Parenting Strategy # 9: Be Honest about the Error
In my last post, I said that it’s important to treat facts neutrally. Your child needs to know the basic facts about her face: you have a birthmark. The birthmark is a port wine stain. A port wine stain is extra blood vessels.
And (are you ready?): That birthmark is an error.
The port wine stain is an error. Something went wrong in utero, and the nerve that was supposed to send a signal to its related blood vessels to “Stop growing!” never did. So they kept growing, even though they weren’t supposed to.
That’s not negative commentary, it’s a fact. And we face that fact honestly and neutrally.
Let me stress that – you must be neutral when you’re honest! You don’t mope, groan, cry, exaggerate, or sigh when pointing out that an error occurred. It’s simply a value-neutral fact. It’s an error.
I can’t tell you how important this is. It is the foundation of grace. Addy knows that she’s beautiful and that she’s fearfully and wonderfully made, and that she is not perfect… Because no human is.
Let me repeat that: no human is perfect. That is the message your unique child needs to understand to the depth of their soul. We all have errors. None of us is living in the Platonic ideal of a human body. We have moles, we have quirks, we have genes, we have illnesses, we have mutations – many of them just too small or out-of-sight to notice. Someone like Addy might wear their error front & center, but everyone is flawed, somewhere, somehow.
That’s why the fact that a port wine stain is technically an error doesn’t have to be negative. I’m flawed, you’re flawed, everyone is flawed! Her port wine stain doesn’t have to be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any of your features. It simply is.
We can, and should, learn to appreciate the beauty in other humans’ traits, many of which are themselves errors. (Even adorable freckles, after all, are little bits of pigment gone awry.) But remember that you don’t have to erase the fact that an error exists in order to call it beautiful.
We’re afraid that if we call a feature less than perfect, we’re somehow being negative or derisive. And so we call it perfect instead – as if anything less than perfect can’t be beautiful.
But it’s okay to acknowledge an imperfection, even to the point of working to fix it with powerful lasers, and also see the beauty in it all the while. It’s not either-or. It’s both-and.
Don’t be afraid to call that beautiful birthmark an error. It may actually, unexpectedly, feel validating for your child to know that yes, something went wrong, and that’s okay. She doesn’t have to feel ‘perfect’ about it. This isn’t a big deal. Everyone’s got something. And even while the laser surgeries make progress on fixing the error, she can feel beautiful with it all the while.
As your child understands that this birthmark is an error, she may start noticing all the other errors around her. This is healthy; she’s finding camaraderie. Addy loves knowing that my spine is shaped like a long ‘S’ from scoliosis, and that her dad has a dark birthmark on his side. She loves finding strange markings and alopecia and missing limbs around us. Because she knows that everyone’s got something a little ‘off’, and she thinks that’s pretty awesome.
So when you’re talking to your child about their birthmark, go ahead and be honest about the fact that it’s an error. It’s an error, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful; it’s absolutely beautiful. It simply means that she’s not perfect.
Which means, really, she’s just like everyone else after all.
A few other “Strategies for Parenting a Unique Child”:
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.
“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.
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.