My son is 3 years-old and he “gets” it. He understands that burns, scars, or physical differences don’t make a person “bad” or “weird”. It just makes them different. He started noticing my scars when he was about 1 1/2. He would gently run his finger along the dark brown scar on my left cheek and say, “ouchie.” And I’d say, “Yes, it was an ouchie, but it’s all better now,” and he’d move on to something else.
I knew there’d come a time when he would notice someone else notice my physical differences. I hadn’t really prepared myself for what I’d say or do, so when the time came I just handled it in the moment. A curious little girl (about 6 years old) kept smiling at me the park. I’d smile back and say, “Hello!” Finally, after a few exchanges, she walked over and bluntly asked, “What happened to you? What are those scars on you?” I smiled and explained that I’d been burned, but my scars were all healed up and I was all better now. She then proceeded to ask me, “But what happened?” So, I told her I’d had an accident. She insisted on getting a more detailed answer, following up with a confused, “A car accident?” By this time a group of kids had gathered around, some shyly listening, while others were touching my arms as I held them out. My son was within earshot when I said, “Yes, a car accident.” The little girl said, “Ohhhh, there must’ve been fire.” And I responded with a simple “Yes.” Satisfied with my answer they continued to laugh and chat with me while we played a game of tag.
Anytime I encounter children who have questions about my scars, I am happy to answer them. I’d much rather have a child ask me openly than point and stare and never get the opportunity to interact with me. In my experience, parents have scolded their children or hurried them along when they’ve commented on my skin or started asking me a question. And I always tell parents it’s okay. I often have to convince them that I’m open to share, and I encourage them to let their children talk to me so that I can show them that I’m not “scary” or “strange.” Rather I’m a person with feelings and a story.
My experience has allowed me to teach my son something very special, and that’s compassion. I realized that he “got it” when we were at (yet another) park playing. In this instance, a group of kids joined our usual game of “monster” and they began to ask questions. But this time before I could get a word out my son said, “It’s just burns guys! From a car accident.” A part of me giggled as he said it so matter-of-factly. I was proud of him. I, in no way, expected him to assume the responsibility of answering for me or sticking up for me, but he did. It was a complete shock, but I am proud, nonetheless. He didn’t see it as a big deal or as something that should stop their fun, so he addressed it, made eye contact to confirm they were okay with it, and then they happily moved on. Who knew?
Still another part of me worried about how his accepted version of a car accident might confuse him when he gets older and learns the truth. For now, I’m okay with it. He’d overheard me tell another child that my burns were a result of a car accident, so that’s how he made sense of it all. It’s totally appropriate. When he gets older we’ll have a more detailed conversation about the facts and we’ll process it together. Until then, if he wants to tell other children that my scars are from a car accident and there’s no need to be afraid of me, I’m okay with it. I’m thankful that he and I get to be both the teacher and the student on this journey, and I couldn’t be more proud to be his mom.
If you have questions about how to talk to your child about physical differences please contact me. I’d love to help.