The last two years there has been a 5K and 1 mile walk in Provo Canyon that benefits Project Smile, a group that travels to developing countries to provide surgeries for children with clefts. We did the 1 mile walk this year (Ethan was a month old, and I wasn't about to be doing any running...). A short time ago John was wearing his shirt from the race in one of his classes, and a classmate noticed it. He asked if John knew what Project Smile was, and John confirmed that he did. Then, with a smirk and a half-laugh, he asked John "Have you ever seen one of those kids?" and started to make some kind of face. Before he got the chance to go any farther, John calmly said, "Before you say anything that you may regret later, my son was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate." The student became understandably sheepish, then attempted a recovery by saying that his company printed the signs for the 5K.
My brother-in-law, who is in the same class and heard the exchange, jokingly commented to John about what he would have liked to do to that particular student's smile. I was with him on that one... But I am definitely proud of John's reaction and that he redirected the conversation and then let it go. And it got me thinking again about something I've contemplated in the past: how do we help people to be sensitive to facial differences? Surely that student will think twice in the future before mocking a birth defect. Here are a few additional thoughts and observations that I have had:
- Most people want to be sensitive and supportive when they talk to us about our kids, but don't know how. I try not to take offense when I see an effort being made, even if the way the words come out aren't exactly how I would like them. For example, before my son's lip and nose repair, I had a few people ask "Was he born like that?" My initial urge was to reply sarcastically, "No, I did that to him. What do you think?" But I refrained, because I know that if they are asking, it is usually because they don't know how to ask about a birth defect in a sensitive way. The word "defect" is a pretty harsh word when used in reference to a baby, so I notice that people avoid it, which is nice, but sometimes they have a hard time articulating the same idea with a different word.
- Children tend to stare, and also tend to say everything that comes into their heads. I have heard lots of kids commenting that "He has an owie!" or "Mommy, did he go to the hospital?" or "How come his mouth is like that?" I figure that by explaining rather than being defensive, I am helping one more child to grow up to be a more sensitive person. And when I demonstrate that I don't mind their childrens' curiosity, parents feel more free to ask questions, too.
- When I deal with people who are insensitive, I try to think about what I would like to teach my son about dealing with the same insensitivity as he grows. My hope is that my reactions can show him that we can be kind to others and share rather than getting angry or allowing our own self-esteem to depreciate.