Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Together, little ones can learn, scarred uncle can heal
Anonymous: My brother-in-law was in a bad car accident this summer, and his face required a lot of cosmetic surgery. His scarring is significant.
My two small children haven't seen him since then, and I'm nervous about holiday get-togethers. The kids are at an age where it's almost impossible to predict what they will think is worth mentioning (my older child mortified me by asking her dark-skinned teacher why her skin was so dirty). This is a very depressing time for my brother-in-law and I don't want to make things worse. Should I find a way to put off the kids' seeing him till they're a little older?
Carolyn: Treating him like a scary monster and keeping your kids away is not the way to help a loved one through a depressing time. That may not be your intent, but that's what you're doing.
Yes, it's impossible to filter kids completely. But it sounds as if both your kids and their uncle need each other right now. He could use some of the sweetness and natural acceptance that kids offer, and the kids could use a lesson in accepting differences in people.
To make their initial encounters go as smoothly as possible, tell your kids that their uncle looks different on the outside but is the same Uncle Frank on the inside. And, warn your brother-in-law that your kids are going to be curious and might say out loud some things that adults never would. No doubt he knows that, but a reminder couldn't hurt.
Make sure you supervise and teach during their first couple of encounters — give factual answers to your kids' questions where warranted, or let him do it, and let them know gently when a question is impolite.
Anonymous 2: Re: Uncle: Get a picture. He's an adult; he knows he is scarred; he can probably understand that the children need to be prepared. Use the picture to prepare the children — it will allow them to ask all the "embarrassing" questions and make the "inappropriate" comments before they see him.
Carolyn: A simple and elegant solution, thanks.
Anonymous 3: Re: Uncle: I second you on your response, Carolyn. Once, in a shoe store with my kids, there was another customer with only one eye. My younger son went up to this man and asked him why he had only one eye. The man said, "Let me ask you something: Are you 6 years old?" My son, surprised, said he was. Then the man turned to me and told me that it was almost always and only the 6-year-olds who spoke to him directly. And then he explained to my son that his eye had to be removed, but he was fine. It was really touching to see how well this man dealt with my child. Clearly he had developed his response over time, and it seems to me that it would be a loving gesture to the brother-in-law to have his own little relatives help him develop his response.
Carolyn: Aw. Thanks for that.
Ironic, isn't it, that as soon as people are old enough to grasp how hurtful comments and staring can be, they start avoiding, which might be most hurtful of all.