What do you do when you're out in public and your kids see someone who is disfigured or visibly disabled? Beyond trying to teach them compassion and empathy for others is the simple fact that kids are curious in such an innocent way. While it isn't clear if an adult or child complained in the KFC case, as parents we can all learn from the situation.
Photo credit: Blend Images - KidStock/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

It's been all over the news over the past few days. An adorable 3-year-old girl who was attacked by three pit bulls back in April was asked to leave a KFC restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, recently because her face was disturbing the customers. Her visible scars and eye patch apparently caused someone to complain to management, who then sent an employee to ask the little girl and her grandmother to leave. Little Victoria Wilcher quickly became the focus of a social media hailstorm, and likes on her Facebook page skyrocketed. KFC was under attack, and the fast food chain quickly apologized to Victoria and her family and pledged to donate $30,000 toward her medical bills.

What's really disturbing here?

While I find it highly inappropriate that the restaurant staff asked Victoria and her grandmother to leave, I am really angrier at the customer who reportedly complained about her appearance. This would have been a perfect teachable moment for anyone with kids who happened to be eating in that KFC when Victoria was there. Where is the compassion for others or the empathy toward someone so young who has a lifetime of scars ahead of her? Most of us were taught as kids to be respectful and not to stare at others, so I can't help but wonder who this person was who just couldn't look away and found Victoria's face so upsetting. The worst part? The employee who spoke to Victoria's grandmother delivered the message right in front of the little girl.

We spoke with Dr. Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, about the situation. "First off, it was totally inappropriate for the little girl to be 'asked' to leave," she says. Not sure if KFC asked her or a customer. Either way, the disturbed person should have had the option to stay or leave. We are not accustomed to accepting difference, especially if it involves visual disfigurement," she adds. "The reason is because unconsciously it hits too close — you know, the horrific idea of 'what if' it happened to me."

What should parents say?

As parents, how can we handle situations where our kids are curious about a person who is disabled or injured? There is a fine line between simply being curious and being invasive. The way we react to our child's innocent questions can also impact how they react in the future when they see someone different than themselves out in public. Take these opportunities to talk to your kids about respect and how everyone is different in some way. Just as your child wears braces on her teeth, the young man in the library wears his braces on his legs. Glasses help your son see the white board at school just as the cochlear implants help his classmate hear the teacher. When children are presented with examples of how we are all truly "different," they can start to develop compassion and empathy for others who live with a disability or disfigurement.

If someone has an obvious disfigurement gently remind your child not to stare or point.

When a situation presents itself out in public, keep your answers and comments simple and matter-of-fact. You can always talk more about the specific instance later, when out of earshot of the person with the disability or injury. If someone has an obvious disfigurement gently remind your child not to stare or point. Depending on the situation, it may be OK to approach someone with a disability and ask a polite question. Again, keep it simple and brief while in public — you can expand on it later at home.

It comes down to empathy

"Indeed, we need to teach our children compassion and empathy," says Walfish. "Parents need to gently talk with their kids about how a scarred face can happen. Rather than shove frightening, traumatic information into the child, it's best for parents to ask their kids to guess how they think the scar may have occurred." By involving them in the thought process of what may have happened, parents are giving their kids the ability to imagine life in someone else's shoes.

"The key is to open up difficult discussion about hard subjects," she says. "This frees your child to talk openly and feel less scared. Only then can you teach your kids compassion and empathy by asking them to imagine how it would feel to have strangers constantly staring at you and making you feel like an outsider," Walfish adds. "Help your kids put themselves in that situation in order to develop more sensitivity, compassion and empathy for the less fortunate."

"The key is to open up difficult discussion about hard subjects, this frees your child to talk openly and feel less scared.

We could all use a bit more empathy, even as adults. As the story of Victoria Wilcher continues to unfold, I hope that both adults and children will take away a lesson in empathy and respect for others.

More teachable moments

Teach your children to be flexible about gender
How I'm teaching my kids to manage their emotions
How to teach assertiveness skills to your kids