Dwarfism Awareness Month). Do check out the work of our little charity that is doing big things, making the world a kinder place.”

Support

Little People UK was co-founded in January 2012 by actor Warwick Davis, his wife Samantha and a group of individuals with the same goal; to offer friendship and support to people with dwarfism, their families and friends, and help build a positive future for those individuals.

Since its inception, Little People UK has become a registered charity and an essential resource for the social, medical and financial needs of people with dwarfism. To date, it has attracted almost 200 members, and has the support of highly respected orthopaedic, ophthalmic, neurological and anaesthetic consultant surgeons, as well as physiotherapists and educational practitioners with a special interest in helping the dwarfism community. Its voluntary committee is made up of both people with dwarfism and average height individuals, creating a fair and compassionate group which provides friendship and support, whilst raising awareness of people with dwarfism and celebrating little people’s contribution to society with great pride and positivity.

At Tooled Up, we’re excited to be partnering with Little People UK to produce some fact sheets for both younger and older children to read with their parents. It’s been a fantastic learning journey for us too. Did you know, for example, that whilst there are only 3000 - 6000 people in the UK with dwarfism, there are over 300 different types of dwarfism? Or that 80% of people with dwarfism are born to average height parents as the result of a spontaneous genetic mutation? In most types of dwarfism, short stature is caused by differences in the way that the bones grow (skeletal dysplasia). For some people, height can also be affected by various other genetic conditions or by differences in hormones - particularly those which influence growth. The most common form of dwarfism is achondroplasia, which is the condition that Andrew has, as well as amazing Paralympic swimmers Ellie Simmonds (now retired) and Maisie Summers-Newton - who we’ll be keeping a very close eye on in Paris this summer.

Sadly, Andrew’s experiences of bullying and mockery are common and he rightly points out that it’s our job as parents to ensure that our children truly understand the importance of being kind to others, regardless of their difference. Like so many things, this starts with caring and conversation. We can all talk about difference and diversity with our own children. We can all encourage kindness and value empathy towards everyone, including those who don’t look exactly the same as us. We might begin by reflecting honestly and openly on how difference makes us feel. If we see someone who looks different to us, come across someone who holds different values to us, or meet someone who makes us feel uncomfortable because of their difference, we need to reflect on why. It’s worth acknowledging the fact that everyone has the capacity to be unkind. This kind of self-reflection and curiosity provides an antidote to the temptation to humiliate or shame someone else. We can model curiosity about things we know little about: cultures, traditions, disabilities, or ways of life that differ from ours. We can ask questions respectfully and learn from answers, and we can all strive to demonstrate, rather than simply talk about, respect and kindness.

It is pretty common in many adolescent peer groups for ‘jokes’ to be made at the expense of others; comments that denigrate or dehumanise individuals or groups who might be in some way different. Young people may use this as a way of denoting ‘status’, to try to fit-in or manage insecurity. They may also lack knowledge about its seriousness and impact. Surveys have found that most young people think that being kind to one another is one of the most important things in life, but that they often downplay this core value because they don’t think others feel the same way. We should let our children know that, chances are, if they don’t make unkind comments, or even better, if they safely challenge others when they do, most people will (deep down) agree.

If parenting younger children, nudge them to consider and identify more subtle unkindness - eye rolling, spreading rumours or purposefully leaving others out, for example. Prompting them to think about how this behaviour might make them feel can help build empathy and consolidate family values around how people should treat each other.

If your child has been affected by bullying, don’t hesitate to seek support. Organisations such as Bullying UK (part of Family Lives) can provide practical information and advice to young people through its website and via email. The Cybersmile Foundation offers support, advice and guidance to people of all ages who have been affected by cyberbullying and online hate campaigns. Their services are used by schools, parents and young people all over the world and their helpline is open 24 hours: 0845 688 7277.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

If you’d like to open up conversations about dwarfism, download our brand new fact sheets (for younger and older children), produced in partnership with Little People UK.

Belonging is vitally important for us all, so why not check out our Belonging Journal. It will get older children and teens thinking about their strengths, connections and support network, and what belonging means to them.

We also have some great activities to help children (both younger and teens) consider how to treat classmates. If you are raising older teens, why not have a good family discussion around fundamental values? You can also read more expert advice on stepping away from harmful talk from psychologist Dr Elly Hanson. It is important our children are encouraged to stand up for others and to gently challenge poor treatment of others. How can we raise upstanders? Here are a few tips for you to consider. You might also like to browse through some of our book lists - particularly those on cultivating empathy and celebrating difference and diffabilities.