The mail brought us a poignant
letter from a 10-year-old. She wrote: "I have a birth mark on my face.
It is called a port wine stain. Sometimes people will ask what is
wrong with my face or they will stare at me. This is very hard for
me." She asked us to help tell people that it was not only hard, but
that it hurt as well.
In an accompanying note, the girl's mother explained
what prompted her daughter to write: She had been playing in a
swimming pool when a curious child asked what was wrong with her face.
"I have a birth mark," she answered. "It can't be," the other child
insisted, "it's on your chin, your nose, your cheeks!" Unable to
convince the other child, our letter-writer finally burst into tears
and asked to be taken home.
Who would not feel empathy for that little girl and
her family? Help, though, is harder to province -- not only for the
child who's stared at, but for the child who stares as well.
No teaching or preaching will stop people staring at
someone markedly different, or stop them asking thoughtless questions.
Children, especially, are apt to take a long look at anything unusual.
When it's another person's unusual physical characteristic, children's
natural curiosity may be compounded with an element of fear. Children
often wonder: How did it happen? Could it happen to me? Can I catch
It is very helpful in children's growing for grown-ups
to be aware of these normal childhood feelings. Talking about them,
calmly and understandingly, is far better than scolding as a way to
help children come to accept the realities of human differences --
their own as well as those of others.
It is from this kind of trusting from loved and loving
caregivers that young children can best begin to learn about empathy
-- that priceless human capacity to imagine ourselves "in someone
It's loved and loving caregivers, of course, who also
can best help the child who bears the brunt of being obviously
Sometimes we might be tempted to say, "Don't let their
staring or teasing bother you." It's natural to want to protect our
children from pain -- and ourselves from their pain -- but asking a
child (or anyone) to deny real, strong feelings isn't likely to be
either realistic or helpful. Sadness and pain are real. They hurt, and
that hurt won't go away just because we wish it would.
When any of us -- child or grown-up -- hurts, the best
help may be for caring people to let us know they understand our pain
and that it's OK for us to be angry, to feel sad, and to cry. Parents
of children who are "different" may need the same kind of support;
they can feel sad and angry, too. In fact, it helps when parents can
talk about their feelings with their children.
It's natural that parents grieve any blemish, or even
what they consider to be a blemish, in their children's appearance.
What they're grieving is the loss of the image of the perfect child.
That's what parents can experience if their babies have birth defects,
birthmarks, a crooked little finger or even straight hair when curly
hair was expected.
Those feelings can also occur when a son is born to a
parent who hoped for a daughter (or vice versa). As a matter of fact,
every parent goes through that grieving to some extent because we all
long for a perfect child -- and there is no perfect child, just as
there is no perfect parent -- if what we mean by "perfect" is no
blemishes and not human!
No doubt the mother of our 10-year-old correspondent
has had feelings of her own to deal with, even as she tried to help
her daughter cope with hers. That birthmark will affect everyone in
the family in different ways. Along with the hurts, it will bring a
special opportunity -- the chance for the 10-year-old, herself, with
her family's loving support, to become a compassionate adult capable
of extending that understanding to others when her turn comes.
Family Communications, Inc. is a
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support them. Through the production of materials in all media, we
encourage open and honest communication. Respect for healthy
emotional, social, and intellectual development is at the core of all
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