How My Son and I Respond When People Stare at Him

Auggie, the main character in R.J. Palacio’s book, “Wonder,” has a craniofacial condition. As you would expect, he gets a lot of stares. Palacio writes that when Auggie was little he wore an astronaut helmet to hide his face. Auggie is a fictional character. Real kids with facial differences, especially once they realize they’re different from their peers, have that pressing desire to go unnoticed. Girls might grow long bangs to cover their forehead. Boys style their hair so that it covers a missing ear. With my son, Peter, I noticed that he sometimes pulls up a hood when we’re in a new place.

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We all want to blend in sometimes like when you run a quick errand in your lounge pants, baseball hat (bedhead) and sunglasses (no makeup). I get it. I really do. But imagine you have to brave the public every day with a face that causes people to do a double take. Sounds exhausting? It certainly can be. Frustrating? Most definitely. Upsetting? Sometimes.

Now, turn it around and think about how someone with a physical difference leaves a significant impact on each person they encounter. Like way more of an impression than your boring, average, wallflower of a person. I guarantee that if I walk into a store and see the same stranger a second day in a row, they’ll remember Peter. Good or bad. Whether he wants to or not. He leaves a profound impression. His desire to go unnoticed is near impossible. So why not embrace what you can’t change? Why not leverage it? Why not use it to improve the world he lives in?

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My husband and I make eye contact and smile when someone stares. If we have more time, we break the ice and acknowledge the elephant in the room. Peter and I sometimes do this in a fun role-playing way. I will notice someone staring and say (loud enough for them to overhear), “You forgot to put on your ear today.” Peter will then shrug and say something like, “Oh, yeah. I guess so.” Then I look at the person (who is obviously listening intently by now) and simply say, “He was born with no ear. He has a prosthetic ear but doesn’t always feel like wearing it. Pretty cool, huh?” I believe that acknowledging the difference in a simple way makes people more comfortable around things they don’t understand. Most stares aren’t intended to be hurtful. Most stares are simply curiosity and concern. Sure, it can get annoying when you encounter it constantly. But you can’t change what other people do. What you can change is how you manage it.

I want Peter to feel empowered by his differences. I want him to know that everything about him — both average and unusual — is what makes him amazing. We all have a lot in common, but we also all have different likes, talents, skin color, athletic skills, fears, artistic abilities and so on. We also all have things about ourselves that make us insecure. One of the most empowering things in life is to overcome your sensitivity to what others think about you. When you embrace what makes you insecure, people lose the power to make you feel anything less than proud of who you really are.

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