Every parent has cringed in embarrassment as her child makes a socially unacceptable comment in public. These comments are typically done very loudly, of course. Children are rarely being malicious with their remarks.
They are simply trying to figure out the world around them.
However, it can be mortifying for the parent and hurt the feelings of the person the comment was directed at. Here are some tips for handling some of the most common scenarios.
‘What’s wrong with him?’
My daughter recently asked this after noticing someone with an extreme skin condition. Sometimes the person (or their parent, if it’s a child) might be willing to explain his or her condition. This creates a great learning opportunity for your child. Leave this up to the other party, though.
Explain that everyone is different. Point out someone else you know who has a disability; for example, “You know how cousin Joey uses a prosthetic leg because he was in an accident? Lots of other people are either born with something special like that or have something happen to them later like Joey did. It’s just part of what makes each of us unique!”
‘Why is her skin brown?’
We’re a transracial family, so in our case, it’s usually, “Look!!! Those brown kids have a white mom just like me!” I confirm what she said by saying, “Yes, they do look like our family!”
An easy way to take the awkwardness out of the “why” questions is to turn it around. Respond with, “Why is your skin white?” You might also say, “I think her skin is beautiful. I love that no one looks the same.”
‘I’m afraid of him!’
My daughter has a strange fear of little people. I have no idea where it came from, but it is intense. A little person sat at the table beside us in a food court and my kid burst into tears while repeating, “I’m scared!” I moved to the other side of the table to sit next to her and whispered in her ear that she was safe.
Luckily, the person didn’t seem to notice she was talking about him. If he had, I would have explained that my daughter has an irrational childhood fear and that we’re working on getting her past it. When the person obviously has heard your child, it’s responsible to quickly and quietly acknowledge the situation, even if you want to run in horror.
‘He’s a bad person!’
My husband frequently complains about smokers and guys who wear their pants with their underwear showing, so my daughter points these out as “bad people” in public. Use these situations as opportunities to reinforce your family values while explaining the need to respect other people’s right to their own opinion.
I often say, “You’re right. We don’t smoke in our family. We think it is smelly and unhealthy, but it isn’t illegal, and deciding to smoke doesn’t make someone a bad person.”
‘That lady is fat!’
I’ve been overweight my whole life, so I’ve been on both sides of this one. I know firsthand that the way a parent handles the child’s comment often determines the extent of hurt feelings or offense being taken.
Parents who make a huge deal of it and march their child over to apologize have humiliated me even more. That show was for their benefit, and they didn’t take my feelings into account.
The best way I observed it being handled was by a mother who playfully exclaimed, “And you’re tiny! So what? Everyone is different!” I’ve adapted a similar strategy whenever my daughter points out someone’s differences.
Children are curious and have lots of questions. It’s inevitable that they will embarrass you at times. But you can turn these embarrassing situations on their head if you see them as teaching moments and model how to respect the differences and feelings of others.
Illustration by Mino Watanabe
This post was originally published in 2014 and is updated regularly.