DEAR ABBY: I am the mother of an adorable 3-year-old daughter. "Michelle" is affectionate and bright for her age. The problem: Michelle has a large red birthmark that covers her cheek, extending almost to her jaw. Her pediatrician told me that she'll have to wait until she's older to have the birthmark removed.
Abby, you would not believe some of the comments adults have made in her presence! People can be unbelievably cruel and thoughtless. I don't want my daughter's self-image destroyed before she even reaches kindergarten.
My mother-in-law sent me a column you printed in 1991 on this subject. Would you please run it again? -- MICHELLE'S MOM
DEAR MOM: I certainly will, and I hope it's helpful.
DEAR READERS: A reader asked, "What do you think the parents of a facially disfigured child would want to hear when running into a friend who has never seen the child before?"
My reply, "Only a person who has walked that path is qualified to answer that question. I hope someone who has will write and let me know. The answer would be helpful to many readers -- as well as to this columnist."
I was unprepared for the volume of mail I received. Some excerpts:
FROM ASHLAND, KY.: "Don't say, 'Oh, my God! What happened to your child's face?' Brace yourself, then find something positive to say about the child's bright eyes, lovely hair, or the outfit the child is wearing. But don't mention the child's abnormality."
FROM LAKE JACKSON, TEXAS: "Do not ignore the child. A child with a deformity can see, hear and feel. Bend down and say, 'Hi ya, little fella -- what's your name?' Ask his mother if you may pick him up and hold him. The child will feel accepted and the mother will bless you a hundred times in her prayers."
FROM YAKIMA, WASH.: "Don't try to comfort his mother with the 'news' that they are doing remarkable things with reconstructive surgery these days. Be assured that the parents are well aware of what can be done; they also know that it must be done in stages as the child matures. And the child probably has had many surgeries already."
FROM SHELBY, OHIO: "Treat him as you would treat a normal 2-year-old -- not ignoring the deformity, but not making an issue of it, either. This is not hypocritical; neither is it acceptance of it. It puts it in its proper perspective. Forget the 'I'm so sorry' stuff. The mother knows you're sorry -- and so is she!"
FROM EAST HARTFORD, CONN.: "Look beyond the disfigurement and see the child who is still too young to know that he is different. (He will learn all too soon.) Treat him as you would any other 2-year-old. If the mother wants to bring up the subject of the child's problem, she will. But she would prefer that he be treated as a human being rather than a medical problem. The child's disfigurement probably can be corrected in time, but the damage to his personality, should he be treated as less than human, may not be."
FROM DALLAS: "God gave these special children something that others will never develop in a lifetime. We've suffered more from prejudice and ignorant remarks than from the difficulty of coping with our child's multiple handicaps. One stranger actually said, 'How brave of you to take him out in public instead of putting him away in an institution with people of his own kind.'"
FROM LONG ISLAND: "Thank you, Abby, from the bottom of my heart for opening the door of opportunity for these letters. The public needs to be educated!"