We’d love your input!
I’m the mother of a gorgeous little girl who was born in 2008 with a port wine stain the middle-right side of her face. We’ve received questions and comments on the mark since she was born, which is perfectly fine with me and my husband, but as she grows older and more self conscious I want to make sure we equip her to handle the questions herself.
So please help us out! Have you (or your kid, sibling, parent, dog, anything) been the odd one out before? What questions did you get? How did you feel? What did you say in response? Please join the discussion! And as we encounter comments and questions, I’ll share our experiences here, too.
Quite simply, I’d like to have some small idea of what attitudes or questions a girl who has an obvious mark on her face might encounter as she grows older, and to ultimately teach her to respond to it all with humor and grace.
To join the conversation, simply comment on any of the posts here, and share your thoughts. (And just for fun, please tell me what state or country you’re from.) Thank you!
“Parenting a Unique Child” Strategy #7: Get Out
Addy’s first two years of life saw her tagging along everywhere with my husband Keith while he constructed our house. He’d frequently plop her in the Baby Bjorn carrier, facing out, and take her along on errands to Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Menard’s (often all in one day).
He has a gift of interacting easily and casually with everyone; he small-talked with electricians in the wiring aisle and chatted up every awkward cashier. Addy learned, just by watching him, how to speak casually to other humans, no matter how different.
She joined the game, gleefully leaning forward in that carrier, kicking her chubby little legs and yelling an ever-louder, “Hi! HI! HI!!!!!” to every introverted plumber & roofer they passed in every aisle.
If I’d been on duty, I would never have taken her along on as many errands as Keith did, and I wouldn’t have broken out of my introvert’s shell with nearly as much small talk with strangers. In hindsight, I see the serendipitous value of all their trips outside the home. Through them, she watched and then copied all kinds of comfortable, casual, social interactions.
In the early years, be intentional about getting your unique-looking child out into the world, a lot, with you. They need to see many, many different interactions with the outside world, but they need to be safely in your arms while you handle every encounter with good humor and grace.
Your child needs to hear you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to the cashier who’s a little slow. Your child needs to hear you make polite small talk with the plumber behind you in the checkout line. And your child needs to hear you answer “Is that a burn?” with grace and gratitude, because then she’ll know how to answer the same way someday.
It’s only by modeling it that you’ll teach it. Get your kid out to the store and out to the mall, put down your phone, make eye contact, say please and thank you, and let people ask about your kid’s strange face. Those encounters build up a repertoire of responses for her to use when someone asks her later. That’s how she will learn grace, confidence, and the ability to move on smoothly from awkward encounters.
You don’t want to send her to school having only overheard a dozen impromptu interactions about her face in her young life. The real world is the best place to learn it, and safely in your arms is the best way.
This kind of intentionality takes time and effort. It’s so much simpler to run errands alone on your lunch break! But your child will benefit from the tedious errand-running experiences that might otherwise be missed.
That might be you, your spouse, a grandma, or the daycare lady; whoever it is, give them permission to bring your little one out into the world for lots of little unplanned interactions. Over time, your child will be empowered to socialize gracefully, with a wonderful variety of other humans, regardless of how different she might be from them.
Here’s one for combating a very real fear facing (no pun intended) parents of strangely-marked kids:
Parenting Strategy #6: Find Likeness
One of the fears we face as parents of odd-looking children is that our darling baby will grow up to feel isolated in their uniqueness. Marked with something like a big port wine stain, they’ll probably be the only such face in every room they ever enter, throughout their entire lives.
Being noticed is occasionally fun, like winning an award or hitting the red carpet, but the thought that your child will never not stand out can be overwhelming. And not a bit isolating; after all, we often find camaraderie in other humans who are (or look) ‘like’ us.
There are a few ways to help your child combat those feelings of isolation.
One way is to teach them to intentionally find likeness with humans who are similar in a hundred other ways. Their faces may be different, but they do have other things in common, if you know how to look. Maybe she braids her hair like that one girl from dance class. Maybe he likes soccer, just like the kid down the street. Or maybe her sneakers are green, like the kid in the grocery store aisle.
Any common ground you can find shared between your child and another person is excellent material for pointing out natural camaraderie, and staving off any possible isolationism. Teach your child the valuable skill of spotting likeness in other ways, perhaps small or unexpected. There’s always something, even if it’s not obvious to them; point it out often!
Another way is to widen the scope and find likeness in other different humans’ eye-catching features. Addy walks up to lovely bald folks with alopecia and talks about how it feels to look unique. She thinks that veterans with missing limbs are pretty much the coolest guys, ever. She feels solidarity with her cousin in a wheelchair, because he’s noticed, like, even more than she is! These other humans may not look like her, but she feels ‘like’ them in being unique.
But your child may still feel isolated at some point, knowing they’ll rarely, if ever, see another face like theirs.
So… when you can’t find their likeness in any other humans, you find it in non-human places instead! Examine your child’s unique feature, and start finding it in the world around you, even in unexpected places.
Our port-wine-stain radar picks up anything, anywhere, that might resemble a pink, red, or purple ‘splotch’ on a pale Nordic background. Here are a few things we’ve found:
Cupcakes: Addy’s birthday falls near Valentine’s day, and her classroom-treat cupcakes always bear some combo of pink and white frosting – but these were, by far, our favorite. Port-wine-stain-face cupcakes: half pink, half white!
Flowers: The kids picked out flowers for planting in our garden one spring, and the girls picked out petunias. Eloise told Addy she should get the “port-wine-stained petunia” (like this one), and so Addy gleefully planted the special flowers that ‘looked like’ her face:
Stuffed animals: Addy’s favorite stuffed cat happens to have a big pink mark, just like her face:
Sequins: Eloise flipped exactly half of her magic-sequin sweatshirt so that one half of the dog’s face is a different color than the other half, and proudly showed big-sister Addy the “face like yours!”
Addy feels a lot of camaraderie in this world. Sometimes she shares common features, clothes, or interests with other humans, even if she doesn’t quite look like them. Sometimes she just shares ‘different’ with other humans, even if they have hardly anything else in common.
And she may never see a doll with a face like hers, or a Barbie with a face like hers, or a print model with a face like hers, but that’s okay; she’s seen cupcakes and sweatshirts and flowers and a hundred other wonderful things ‘just like’ her, and that feels good, too.
You may have to open your eyes just a little wider than normal to see your abnormal child’s ‘likeness’ in the world around you – but pretty soon, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Point it out, often, because your child may not pick up on such similarities on their own, and you don’t want them growing up without this skill to spot camaraderie in unexpected places. Point out any shared trait, any similar uniqueness, and any inanimate object even remotely resembling your child’s odd feature – point it out, and say, “Look at that! Just like you!”
This world can feel isolating sometimes, even for those of us who don’t stand out in a crowd. The more your child learns to spot the similarities, the less likely they’ll be to feel alone for too long. Because at some point a flower will bloom, or a cat will walk by, or a leaf will fall with markings ‘just like’ theirs, and they’ll be reminded to keep their eyes open for likeness in unexpected places. There’s always something in common – even if not, exactly, their face.
Parenting Strategy #5: Teach her to Enhance, not Hide
I remember an informal debate arising among my college friends about why we women wear makeup. An answer was, of course, was never conclusively reached, but I found the arguments intriguing. They mostly seemed to agree with the premise that makeup was a shallow but necessary evil, the sad product of our modern culture’s social pressures. (One or two might have gaily dissented, asserting that wearing makeup is just plain fun.) But most of the debate revolved around why we liberated women all get sucked into wearing it anyway.
Some friends said they felt pressure to cover up their natural face, because that’s just what we all do, and they’d look ‘weird’ in public without it. Others said that men were expecting it, making it hard to navigate the single scene otherwise, and they’d never wear makeup if only women were around. Yet others said we really only wear it to cattily impress other women, never men, and there would definitely still be pressure to cover up our natural faces on a women-only desert island.
I disagreed with the premise underneath these arguments. I didn’t think of makeup as a shallow, necessary evil. And while I certainly couldn’t speak for all women, I didn’t think society pressure in whatever guise need be the primary driver behind it.
Makeup doesn’t need to hide or change us (as the debate seemed to assume); rather, it can enhance and frame the beauty that’s already there. I wasn’t wearing makeup because I felt ugly; I was wearing it because I felt beautiful.
After all, you don’t frame a work of art because it’s ugly, you frame it because it’s beautiful – so beautiful that it’s worth a gorgeous setting. Like a diamond elevated in its precious-metal ring. Can a Van Gogh stand on its own? Sure, but why not surround it with an amazing frame? A great frame doesn’t obscure the artwork; rather, it announces, “Ta-daah! Isn’t this gorgeous?”
And that, I asserted, is what makeup does. The rouge added to our cheeks isn’t unnatural; it’s an enhancement of the color already there. A line on our eyelid follows the eyelash line that’s already there. A dash of contour enhances the shadow implied by our natural bone structure.
When done well, makeup (and clothing, and jewelry, and any other enhancement you may feel guilty for using) draws attention to the beauty that’s already there.
Part of makeup’s usefulness comes, counterintuitively, from making a face look more naturally like itself. It diminishes eye-catching distractions like acne or dark circles, deviations that show up when I get less sleep and health than my skin needs, so there’s no guilt covering them up. It’s okay to eliminate those distractions and let my natural face shine through.
Right. Easy. Made total sense.
I enjoyed a guiltless makeup routine for years.
Until… Addy came along.
Suddenly, with Addy, the debate exploded into my mind all over again; because now, this little human was watching me, and she had a face with a Thing on it – a face that I wanted her to proudly show the world in full unmodified beauty someday. Why on earth was I applying makeup in front of her? What pressure was I feeling? What message was I sending?
With three children ages three and younger, the dark circles under my eyes had taken on a touring-with-the-Stones intensity, and I covered them up daily. But… why? (Other than the legit concern that I might be questioned about escaping from a rehab facility if I didn’t.) Just because I have an imperfection, do I need to cover it up? Who am I trying to impress? How dare I use concealer in front of my marked daughter? Am I setting her up to shamefully conceal her own lovely imperfection someday?
I was tempted to tell her to never ever use makeup. I was tempted to tell her that she’s so perfect, she won’t ever need it. I was tempted to tell her that it’s only society’s pressure that makes us want to wear the stuff anyway, and she’s above that.
Because I was terrified that she’d be tempted to use it someday, to cover her own face up, and that fear stopped me in my tracks.
In time, and after many guilt-ridden concealer purchases, I came back home to my original conclusion. I am the artwork; my makeup is the frame that enhances my beauty. Do I need it to ‘be pretty’? Not at all. But am I worthy of a lovely frame? Absolutely. When sleeplessness steals the color from my eyes, I can defend my face by enhancing what’s there – showing again the beauty that’s really naturally mine.
I wanted to help Addy understand makeup’s proper role (and avoid the pop-culture discomfort many of us feel around it). I wanted her to understand that she, too, could use makeup to enhance the beauty that’s already naturally on her face, if she wanted to. And, of course, I wanted her to see the port wine stain as part of that beauty – worth framing, rather than obscuring.
So I started talking through my makeup routine in positive terms when she was around. When I applied blush: “I LOVE having pink cheeks.” Or eyeliner: “It’s fun to make my eyes a little more visible.” Or eyeshadow: “I like the color of my eyes, so I pick an eyeshadow that helps bring out the color.” Or the emotionally-loaded concealer: “I like the color of my skin, so I’m using this to make it more consistent.” When wiping off an excess of any of it: “Whoops, that was too much. I almost covered myself up! I don’t want to do that.”
She now seems to view makeup as a good thing, not as a cover-everything escape. She sometimes adds blush to her other cheek before an event, so that it matches her port wine stain cheek. She plays with eyeshadows, dusting her lids and feeling glamorous. And sometimes she just slathers ALL the colors onto her face at once, because, hey, why not? Face color is fun.
Of course, the teenage years are around the corner, and I can’t promise that she won’t suddenly decide to cover it all up one day. The thought still scares me.
But I hope she will have learned by then that that’s not what makeup is for. I hope that, when she does start wearing it, she uses it to enhance, and not hide, what’s already there – including the right side of her face.
Talk your child into a healthy relationship with makeup. She will encounter it one day, whether you like it or not; by then, she should see it as a tool to enhance her beauty: nothing more, and nothing less. Provide a running commentary of comfort and confidence when she’s watching you do your makeup routine, whatever it may be. She’ll grow to see it not as a necessary evil, or a product of a deranged popular culture, but rather as something that can frame the beauty that’s already there.
It took me a long time to come to peace with the concealer in my makeup bag. I felt like a hypocrite. But covering exhausted eyes or irritated skin doesn’t mean I’m changing who I am. My natural features are still there. I’m worthy of a good frame. Our daughters are, too.
Continuing my last post’s theme of ‘Strategies for Parenting a Unique Kid’ (see #1-3 here):
I offer you another strategy we used when parenting Addy, in order to help her navigate the world with a big splotch on her face.
As you can tell, opening her eyes to all the beauty around her was a big theme for us…
Parenting Strategy #4: Go Beyond Features
Think of someone who’s drop-dead gorgeous. What do you see in them?
It might be certain features: sharp cheekbones, full lips, great hair, whatever.
But I’m willing to bet that something other than features caught your eye first. Poise. Posture. Carriage. Confidence. The stuff you don’t hear as much about in beauty magazines. That, I think, is what makes a human stand out to us visually.
The ‘beautiful’ that we find so attractive usually isn’t just in a person’s features. It’s in the way they carry themselves, the way they present themselves. Imagine the gorgeous person you thought of above spending three sleepless nights taking care of a kid with the flu. At the end of 3 days they’re slouching, they’re disheveled, they have dark circles under their eyes, their clothes are wrinkled, their hair is matted. If they shuffled into a room in that condition, they probably wouldn’t turn admiring heads, regardless of their otherwise lovely natural features.
I’ve seen girls who are strikingly tall and slender enough to be runway models carry themselves like they don’t matter, like they just want to disappear into the wallpaper – and, unfortunately, they too often succeed, hiding their striking features under an unconfident disguise. And I’ve seen average-featured women with stellar poise and posture walk into a room and turn heads like only movie stars can – because they carry themselves like they matter.
Poise. Posture. Carriage. Confidence. These make all the difference in the way we present ourselves to the world.
This is what your unique-looking child needs to understand. Someday, she’ll be tempted to feel that she’s not beautiful, because her features are not ‘like’ the beautiful people’s (whatever they may be at that moment in time). But if she understands that much of what we see as beautiful isn’t necessarily the features, as awesome and lovely as they may be, but rather the way we present ourselves to the world, then she’ll feel empowered to act and feel beautiful anyway.
Said another way: While we may not be able to control our natural features like height or birthmarks, we don’t have to feel ‘unbeautiful’ because of them. Because beauty is what we craft from the way we carry ourselves.
So: remember how I told you to teach her to spot the beauty in all the humans around her? With all their various features and their diverse physical traits? That’s important – keep doing it. Establish a wide definition of what traits ‘beautiful’ can include.
But don’t stop there – go beyond the physical traits, and start pointing out every instance of lovely poise, posture, carriage, and confidence you see.
Here’s what it might look like:
When you and your daughter are killing time in the dentist’s waiting room, and you’re flipping through a magazine filled with skinny women, and your daughter is looking over your shoulder, and you come across a story on Serena Williams, who clearly looks different from the print models, you point out her beauty like this: “Wow, she is gorgeous. Look at the way she looks straight at the camera. So poised and confident. That is beautiful.”
But then, don’t put down the skinny models! When you flip to a picture of a glamorous fashion model, you spot beauty there, too: “I love the way this model’s hair is swept up away from her face, up to the crown of her head! It makes a visual ‘line’ that draws attention to her cheekbones really well.”
You may be tempted to naysay the whole magazine, telling your child it’s dumb, shallow, and full of unattainable ideals. But that’s not a substantial enough response. It won’t keep her from someday being fascinated by those ideals anyway, and eventually even feeling like she doesn’t measure up to them. So meet that gloss head-on, and point to the beauty that’s there, without putting anyone down.
Here’s what this accomplishes: you’re bringing beauty out of the realm of ‘features you’re born with’ (as fabulous as they may be), and placing it solidly in the realm of ‘I’ve got this’.
Point out the beauty in every instance of lovely poise, posture, carriage, and confidence you see. It might be a bold smile. Bright eyes. Fabulous hair. An elegant gait. Even artfully-applied makeup or well-chosen clothing. Any intentional choice that enhances natural beauty is fair game. Point it out. Compliment it.
Because we can control the confidence we stand with, the way we look at a camera, the way we sweep up our hair. Our natural features, which we can’t control, don’t have to ‘make or break’ our beauty.
This will empower your child. Someday, when she’s tempted to quick-fix a single feature in a panic, like cover up a birthmark or crash-diet to skinny, she’ll already know that her whole beauty does not rely on a single feature. Rather, it is a constellation of so many things all at once, much of it beyond her physical traits, and solidly within her confident control.
Empower your child to understand this; point out the beauty you see. Help her spot it in the world around her. Don’t assume she’ll pick this up on her own. Poise. Eye contact. Posture. Relaxed shoulders. Carriage. Chin up. Confidence. Smile. All of these are within grasp.
Addy’s port wine stain will never ‘make or break’ her beauty. Because no feature can. Her beauty isn’t a hapless accident of physical traits. It’s something so much bigger. She’s got this.
How do we raise a child to love her unique face? To be self-aware, without being self-critical? Prepared for, but not scared of, encounters?
Addy’s port wine stain forced us to think through parenting moments that might have otherwise passed without notice. Getting her to a point of comfort with her face (and keeping her there) took some careful attention.
Along the way, we developed some strategies for raising a unique-looking kid. Knowing that many of you, my dear readers, are also parents and grandparents, I share 3 of them with you here.
Some of these tips might seem incredibly obvious, but they don’t always flow from us naturally.
So, bear with me if I start by stating the obvious, but here, definitely at the very most-important top of the list, is “Parenting a Unique Kid” Strategy #1:
Parenting Strategy #1: Tell her she’s pretty.
It sounds so simple.
But there is so. much. cultural noise around raising females today. And, honestly, I disagree with many of the ‘enlightened’ modern directives: “Stop telling little girls they’re pretty, or they’ll never become scientists! Just tell them they’re smart and strong instead!”
Bah, humbug. As if we’re afraid that she’ll never accomplish anything if she thinks she’s pretty. As if telling her she’s a great engineer somehow conflicts with telling her she’s pretty.
Confidence is not a zero-sum game. Building up her confidence in one area of life (brains) doesn’t take away from another (looks). So we compliment both. Profusely.
The world around my daughter will tell her, whether through magazines, billboards, TV shows, movies, fashion, petty girlfriends and rude ex-boyfriends, that she’s not pretty. Whether that’s good or bad isn’t up for debate (it’s bad). But the fact remains that there will be a hundred different ways that the world tells her she’s not pretty.
It’s my job to tell her a hundred and one (at least) that she is.
Tell your daughter she’s pretty. You’re not making her shallow, and you’re not over-emphasizing looks when you do. It’s simply an insurance policy against the jabs that this world will sling at her.
And it’s the truth anyway (right?), so speak the truth. Don’t be afraid of it. Tell her she’s pretty. And that she can run the world. Those compliments don’t conflict, no matter how much our confused culture tells you they do.
We complimented Addy’s looks all the time, from her shiny little shoes to the port wine stain splotched on her face. This girl learned early & solidly that she’s pretty. Any weird encounters over her face couldn’t even begin to burst her confidence bubble. Calling her anything less than gorgeous would be like calling Mt. Everest an anthill: simply, humorously, Incorrect-with-a-capital-I.
Yes, she also knows she’s brilliant. And funny. And creative. And empowered. We built her confidence up in all those areas by affirming them verbally, all the time.
But she needed to hear she was pretty, before the world told her she wasn’t.
So don’t worry that you’ll ruin your daughter’s brains by calling her pretty. You won’t. Tell your little engineer that she’s beautiful. She needs to hear it.
Parenting Strategy #2: Tell Her You’re Pretty
Now, take it a step further: tell your daughter that YOU are pretty.
Seriously. Look into the mirror yourself and say out loud, “I feel really lovely today.”
I know, I know – the cultural noise says we’re not supposed to. “Don’t model vanity to your child! Teach her that looks don’t matter! Focus on other qualities instead, or she’ll become a petty, vain, critical woman!”
Well, at some point, she’s going to look into a mirror. Mirrors are a part of life. And our endless human striving for self-improvement means that she will find things to improve when she does look into a mirror.
The question is, will there be any other internal self-talk running in the background that keeps that self-critical drive in check?
“I feel really pretty,” is what my daughter has heard me say for years, when doing my makeup, checking my hair, pulling on a sweater, doing anything looks-related in front of a mirror.
I started talking to my reflection like that when Addy was a baby. I realized that I would need to model a healthy relationship with the mirror; after all, this was a baby whose every glance into every mirror would be a sharp reminder that her face is not like everyone else’s around her. Every glance would show her that her face has ‘something’ different on it.
And so, I decided to vocally associate Looking in the Mirror with “Self, you’re pretty.”
Addy caught on. She began to regularly smile every time she looked into a mirror. Because as far as she knew, that’s what we women do. Her reflection smiled back.
As you can probably tell from my stories here, she is not a petty, vain, critical female, even at eleven years old. She simply knows that her reflection is lovely, and that her port wine stain is part of that reflected loveliness.
Speak out loud. Your child can’t hear your internal monologue, so say it verbally for them. And if you don’t feel pretty today, then fake it ‘til you make it, and tell your reflection that you’re pretty, because your little copycat is listening.
Can I go even further?
I also say “Cool” every time I step on a scale.
Crazy! We’re supposed to never let our daughters see us step on scales, right? We shouldn’t even own a scale, right? Otherwise, we’ll all turn into self-hating weight-obsessed confused anorexics, right?
Wrong. In my opinion, weight is a simple, factual (and sometimes even helpful) number. Facts don’t have to be scary. Checking weight is a normal part of well-child pediatric checkups, pre-op appointments, and surgeries. It’s a number. Let it be so at home. Model that.
When you step on your scale to check your weight, nonchalantly say “Cool”, no matter what the number is. Because your child doesn’t need to hear a vacuum of silence around it.
You lay the groundwork for your child’s internal monologues. These are the lines that will be playing in the back of her head every time she makes a mistake, earns an achievement, puts on a new lipstick, walks into a new lunchroom, steps on a scale, and looks in a mirror. Don’t let her inherit a vacuum of silence from you, because there are other influences ready to fill the void with commentary about how she doesn’t measure up.
Instead, equip her with confident words. Show her what it looks like, teach her what it sounds like, to be comfortable with your own self. Your own reflection. Your own body.
You won’t make her vain or shallow. It’s cool. You’re beautiful. She’s beautiful. Speak it like it’s true.
Because it is.
Parenting Strategy #3: Tell Her Others are Pretty
Are you ready? Tell her others are pretty, too.
That’s right. I provide commentary on other humans’ beauty, too.
I can already hear the chorus of enlightened shouts: “You should never comment on any other woman’s physical qualities! You’re teaching your daughter to be critical and competitive! We’re above that!”
Again: beauty is not a zero-sum game. Confidence in my own beauty doesn’t diminish my recognition of yours. Likewise, recognizing your beauty doesn’t diminish confidence in my own. It’s not an ‘either-or’ proposition, it’s a ‘both-and’.
To put it in art terms, you can admire both the clear lines of a Renaissance masterpiece and the fuzzy impressions of a Monet without diminishing either work’s value to the canon.
In human terms, you can admire the delicate lightness of an Audrey Hepburn, the glamorous strength of a Serena Williams, the stunning height of a runway model, and the voluptuous curves of an Adele – all without diminishing your perception of the others’ (or your own) beauty. Appreciating one trait doesn’t have to reduce your appreciation of a different, or opposite, trait.
But here’s the catch, parents: Appreciation doesn’t always come naturally. Visual appreciation of great art doesn’t come naturally, or children would stare at a Titian instead of a tablet for hours on end. And visual appreciation of other humans definitely doesn’t come naturally, or world affairs would look quite different. It is up to us parents to endow our children with a deep appreciation of that which is truly beautiful in the world, including other humans.
Too often, we’re told never to comment on anyone else’s looks, because that should be left to our shallow, self-obsessed, critical, vain, popular culture, and we should be above that.
But if that’s the only commentary your child hears (and until a nuclear apocalypse wipes out said pop culture, your child will hear it), then you’ve left a vacuum of silence where there should be positive appreciation.
So compliment the beauty in others. Freely tell your daughter what you find beautiful. I’ve complimented many different birthmarks, skin tones, heights, ages, and weights to Addy. Thus, she has learned that there is beauty in those various birthmarks, skin tones, heights, ages, and weights (including, naturally, hers, wherever she may be in life).
Your commentary allows your daughter to begin spotting beauty in other humans to a greater degree of diversity than she might otherwise pick up on her own. You just have to help her spot it in the first place. This is critical. Don’t let her get silence from you on this.
Because later, she will be tempted to feel down on herself for not ‘looking like’ the Beautiful People… a feeling that usually rests on a pretty narrow view of beauty. The more variety she sees as beautiful now, the harder it will be to peg down exactly what requirement she’s not meeting later.
Point out the beauty in all the other humans; compliment a full spectrum of diverse features, so she learns to appreciate them all. Then she’ll learn to appreciate hers, too.
Last week, I shared a few embarrassing moments that have taught me respond with grace when people comment on my daughter’s face, even when they seem ‘ignorant’ at first glance.
“Is that a hemangioma?”
“What happened to her face?”
“What do they call that?”
I’ve learned over the years that the very people who are asking often know more than I do, or they wouldn’t be interacting at all. Because of this, I welcome their questions.
But if they don’t? And they still remark on the stain?
“Oh, that’ll go away!”
“Wow, didja slap her?”
“Get some sunscreen on that baby, she’s burning!”
Yes, that will happen. And it’s totally okay.
You’ll want to feel indignant, you’ll want to reply with sass, you’ll want correct their manners… but: it is so, so much better to extend grace. Because it will keep you sane, and, really, the world needs a little less sass and a lot more grace.
But grace isn’t always easy.
So, to help, let me offer what we’ve found to be the typical sources of all those questions and comments. Because in our experience (over a decade now), we’ve noticed that there are a few consistent reasons why people comment or ask about our child’s face.
This list I’m giving you may not be comprehensive, but these are the most common reasons that will pop up again and again, driving people to remark or inquire. Remembering these will save your sanity when you get a comment or question from a stranger:
They comment because: They’re human.
I know, it’s a broad category to start with, but hear me out.
You know what a totally natural part of being human is? Awkwardness. We’re awkward. We’re imperfect; we make mistakes, all day, every day. No true conversation is scripted or rehearsed; it’s impromptu. It’s messy, it’s full of awkward missteps and blurtings-out that make you want to put your head in your hands and hide. But it’s Life Among Humans, and it’s all we have to work with if we want genuine interaction.
The inquiries, comments, and tips you’re getting may be awkward, but they’re spoken, open and honest. If awkwardness is the price of genuine human interaction, I’ll take it.
They comment because: They’re concerned.
Probably half of the inquiries, comments, and tips we’ve gotten, especially from young children, have been due to genuine concern that she was in pain.
When they bring it up, what they mean is: “Was she burned??” “Does it hurt??” “Is that a sunburn??” This is a blessing, and reminds us that the world hasn’t yet gone to hell in a handbasket. Thank them and the Good Lord for their unnecessary concern over your offspring.
They comment because: They’re curious.
This is not a bad thing! As humans, we’re wired to look at the world around us, take it in, assess it, and survive together. We want to know each other’s stories; we want to know what happened and why. We want to know each other. This is a good thing!
When we see a Different Human, we’re naturally curious: Why is he in a wheelchair? What is his Story? Why is she missing an arm? What is her Story?
Curiosity is good. It’s a cousin to Concern, above. Let them build empathy.
How did you become like that? Was it hard? Did it hurt? Did you fight the dragon and win? What’s your Story?
They comment because: They’re a cognitively or behaviorally challenged adult who looks normal on the outside but is in fact operating at a child’s maturity level.
Autism, closed head injuries, and other disorders look normal, but come out as socially ‘awkward’. These people may be totally blunt, and may even seem rude. If an otherwise normal-looking guy is mopping the floor and makes a weird comment on your child’s face, he may have had a motorcycle accident 20 years ago, and that’s why he’s mopping floors. Give him grace.
If you pay attention to exactly who is saying the seemingly ‘rude’ things regarding your child’s face, you’ll notice that a higher proportion of them seem more socially awkward than their outer appearance might otherwise command. They may have a cognitive or behavioral issue, and deserve your politeness as much as anyone with more developed social graces.
They comment because: They’re mean-spirited and enjoy making you feel bad.
We’ve had…one…maybe two, I think, in Addy’s first decade of life. With rates like that, they’re easy to shrug off.
As your child grows, you can teach her both pity and concern for the poor souls who have such a miserable life that they treat others miserably. Teach her how to keep them at arm’s length, but kindly. Pray for them together, and I don’t mean in a patronizing way – truly plant seeds of concern in her heart for their misery, and she’ll learn to let their miserable comments roll off her back with wisdom beyond her years. The mean child might be the girl who hears she’s ugly from her own parents; it might be the boy who’s been bullied as long as he can remember; it might be the spoiled brat whose lazy parents ensure his imminent failure in adulthood. In any case, they deserve our grace, not our fire.
They comment because: They know someone who “had one just like it!” Listen for these carefully; as you can tell with my own humble experiences, they don’t always start out sounding wise & experienced; they usually start out quiet & awkward (because, you know, humans). These encounters are as valuable as gold – learn all you can from them, for these folks know what it’s like to be in your shoes.
In my experience, just about every comment & inquiry you’ll receive will fall into one of these 6 categories, with most being good-hearted & awkward attempts at conversation.
It might be the old lady at the checkout line making Awkward Human Conversation by commenting, “Boy, you need to use more sunscreen on that baby’s face!” because she doesn’t know what else to say, and in the seven years since her husband’s death, she hasn’t gotten out much and is starved for Human interaction and is lobbing what she can over the conversation ‘net’.
It might be the normal-looking guy mopping floors who ‘rudely’ asks, “Woah, didja slap her?” because, in his childlike mind, it’s a funny thing to joke.
It might be the mom just a bit older than you, giving your child those sidelong, judgy-looking glances that you hate so much, who’s really just glancing over discreetly to see if it’s the same thing her own daughter has, wishing she could strike up a conversation about it if she weren’t so introverted.
Grace, grace, and more grace. We taught Addy early on to take every interaction openly and with a smile; “Yes, that’s my port wine stain! I just had a laser surgery.” It’s not a secret, it’s not shameful; it is a fact, and we’re okay with it.
When an adult tells me, “Oh, my son had a hemangioma like that, and it went away,” my exhaustion could easily respond with: “For the millionth time, this is NOT a HEMANGIOMA and it WILL NOT go away on its own!” But instead I reply: “Oh, that’s awesome! This will go away, too, but only with laser surgeries.” There: I’ve affirmed their kind attempt at conversation (probably meant to encourage me), and I’ve responded with warmth and truth.
So. When I’m out in public with my kiddo, when she gets some stares, when I hear the old: “Wow, what a sunburn!”, my indignant Mommyhood could easily respond with: “So help me, for the LAST time, this is NOT A SUNBURN, it’s a birthmark, and it WILL NOT HEAL, and not only will it not heal, but she’s had FORTY-THREE – did you hear that, FORTY-THREE! – laser surgeries to try to zap it off AND IT’S STILL THERE. NO! IT IS NOT A SUNBURN!”
But I’ve trained myself to observe who is making the sunburn comment. It’s an awkward cashier — the old lady starved for conversation. It’s an awkward guy mopping the gas station floor, too awkward to be cognitively healthy. It’s a bank teller who has to make conversation because her computer is processing too slowly, and it’s a fine opening attempt.
So instead, I smile and with a quick laugh say, “Actually, it’s a port wine stain, but it totally looks like a sunburn! We get that a lot.” And then either the conversation is done (transaction over), or they want to know more (inquisitive Humans), and I oblige.
After all, they’re taking time out of their day to learn about my offspring, and what mother doesn’t want to talk about her perfect & precocious offspring?
I’m grateful that they lobbed an attempt over the conversation net. I’m grateful that they’re open enough to the world around them to look at other humans. And more than anything, I’m grateful for their ever-human curiosity and concern over a child they didn’t have to notice. To me, all of their comments and questions are beautiful things.
When you encounter other humans and they comment on your child’s face, there’s an overwhelming array of responses, not all of them nice, running through your head.
I have been there.
I have heard the misinformed, “Oh, that’ll go away!”
I have heard variations on the ever-humorous, “Wow, didja slap her?”
I have heard meddling old ladies tell me, “Get some sunscreen on that baby, she’s burning!”
I have felt defensive. I have felt like screaming. I have felt like rolling my eyes and snarking.
I don’t. In spite of overwhelming temptation (and a culture that tells us to be offended by every word and look), I don’t. I give them room to be human. Because I’ve been deeply humbled in a few encounters with other humans myself.
Allow me to share 3 of those encounters with you here; three times when I’ve embarrassed myself with my own indignance and pride.
I’ll continue the theme of how we ‘encounter others’ in my next post, but for now, just let me share my embarrassment with you today.
Parents, I hope these encounters help ease your mind and empower you with grace when encountering humans in the world, even when you’re not feeling very gracious.
1. I’ve written about this one before, but it bears revisiting.
One day, I was standing in line for ice cream at a crowded, noisy, charming small-town candy shop. Little Addy (probably almost 2 at the time) was in my arms, looking backward over my shoulder. Suddenly, a guy behind me boomed out with a loud voice (BOOMED! AUDIBLY!): “HEY! SHE HAS A BIRTHMARK!” My back stiffened, my arms tightened, my jaw locked; I checked Addy to see if she’d heard, and began turning around slowly (expecting, I suppose, to death-glare the nitwit into submission, because acting on any other maternal instinct would have gotten me arrested).
Before I could turn all the way around to glare down this ignoramus, he continued, “JUST LIKE ME!” And, voila, there before me stood a tall, handsome, confident young man, maybe 30 or so, with a HUGE port wine stain on his face that was indeed just like Addy’s, only even bigger and even darker. It wrapped up onto his scalp, which was proudly clean-shaven.
He wasn’t ignorant. He was confident – and I saw in one glance that it must have been a hard-won confidence. He had earned it. He definitely knew more than I did. His enthusiasm was contagious, and it was exactly what I needed.
This marked stranger was generous and happy to welcome us into his club. I was ready to crawl into a hole, but we struck up a conversation about laser treatments instead, and he warmly answered my many questions about his experiences growing up with his stain.
I have never forgotten that feeling of welcome, of relief in finding the camaraderie I hadn’t even realized I’d been seeking.
And I’ve also never forgotten how close I came to shutting out such a rich experience, simply because I ignorantly assumed that anyone speaking a single word about my daughter’s birthmark must know less than I do.
2. Addy underwent her first laser surgery when she was 5 weeks old, and then for the next two years she had a surgery each month. So we spent a lot of time at Children’s hospital, hanging out in the pre-surgery waiting room with other families about to be admitted for various minor outpatient surgeries. Dr. Z. scheduled his laser surgeries for the same day each month, and the play area was often dotted with other port-wine-stained kids and their apprehensive parents.
One morning in that waiting room, around her 9th surgery, I struck up a conversation with a mom whose healthy-looking 12-year-old daughter was sitting beside her. Addy was crawling all over my lap, and her unique face came up naturally in conversation. I began telling the mom what Addy was here for, and how Addy’s had a number of surgeries already, and how her face gets bruised every time. (At this point, we had more experience than many other laser-surgery parents there, so I was used to answering questions.)
This mom replied that her daughter was also here for a laser surgery with Dr. Z. I pointed to the play area and inquired which little one was hers, since the older kid next to her was clearly fine. “Oh, no, it’s this one,” she said with a laugh, putting her hand on her twelve-year-old. “She’s got a port wine stain all over her back, and also all the way down both legs, and it’s really thick, and she’s had a ton of laser surgeries already. We lost track ages ago. She’s on swim team, since contact sports aren’t great for her, and she used to get embarrassed about wearing a swim suit, but she’s just had to make peace with it now that she’s on the team. We try to laser it whenever we can…”
I was amazed. This healthy girl was hiding a stain like Addy’s? And an even bigger one? And I can’t see it? And an even thicker one? And she’s had more surgeries? And she’s struggling with uncovering it for swim team?
The whole time I’d been talking to this mom, I’d been assuming that she probably didn’t know much about port wine stains, and that I was ‘informing’ her, while in fact she knew much more than I did. Again, I wanted to crawl into a hole, but she was gracious and warm.
3. When Addy was just a month old and her port wine stain was still very dark, Keith & I brought her over to a friend’s home to meet his whole family, including his parents and his younger siblings (whom we ourselves didn’t yet know very well).
In that first month of Addy’s life, I had already received a lot of warm but maddeningly erroneous encouragement from ignorant people telling me, “Oh, don’t you worry, that birthmark will go away.” Even the nurses at Addy’s birth had said it. I had wanted to scream at every single wrong one of them: “No it won’t! Not without laser treatments! A LOT of laser treatments!” They’d meant well, but they’d been confusing port wine stains with hemangiomas, and by the time that first month had passed, I’d had it *up to here* with bad advice, and was ready to snap if, so help me, I had to hear to that glib dismissal one more time.
We arrived at our friend’s house, and two younger sisters enthusiastically began giving me & Addy a tour of the house, talking over each other as we went. “Ooo, what’s that thing on her face?” “Is that a birthmark?” “That’s so cool! Our little brother has one—“ “Yeah, but it’s like almost gone now—“ “Yeah, it’s like SO MUCH lighter than it was when he was born—“ “Because it was SO DARK when he was born—“ “But it went away!” “Yeah! Hers’ll go away, too!”
There it was. I wanted to snap. If they hadn’t been so charmingly exuberant, I would’ve just about lost it. But I kept my cool because I love this clan. I tried to diplomatically cut in with, “Well, you know, this isn’t a hemangioma, it’s a port wine stain and –“ “Yeah! Yeah! That’s what he had!” And they were off again, chattering on the tour, completely oblivious to their own ignorance.
Later, we all gathered back in the kitchen to chat and to “ooh” and “aah” over Baby Addy, who was now asleep in her car seat. Our friend’s mom gently pulled me aside and asked me with a sidelong glance at my baby, “So… Have they told you about Sturge-Weber syndrome?”
I looked at her, dumbfounded that she would know about Sturge-Weber, a series of difficult complications unique to port wine stains. She called over her youngest son, brushed his hair off his forehead and said, “This is where his port wine stain was; you can still see spots of it.”
The other siblings started excitedly talking over each other again: “Yeah, it was really dark!” “And he had LOTS of surgeries!” “And he had other problems from it, too!” “Oh yeah, he definitely had other problems, too!”
Ahhhhhh… okay… So, when the sisters had said it had gotten lighter… they’d actually meant that it was lighter *after* a lot of laser surgeries… And they were trying to encourage me, to tell that me that it could get lighter with those surgeries… And they were living with Sturge Weber Syndrome on top of it.
They’d known exactly what a port wine stain was. They were walking that same path, many steps ahead of me. With many, many more bumps along that path. And I had tuned them out, not even hearing their wisdom between the lines.
In each of the three moments above, I had assumed, without even trying, that the people around me were somehow more ‘ignorant’ than I; that they somehow needed to be ‘educated’ on My Baby.
The truth, in each instance, was that their bumbling hid not ignorance, but wisdom – which I could heed or ignore at my peril.
There’s a 4th story here – but in this one, the tables were turned. It has nothing to do with birthmarks, but it definitely made me chuckle.
Back when I worked in banking, I got into the elevator at the end of a workday. I worked on the 26th floor of a building filled largely with bankers and lawyers, and every stop on the end-of-day descent added another suit.
The doors opened to a law firm floor, where a family was waiting to get on – a lawyer, his wife, and their young son. It appeared that Mom and toddler had visited Dad’s office at the end of the day to pick him up, and now they were all leaving together.
This mom looked tired and frazzled, and she spoke just a bit sharply at her toddler when he ran into our crowded elevator. I smiled at the boy; he was cute, and he wasn’t doing anything naughty (other than being a toddler, and he could hardly help that).
As she navigated his empty stroller into the elevator with deep sighs, she looked at my obviously pregnant belly and my indulgent smile, and said to me with pursed lips, “Ahh, well, this will be you soon.”
Ohhhh, sweetheart. I laughed out loud with my hand on my belly: “This is number three,” I clarified for everyone.
The suits around us chuckled. She turned beet red.
She had probably assumed by my suit, age and departure time that I must be expecting my first child. Not an unreasonable assumption. And she had therefore assumed that she knew more than I did about toddlers; this clearly left her indignant that I, an ignorant stranger, would dare to silently comment on her mothering with my naiively indulgent smile.
In fact, I’d been in her shoes (twice already), and I’d had those days (twice as many). I’d had many, many of those days. Only with, ahem, TWO toddlers at once and a very pregnant self, thank you very much.
So even when you think that someone’s behaving ‘ignorantly’ and you’re annoyed, take a deep breath and give them room to be human. Not only will you keep yourself from saying something that hurts them, but you’ll keep yourself from saying something that embarrasses you.
Because if they’re interacting with you at all, there’s probably a reason why. They probably see some common ground. And there’s a good chance that they might actually know more than you do. Assume the best, give them grace, and listen for their wisdom between the lines.
These two encounters have always reminded me and Keith that our influence matters as we guide Addy through her identity with a port wine stain. Because Addy could end up like either girl.
Knowing that we wield considerable power when it comes to this mark, we want to parent it right.
Are there factors other than parenting? Certainly – the Hoodie girl might have had crueler classmates in school, been subject to more relentless teasing and bullying, or experienced some other heartbreak entirely. The Starbucks barista might have skipped through life among daises and kittens. I don’t know the whole story.
I simply know that we, as parents, face the challenge of using our influence to build Addy up. To be frank and honest with her, to build her self-esteem, to prepare her for a world full of flawed, and sometimes cruel, humans.
But really (and this is what intrigues me)… isn’t that what every parent faces? These challenges are universal among parents who want to launch a confident, well-adjusted and healthy-self-esteemed child into the world, while protecting them from its cruelty in the meantime.
Not every child is born with an obvious malformation on their face, but the challenge still rests quietly on the parents’ shoulders to wield their influence wisely, simultaneously shielding and empowering, striking the right balance between shelter and exposure.
It’s not something we want to get wrong. Someday, it may mean the difference between a confident smile and a tucked-up hoodie.
I’ve thought through parenting tactics inside and out, backward and forward, in an effort to empower my lovely daughter, with a Thing on her Face, to face the world confidently. That hoodie terrifies me.
And I’m glad to share my insights here. Many of my loyal readers are themselves parents of uniquely marked children, and they’re afraid of the same things I am.
But I also realize that many readers here are simply parents… and because you’re parents, you, too, face these very same fears. And so I hope my insights encourage you, too. Your path is no less precarious than ours; I’ve just had more occasion than most to sit down and think through these things.
May we encourage each other to raise children who confidently know their own beauty, whether they’re birthmarked or not.
Congratulations! You have welcomed a new baby into this world. You are excited, happy, terrified, uncertain.
And that baby looks nothing like what you expected.
If you, too, have been surprised by your perfect newborn’s unexpected face, I can perhaps offer some insight into the things you’re worrying and wondering about.
You already knew that you’d have to navigate the challenges of raising a child in this complicated modern world, but you weren’t prepared to do it with a strange-looking face.
You may be torn between calling your perfect little infant “perfect” and wondering what to do about this looming flaw. Should you call it a flaw? Will she think she’s not perfect? Should you mention it to her at all?
You will Google this condition, and when you see all the ways these errant blood vessels can invade the brain, the eyes, the nose, and the gums, you will start watching for every daily milestone to make sure all systems are working the way they should. At least, for now; those vessels will keep growing.
You will feel guilt at your concern over your baby’s face while other parents are dealing with issues so much more deep, painful, and immediate than this ‘cosmetic’ issue; yet, when someone else tells you to be thankful that you have “only a cosmetic issue” to deal with (and maybe even that “it’ll go away”), you’ll want to cry.
You will worry over every contact sport, every scratch, and every nosebleed, along with her eyes, gums, tongue, teeth, brain, and anything else these overgrown blood vessels touch.
And then, you will wonder what you’ll eventually say to her. How will you talk to her about it? And it will feel a lot like vanity, worrying about her looks, and surely, you’ve never been this vain before…
When it comes to her looks, you will struggle in the balance between truths – the truths that other people tell you, and the truths you discover for yourself.
People will tell you your baby is beautiful, and that’s true. They will tell you that your child will be absolutely fine sporting a birthmark in our enlightened modern era, and that’s true. They will tell you that beauty is so much deeper than skin, and that’s true. They will even tell you that people hardly notice it after they meet your child, and that’s true, too.
But it’s also true that the uniqueness of each birthmark means that your child may never see another human being like them, and that’s isolating. It’s also true that your decision to treat, eliminate, remove, or otherwise ‘fix’ this error will haunt your parenting conscience whether you choose to leave it or not, and that’s sobering. It’s also true that our human instinct to spot aberrations in nature means that your child’s errant face will never not be spotted, and that’s overwhelming.
It’s a worrisome thing to raise a child with a strange face. It’s okay that you’re dealing with those worries; it doesn’t make you a shallow person. And you may not feel validated when people encourage you with all the truths about how cool it is to have a birthmark now; they’re not wrong; it just doesn’t feel validating. That’s okay, too. Take their encouragement; consume the truth they’re giving you.
You will think ahead to the first day of preschool, and the first day of kindergarten, and all the other firsts that she will walk into. How will she carry herself into the room? What will she say?
You will find yourself noticing all the unique features in other humans now. And every time you see another human with a Thing on their Face, you’ll devour every hint that might give you clues to your own daughter’s future, all the way down to the way that one birthmarked guy orders his ice cream, and the way that one birthmarked girl slouches into her hoodie. Ashamed? Is that what your perfect, brilliant, precocious infant daughter will become?
People can assuage you all they want, but let me tell you, when you think ahead to all the things you have to prepare a daughter for these days, and then plan on having a weird face on top of it, it’s overwhelming.
You may not know what to do with all the overwhelmingness. You may be quick to feel indignance: How dare Disney not have a princess that looks like my daughter? You may be quick to feel offense: How dare that ignorant idiot ask my daughter what’s on her face?
Take a deep breath; be patient with all the other flawed humans around you. They may not validate your concerns; they may not accommodate your daughter’s face, or even anticipate it. They may ask loud questions. That’s okay.
Have grace for other humans; give them room to err, because they’re imperfect, too.
Have a sense of humor; dress your baby up as a Dalmatian puppy on Halloween and call her ‘Spot’, because you only live once.
We’re reluctant to embrace vanity, but when we’re honest, we would admit that we desperately want to conform, we want to look “like”, and we want to be seen as pretty. This is our vanity, and we feel guilty for it, and a facial mark rocks that guilt. It may feel better to preemptively blame other humans for not accommodating your daughter in their princess lineup, but I think it’s healthier to admit that a natural dose of vanity comes with being human. It doesn’t make you a bad person.
It’s okay to worry about all of this, and then it’s okay to let it all go and take “Spot” trick-or-treating.
Parenting is always uncharted territory. Every child is unique, and every day is new. I can give you advice, I can tell you what we’ve learned; but, ultimately, you will make your own path. I’ve walked some of your steps, but not all of them.
And as I learn from each of our steps, I will continue sharing what we’ve learned with you, here. But in the meantime, please know that I’ve felt what you’re feeling, and I can tell you, after more than a decade of parenting a Kid with a Thing on her Face, that it’s all okay.
Addy may not remember being dressed up as a Dalmatian puppy named ‘Spot’, but she thinks the pictures are hilarious. She’s fine. It’s all good.
You’ll be fine, too.
For Addy’s first few years of life, she lived by a cycle of monthly laser surgeries: she was at Children’s Hospital for a new surgery every month; three weeks later, she’d go to the clinic for a pre-op checkup, then go back to the hospital for another surgery the following week. Three weeks later, another pre-op, then another surgery; then another pre-op, and another surgery… you get the cycle.
The surgeries are minor, thank goodness, but many. She’s had 43 laser treatments (so far) under anesthesia beginning at 5 weeks of age, each one variously bringing IVs, yucky-tasting drugs, and masks covering her face, and each one preceded by a pre-op appointment with a clinic doctor the week before.
Every medical encounter, with all its variables, carried the risk that Something might happen to turn her off from medical appointments. Shots, exams, drugs, questions, strange surroundings, weird lights, being transported in a moving bed – all of these things can be painful or disorienting, and the likelihood that Addy might end up hating all things medical was always high.
So how did she arrive at her love of all things medical? Why is she so comfortable as a patient? I hope that for any parent reading this who has a child requiring a minor (if frequent) medical procedure, our insights here might help smooth the experience.
It comes down, broadly, to two things:
1) medical providers who understand children, and
2) some very intentional parenting at every single appointment.
First, those providers:
Seek out children’s medicine if at all possible. All of Addy’s surgeries have taken place at a Children’s Hospital, where every single worker is oriented to children, not just as smaller versions of adults (which they’re not), but as their own species. Their bodies are different. Their brains are different. One can’t always explain things to a kid, one usually can’t reason with a kid, and one forgets what frightens a kid’s brain, but at Children’s, all these things are on the radar of every nurse, receptionist, doctor, assistant, and specialist. That’s not to say that they’re all perfect all the time, but it’s a great place to start.
Outside of Children’s Hospital, our other providers ‘get’ kids, too. Her primary care doctor is a pediatrician. Her dermatologist, while not a pediatrician, is a laser expert who specifically treats children with port wine stains. Her ophthalmologist is a pediatric ophthalmologist (glaucoma is one of the possible complications from a port wine stain), and I can’t imagine trying to do that long, strange appointment with anyone other than a children’s eye doctor.
At these appointments, we’re just as likely to be asked about favorite cartoons as we are about recent colds. The pediatrician doesn’t just look in her ears at a checkup, he ‘looks for’ Disney princesses or Marvel characters. The ophthalmologist speaks more to Addy during her eye check than to me, and that’s perfectly fine.
With so many opportunities for bad experiences, taking your child to a provider that understands children is a great place to start.
The second major factor: the parenting.
If you want (or need) your child to be comfortable in medical settings, then you need to intentionally parent through every medical encounter, even the small ones. You’ve seen some of my specific tips before, but this provides some wider context.
Always, always, remember this: You are the parent. You run the show. Therefore, when you take your child into any medical setting, here are 5 things I want you to keep in mind:
- Choose your attitude wisely, for your child will absorb it and then reflect it. Be positive.
When you visit a Children’s hospital a lot, you pick up on certain patterns, like this one: no matter the personality of the child, they’ll always end up reflecting their parents in the waiting room.
Pre-procedure parents are either Relaxed & Happy, or they’re Nervous About What’s Coming (complete with pursed lips and bulging neck veins). They’re either smiling with their child, or tensing up like a guitar string about to snap.
Can you guess what happens to the child in those few minutes in the waiting area?
Within moments, they absorb the signals emanating from their parent, and then they unconsciously match them. Happy parents? Happy kid keeps playing. Tense parents? Kid does a double-take at the awesome toys in front of him, decides that maybe there’s something sinister about them, gets really quiet, goes over to Mom & Dad, and sits quietly, whining occasionally.
When it comes to your child in medical settings, remember that YOU set the tone. You are the sky, and your child is the lake. If you’re sunny and bright, then the water shines brightly, too; if you’re cloud-covered and gloomy, then the water is grey and cloudy, too.
You carry immense responsibility. Your child will reflect you. If you want them to come out of a clinic appointment happy, then you can’t walk in like you’re about to get that awful shot you got back in 1998. If you want this surgery to not be a negative experience, then you can’t walk into the hospital looking like you’re on your way to a funeral. If you want your child to comfortable in medical settings, then you must first be comfortable here.
And if you have to fake it ‘til you make it, then fake it, because your little copycat is taking their cue to be either happy or terrified from you. Don’t lie about anything (more on that below); just make sure that their starting point isn’t “terror”.
- Remember your child’s natural ignorance.
Look around the hospital or examination room at all the strange objects from a kid’s perspective: you may be familiar with the blood pressure cuff, but your child is not. For all he knows, it’s a torture device. Preempt his fears by telling him what everything is. Explain, explain, explain, and always with a positive attitude. Good nurses and assistants are great at this; when one of them takes Addy’s blood pressure, they first hold the cuff up and say, “Do you know what this does?” with big smile and an air of intrigue, piquing the child’s curiosity. “It’s going to give your arm a tight hug.”
There. Done. The strange object has been acknowledged and explained, just enough to reassure the child that it won’t be used for anything sinister. Can you imagine trying to get a blood pressure reading without doing that first? The poor kid has this thing strapped on his arm, there’s a buzzing sound, and then all of a sudden it cinches tighter and tighter and tighter and he’s wondering, “Where are we going with this? Give me back my arm!”
Now, this ignorance comes with a bonus: Kids aren’t born knowing that medical stuff is bad. That’s the burden we adults carry because we’ve visited hospitals when loved ones are at death’s door, when accidents change our lives forever, when babies are born dangerously early. We understand life and death, and we know that the treatment can hurt more than the disease; if we had to check ourselves in today, we’d probably freak out. So we expect the same trepidation from our children.
But to your child, all of this is new. And a child is accustomed to encountering new things every day; that’s part of being a young human. They’re constantly facing unfamiliar people and experiences and objects, whether at the grocery store or the hospital. There’s no need for any of it to be negative at the start, so don’t heap that upon them. They’re starting fresh.
Marvel at the blood pressure cuff with them – isn’t that cool how it works? Handle the mask together and laugh about how it looks on your face. Explain what these things do. Mysterious unknown objects can be scary; familiar everyday objects aren’t. Get a ‘play doctor’ kit with a stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff. Ask the hospital if you can take home a mask so you can play ‘surgery’ at home and have a blast. Let them be curious, help them explore, and keep everything positive.
- No surprises. Ever.
Some people want to distract a child so they don’t see a shot coming, and then they sneak it in, thinking that it makes the overall experience shorter and easier. Trust me, that only works once. The child cannot logically process, “Well, gee, that was SO much more efficient.” All they know is, “OWW!! What?!?!”, and they will never, ever, ever again trust that stranger in the white coat, or even you in that environment. Which means that the next time you carry them into a clinic or hospital, they’ll be inconsolable.
When I was a child, I was a patient in a hospital that wasn’t a children’s hospital. No one there knew how to handle kids, and they administered shots by the ‘distract & surprise’ method. It didn’t take long for me to distrust every white-coated person I encountered thereafter; I even freaked out if I saw a white winter jacket outside the hospital.
Do not let anyone (nurse, tech, or doctor) surprise your child with something unpleasant. Take an extra moment ahead of time to warn your child what’s coming. Note the word, ‘moment’ – no need to linger on the idea, just a few extra seconds to clearly, openly, and (most important) matter-of-factly tell your child what’s coming. (Remember, if you freak out, they’ll freak out.)
Keith was the master of this disclosure. Knowing we had a long medical road ahead of us, he left nothing to chance, even seasonal flu shots and routine blood draws. Whenever a procedure came, here’s how it would go down:
The tech would prepare the shot.
Keith would turn to little Addy and say:
- “Sweetie, you’re going to get a shot now.” [tell ‘em what’s coming]
- “It might hurt, and that’s okay.” [matter-of-fact warning, NEVER negative]
- “We’ll count to three,” [a consistent system she can rely on each time]
- “…she’ll poke you once, and then we’ll be all done.” [finite ending – the light at the end of the tunnel]
He’d nod to the tech; they’d gently anchor her and count to three together, and the tech would poke Addy on “three.” Addy might cry for a moment, but Keith would immediately scoop her up and affirm her: “There, see? All done! All done, just like we told you.” [Remind her that it went down exactly as you said; she can trust you.]
“Now, tell the nice lady ‘thank you’.”
That’s right, he made her politely thank every tech and nurse who took care of her, even those who administered shots. An attitude of thanks may sound crazy, but for a little toddler, the effort of articulating polite words of gratitude provided enough of a distraction (after all, that’s a lot of work when you’re two) to get her mind off any lingering pain from the quick shot. And it fended off any possible “poor me” wallowing that could creep in among her many medical visits, to acknowledge the role of all caregivers around her, even those stuck doing thankless tasks.
Sniff, sniff, “Tay too [thank you].”
And with that, the event is done. Your child knows that you’re trustworthy, consistent, and dependable. We haven’t been allowed to wallow. The pain is disappearing. What were we crying about again? Now, go get a sticker, and the day is made. (If we’ve gone under anesthesia, then go get a popsicle, and the whole WEEK is made.)
No surprises. Medical procedures don’t have to be pleasant, but they definitely should not be a surprise. Ever.
- Be your child’s activist when it comes to details of treatment.
Even in these great settings, we occasionally encountered providers who weren’t perfect. One clinic nurse was so nervous around kids that she clumsily administered a “surprise” shot to the leg really hard, without giving Keith a chance to count Addy to three. Bad idea. Addy felt shocked & betrayed, it took Keith over an hour to calm her down, and the poor kid limped for a week. Not a good thing when we were bringing her in for a medical appointment or procedure every 1-3 weeks.
Needless to say, we were more demanding of procedure thereafter. We had a lot grace for the nice nurse’s nervousness (after all, no sweet soul actually wants to administer shots to children), but we did discreetly discuss the event with the clinic, and they were awesome. They understood that we couldn’t afford to have Addy not trust us, and they helped ensure that all shots thereafter followed a trustworthy procedure.
Remember, again, you’re in control. Your child takes their cue from you, and the providers take their cue from you; if you’re not comfortable with some aspect of treatment, they’ll probably work with you until there’s some resolution. But they can’t read your mind, so speak up. Be kind and courteous, and they’ll work with you.
- Empower your child to do things themselves
I was surprised one morning when a nurse at Children’s Hospital offered to let Addy take out her own IV after a surgery. Taking out the IV has always been a nasty moment, mostly because of the adhesive sticking to the skin. (The needle is nothing compared to that sticky hand-hair-grabbing tape!) Addy was always apprehensive about getting the IV out.
But then the nurse showed Addy how to pull it out herself, and it turned that moment from one of apprehension to one of empowerment. Addy learned exactly how the IV worked, where the line was, and how fast to pull off the tape. Altogether, it made her feel awesome. No more tears.
Expect great things of a kid, and they’ll rise to the occasion. I’m grateful for that nurse’s wisdom; she knew Addy could handle the task herself, even if I didn’t.
Keep your eyes open for opportunities to let your child do things for themselves in medical settings; ask the provider if a task can be done or assisted by the patient herself. The IV task has been rather empowering for Addy, and there might be others. The providers can help you find ways to empower your child to do things themselves, especially if they’re used to working with children.
Yes, perhaps you’d rather be at a tropical beach than at yet another procedure, but honestly, it could be worse, and in the grand scheme, it’s really not so bad. So enjoy the little stuff; get excited about stickers and pumped about popsicles, because then your kid will, too. Savor the time with your child (and a good book during those precious quiet minutes when they’re under anesthesia). Life is beautiful, this laser treatment stuff isn’t so bad, there’s a whole team of people taking care of your offspring. And with luck, your offspring will realize that it’s all quite lovely, too.
**Post script: I will never forget the evening we went out to dinner to celebrate Addy’s 5th birthday. By chance, we ended up seated in a booth just behind Dr. Steelman, the pediatrician who has seen her through all of her medical ‘stuff’ since she was a newborn – and therefore a provider she could either love or loathe. When Addy caught a glimpse of him out of the usual medical context, her face lit up like a Christmas tree and she stammered excitedly, “Uncle Steelman!”