Parenting Strategy #8: On Talking
When you have a child with an odd-looking face, you realize that you’ll have to talk about it… with her… at some point…
And that’s a terrifying prospect.
You want to be the first voice and the last word your child hears about her face. But what do you say? How do you bring it up? You want her to know it’s not taboo, but you also want to avoid Making It Into An Issue.
So what do you do?
Parenting Strategy #8: Speak Neutrally.
You speak neutrally about the birthmark.
It’s not a beauty mark, and it’s not an ugly thing; it’s simply a birthmark.
Your job as parent is to teach your child what the thing on her face is. Provide facts. Keep it simple.
You may be tempted to pre-empt any sad feelings by skipping the facts and rushing straight to the compliments, like I was: “That’s your beauty mark!”
But if she only knows it as a ‘beauty mark’, then she won’t be emotionally prepared for another child bursting that bubble by blurting out that it’s not beautiful.
More importantly, if you only ever talk about the birthmark positively like it’s an absolutely awesome thing, then you may not be leaving the door open for your child to discuss a negative experience around it later. She needs to know that door is open.
The birthmark is a fact. It’s just there. Yes, you should also teach her that it’s beautiful, and that she’s extra beautiful with it. Yes, compliment her up and down a million different ways, but do not neglect to give her a foundation of dry facts. She needs to know what’s on her face.
Here’s what it sounds like: When she becomes more aware of the world around her (around toddlerhood), spend some time looking into a mirror with her. She might look curiously back and forth between your faces, or she might point to her birthmark for the first time. When she does, keep it neutral and factual: “That’s your port wine stain.”
That’s it. You may be afraid that if you’re not super-positive about the birthmark, she’ll feel negative about it. But that’s not true! Young children live in a black-and-white world of facts. Facts are incredibly reassuring as they order their universe. Don’t worry about being too dry and neutral. Keep it simple. She’s not doing a philosophy dissertation yet.
Tell her what it is: “That’s your birthmark.” “Your birthmark is a port wine stain.”
Help her differentiate: “You have a port wine stain.” “Mommy does not have a port wine stain.”
Empower her to pronounce: ‘blood vessels’, ‘laser surgery’, ‘bruise’, ‘pink’, ‘purple’.
At her laser surgeries, give her more facts for context: “A port wine stain is extra blood vessels.” “The laser zaps the extra blood vessels.” “Your laser surgery causes bruising.” “The purple is bruising from the laser surgery.”
Don’t get emotional. It’s SO tempting to jump to opinions, especially when your child looks in the mirror after a laser surgery, because it will feel like a knife to the gut when she stares in shock at her own purple face, and you will want to blurt out through a choked voice, “YOU ARE SO PRETTY AND YOUR FACE IS PERFECT AND I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!”
But she’s probably not upset by it yet – she’s just surprised at the change. If you jump in defensively, then she’ll conclude that something must be wrong with her face. So keep it neutral, and teach her the facts: “Your birthmark is purple now, because of your laser surgery.” Don’t assume she’ll figure that out on her own. Then compliment her on how awesome the purple is; after all, it is a pretty fantastic color. (As Addy told us one day before preschool, with a voice full of pity for her peers, “Not everyone gets to have purple on their face.”)
Talk to her about the likelihood that other people will wonder what’s on her face. Help her understand that it’s okay when they do. Don’t pre-empt negative encounters by saying something like, “If ANYONE ever makes fun of you for this, you just WALK AWAY!” You don’t need to go there yet. Don’t set her up to assume that encounters will be negative. Most of them aren’t.
Instead, just give her a neutral heads-up that people might ask about her face, and teach her the basic facts about why it’s unique. “Other kids don’t know what this is.” “Other kids don’t have one.” “Other kids might ask about this, because it’s different.”
Seriously. That’s it. That’s all you have to say.
And you can always debrief at the end of a school day or playground date with a simple question: “Did anyone ask about your face today?” But, again, be neutral! Don’t interrogate her with an attitude like, “People are idiots so I’m sure something bad must have happened and I need a full report, so sit down and spill it.” That’s too much pressure. Instead, use the same chilled-out tone of voice you might use to ask, “Oh hey, did anyone ask for your autograph today?” (Because it’s pretty much the same thing, right?)
Don’t jump ahead to being defensive. Don’t skip over the basics. While she’s little, linger in the dry, boring realm of neutral facts. Facts are reassuring and empowering as she learns how to speak about her birthmark.
This will tell her that the topic is open for discussion at home, without any pressure to feel one way or another. And this will equip her to answer the questions in public, factually, all by herself, without any stress.
Because at some point, the questions and comments will shift from being directed to you, the parent, to being directed to her and her face. And if you’ve equipped her with the neutral facts, then even when she’s little she will pipe up with an easy, relaxed, disarming answer: “Oh, this is my birthmark!”
And you’ll exhale the breath you hadn’t known you’d been holding, and with a flood of relief you’ll realize: she’s got it. She can handle this. She can speak for herself. She’ll be okay.