Friday, September 04, 2009

Kenny and MJ...Hideous or Handsome??

Imagine you are driving home with your child, and out of the blue he asks you timidly "Mommy, do you think I look hideous?".

Your heart sinks and you know that every carefully measured word of your response is likely to affect your child's self-image forever. This is one of those "moments" in which you absolutely have to have the right words to say.

Hard to imagine that Kenny actually questioned me this way yesterday, isn't it? We are in Chicago right now and had just left Shriner's yesterday afternoon where we had his first post-op visit to make sure the bone graft was successful(it was) and to check on the palate closure (we can move ahead with the next surgery but will hold off until the first of the year).

Kenny comes across as one of the most confident and self-assured kids you would ever want to meet. But beneath that confident exterior lies a little boy who has simply accepted that he is not handsome. The topic was brought up after our visit today when we talked about a long term game plane, and we discussed lip and nose revisions, timing of other surgeries, etc. Kenny indicated nothing at the moment, and it was only in the car, while we were driving back to our friend's house when he felt safe enough to express his deeper thoughts relating to his self-image. I was dumbfounded that he A) Used the word hideous...not bad for a kid with 2 1/2 years of English and B) Felt that way about himself.

He then said flatly "I don't think any girl will ever want to date me." as I thought "OK...why don't we just throw all the hard balls at mom today??".

I paused before answered, I quickly considered which approach would be best, knowing from the tone of his questions and his avoidance of looking at me at all while asking that he was gauging an awful lot based upon my response.

How much do you deny? How hard do you work at it to convince your child they are indeed not hideous looking? "He doth protest too much..." can work against you, and Kenny is sharp enough to pick up on that sort of thing.

So I took a different approach and did not answer at all right away, instead asking him why he would think he was hideous looking, what had made him ask that question. He tried to verbally probe me a bit more, working to get me to answer it but eventually saw it was not going to work. He said he gets teased at school by a couple of particular kids, and that he is very tired of having to explain his cleft to others...he said "I just want to look like everyone else mommy.".

He asked me what I would change if I were him, what I thought he should do. I looked at him and said "Kenny, I am not going to answer that for you, as this is about how you feel about yourself, not how I feel." and then he pressed on asking"But Mommy, don't you think I need to fix my lip more?". I decided to try a different approach and said "Kenny, have I ever stared at your lip, ever acted like it bothered me, ever said I wished you looked different?" and he said "No". I told him "To me, you are just Kenny, I don't even think about your lip at all. I never give it a thought."

I then thought it was time to put it point blank so I added "Kenny, I am not embarrassed or ashamed of how you look, I do not think you are ugly and in fact you are quite handsome...and not just because I am your mommy but lots of people tell me that. But I am not the one being stared are. And I know that isn't comfortable and it's not fun to explain over and over again. The older you get, the less that will happen as adults understand what cleft lip is and don't really think much about it but to kids who have never seen it before, it is new and they are curious about it. If you didn't have a cleft lip, kids would find something else to tease you about because sadly, kids like to make fun of each other and are often not kind." he interjected at this point "But Mommy, my brothers aren't that way...they never tease anyone, not just me...they are kind and so am I. I don't make fun of anyone. Why do kids have to do that?" and so we talked about parenting and what a parent's job is, and how some parents do not do their job very well to teach their kids tolerance and acceptance of others.

He was quiet for a bit as we drove on, and then he turned to me and said "So mommy, you think I am just fine and you wouldn't want me to change?". For some reason, I caught a tone in his voice that told me he was torn a bit by his own desire to change how he looked and his wish to be accepted just the way he is. So I realized I had to clarify it all further "Kenny, I do think you are just fine...but how do YOU feel about yourself? This is all about you and how you want to walk through this world. We are blessed to be able to get you the surgery you need. If you want to change things or are unhappy when you look in the mirror, it is OK to take advantage of this chance and see what can be done." I laughed as he then expressed another concern...he didn't want to end up like Michael Jackson, he said "I don't want my nose to look all rotten like an icky peach". Seriously, he was relating his surgery to the results he saw in photos of Michael. I kicked myself for not anticipating this, as he has been fascinated with the early photos of Michael as contrasted with how he appeared at the time of his death.

But what a PERFECT opportunity to talk about self-image, how we can go overboard in worrying about our outsides and forget to work on the all-important inside. We talked about how parents can damage children's perspectives of themselves, how people are very unhappy when they can not accept who they are. I also compared his situation with Michael Jackson's and explained the differences.

He crossed his arms and furrowed his brow and finally said "You know what? I think I want surgery and I want my nose fixed and my lip to look better. I have to live like this a long time, you know, and it DOES bother me when I look in the mirror. So maybe I will get it done...but NOT because the kids tease me, but because I want to."

Good for you, Kenny!

Then he added "I sure am glad I have a mommy like you who helps me figure things out and doesn't think I am ugly like Michael Jackson's dad did. You would love me even if I was the ugliest on the whole earth. Sort of like God loves us, huh? God doesn't care if I am ugly or beautiful. God just cares if I am nice.".

And that pretty much sums it up, doesn't it???


wilisons said...

Kenny is so lucky to have YOU as his mom! You handled this situation so beautifully, guiding him to have confidence in his decision. And you are lucky to have Kenny as your son, someone so wise beyond his years, and handsome inside and out!

I want to give you some insight into teasing that you might be able to use for Kenny. My daughter, adopted from Kaz as an infant, is very afraid/nervous about people with differences. I have worked so hard to sensitize her to others, explain that we are all born differently, that what is on the inside is what counts etc. As she got older, she was finally able to put it into words, fear. It seems she is afraid that she could have these differences too. Once she verbalized this, we could deal with it and she is now much more accepting.


Anonymous said...

Cindy - you are simply, and so naturally, brilliant!! Your response to Kenny was perfect. What an incredible child Kenny I TRULY find him to be VERY handsome, inside and out!! Have a safe trip back and happy to hear the checkup went well! Love, Miss Joan

Lori said...

I just cannot get over how insightful your boys are! Of course, the apples are not falling far from the tree. Bless his heart...the thing is, you are so right that if it wasn't a cleft lip, it could be something else...and more than that, you recognize it's how HE feels about himself (and he seems to be getting that too)...I spent(and still spend) my life with people asking questions like, "What are you?" wondering what human chemistry set I must have been concocted from...especially when my mom would introduce me as her daughter. There is absolutely nothing *physically* different about me like a cleft lip, yet I've always had some self-esteem issues simply over looking like I do and having people question my parentage--even question my flesh and blood mother!!! The world is crazy and people can be just plain ignorant and rude...and thank goodness Kenny has you to remind him that he was perfectly and wonderfully made!

I just hope my boy is as compassionate and sensitive and insightful as yours are!

Kimberly said...

Cindy - well if that wasn't a divige moment/opportunity - I don't know what might be? I love how you didn't give him all the answers - you helped him discover what the answers were for him. You know, I never even knew Kenny had a cleft lip - I've never met him in person, but from the pictures on your blog I could never tell and I've always thought he was/is a very handsome young guy!

Bob; Carrie DeLille said...

You are an incredible mother with awesome instincts. Our boys are handsome and awesome and wonderful no matter what their mouths and noses look like!! Aren't they lucky to know each other? It broke my heart last month when for the first time Sam didn't want to be seen without his false teeth at football practice. Oh the hurts we feel for our children. Ah, to have sensitive children. May they all love and accept the differences of all others.

ATTENTION anyone reading this-Peggy and I are planning a long-distance "baby" shower for Cindy. It will be a bit unique....please contact me at and I will explain!! Put Cindy's shower on the subject line.