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Parents' Page: When Difference Hurt

from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

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?

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 else's shoes."

It's loved and loving caregivers, of course, who also can best help the child who bears the brunt of being obviously "different."

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 nonprofit company dedicated to children, their families and those who 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 we do.

Family Communications, Inc.
Dept WWW
4802 Fifth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-2918
phone: 412/687-2990

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