My face is all red!
At the moment he is suffering from Fifth Disease. (See how advanced he is--he skipped right over Diseases One through Four!) Every now and then his face clouds over as he announces, to anyone and no one, "My face is all red!"
I am not worried about long-term psychic harm. A moment later his face lights up as he looks up at the sky. "It's a helicopter!" he declares.
So what do you think about my grandson's observation about his complexion? Do you think he is vain? (Careful!) Would you call his concerns cosmetic?
By the way, does his behavior remind you of anyone else you've met? How about all your patients with rosacea or facial keratosis pilaris who stop by the office to say, "My face is all red!" If they didn't notice this themselves, others have been happy to help. "You're all red!" say their family, friends, and coworkers. "Are you all right?"
What about patients like those? Would you call them vain, or cosmetically oriented?
It seems to me that the behavior of little kids--too young to elaborate their psychological musings --sheds light on the way their elders behave, or the way they will themselves when they grow up. Years ago, I was about to laser the face of a woman with an old pulsed-dye unit that left deep-purple bruises. Her job was to train monkeys for the blind. "I need makeup," she said. "When my monkeys see red spots on my face, they get very upset and start to point at me."
"Not just monkeys," I replied.
To take another example, many years ago I saw a little tyke about 18 months old. His parents were concerned about a mole on his palm.
He was not happy to let me examine him, and he let me know. "It's OK," I said, in my most condescending, clueless adult voice. "Your Mom and Dad just asked me to check your boo-boo."
That set him off. "No boo-boo!" he shouted. "No boo-boo!"
Well, silly me, I later realized. The tyke was right: Of course it was not a boo-boo. A boo-boo is an assault on the integrity of the body: a cut, a scrape, a burn, something new, painful, hard to look at. That is why 9.8 out of 10 people whom we freeze, burn, or puncture look the other way while we do it. It's also why kids dial their screams down to whimpers when we hide what we froze, burned, or punctured by covering it with a Band-Aid. Now the boo-boo is out of sight.
The tyke's mole, on the other hand, is not an insult to the body but a part of it. It's him.
Fast forward 15 years and ask a teen with a large (but not giant) hairy congenital nevus if she wants it off. She does not. "That's me," she explains.
Or ask an adult with what you would think is a disfiguring facial port-wine stain what growing up with that was like. "It was fine," they reply. "Strangers sometimes commented, but my friends knew that was just how I looked."
Or listen to folks who want their liver spots lasered off. They point to a dozen or so, then add, "But don't take off that one! That's always been there. That's just me."
If you listen for it, you can pick up how early a lot of adult behavior starts. Little ones destined to be lifetime pickers start scraping off anything that's raised above the skin. Teens finicky about facial moles or minute perturbations in their complexion grow into fussy adults.
We grownups learn to embroider our primal responses with words, thoughts, feelings, explanations. Kids just come out and say what they think--"My face is all red!"
Soon my grandson will have overcome his Fifth Disease without, I hope, graduating to any higher numbers. His other grandfather is a retired engineer who used to design helicopters. By next year I expect that our mutual grandson will be able to identify anything flying overhead by make and model number.
As I said, he's very advanced.
Also cute as all get-out, (temporary) red face and all.
BY ALAN ROCKOFF, MD
Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass., and is a longtime contributor to Dermatology News. He serves on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and has taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His second book, "Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient," is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble. com. Write to him at dermnews@ frontlinemedcom.com