When Is It Okay To Laugh?

“Julianna, stop grunting and use your words.” Christian rested wrists on the table, fork in hand, and gave her a stern look, which our little pixie met with a bright smile. “Be-deeya blelua bwee!”

Alex collapsed into giggles, which made me chuckle. He has such an adorable laugh.

But at the end of the table, “stern” turned to “severe.” “You DO NOT LAUGH AT YOUR SISTER,” Christian scolded.

Alex’s face collapsed, and I leaped in. “Christian, he wasn’t making fun of her.”

“But this is where it starts.”

“But this isn’t like that,” I said. “We laughed at Nicholas, too, when he said cute things learning to talk.”

We’re entering a brave new world. For the first five years of her life, Julianna has been protected. At all times she’s been shielded from all the potential unkindness of the world by the presence of her family, except when she’s at school–a school walled off and dedicated to children like her. But in a few months, that’s all over. She’ll walk unprotected into a huge school full of kids who have never seen anyone like her, and who, for better or for worse, will have imbibed their parents’ attitudes (like the bozo I argued with all day on Facebook a few weeks ago, who refused to accept that the colloquial use of the word “retard” is demeaning and hurtful to those who actually fit the description, and wouldn’t admit that said usage came into being as an insult directly and knowingly comparing someone you don’t like to someone like my daughter).

Every time I fret about this, friends remind me that little ones are very open-minded. But the mental image of kids making fun of my kid is very strong, based on some conglomeration of memories whose images have become indistinct in detail, but whose essential truth I don’t doubt. I don’t doubt that at some point in her childhood, Julianna will be laughed at, made fun of, made to feel less-than because of her extra chromosome.

And yet.

Not all laughter is cruel. Human interactions are complex things. Every week at choir practice, we banter, we poke fun at each other, we laugh together at each other’s weaknesses. To suggest that no one can ever laugh at Julianna is to deprive her of the richness of these loving exchanges. If no one is allowed to laugh when she says something funny, that sets her up as different, as Other, as surely as making fun of her does.

Laughter is appropriate and loving at times, cruel and soul-killing at others. It’s all in the intention. But how do you teach a child the difference? It has never, will never, would never occur to Alex to make fun of Julianna. He adores his sister, even though she does drive him nuts sometimes. He’s grown up so integrated with life with special needs that he doesn’t even get why Daddy reacted as he did. Alex laughed because  was reacting as a family member reacts to someone he loves. Yet he needs to be aware that cruelty exists, and that he has a responsibility both as a human being and as Julianna’s brother to stand up and call people down when it occurs.

I have no idea how to communicate this without making him hypersensitive, which is also contrary to my goal of making a wall-less world for my daughter and those like her. But somehow, we have to try.