Talking to Your Kids About People’s Differences
“Mommy, that woman doesn’t have no teeth!”
A tidal wave of embarrassment came crashing over me, speckling my chest and face crimson. This kind, elderly woman, wheelchair-bound and appearing terribly disadvantaged, had just complimented me on my twins as we were leaving my podiatrist’s office. In return, my 4-year-old son stared at her curiously, glanced back at me, then made that dreadfully rude proclamation. (The bad grammar – rarely overlooked – took a back seat this time.)
In horror, my eyes shot back over to the old woman who was either hard of hearing (please God) or polite enough to feign deafness. Whether she intended to or not, her lack of reaction in that moment was a blessed thing. I didn’t have to stumble my way through an apology or a lie. I simply scurried my children out of the door with a phony smile on my face. Once we were all settled into my van, I breathed deeply. Taking a moment to recover, I chose to take a stab at properly handling this teaching moment.
“Will,” I said measuredly, “we never want to point out what’s different about other people. You never know if that ‘something different’ is the thing that they don’t like about themselves. It might make that lady feel bad or sad that she doesn’t have teeth.” I then went on to assure him (and myself) that she didn’t hear what he said and that I knew he wasn’t trying to hurt her feelings.
After fielding countless “why” questions about this nice stranger’s presumed dental hygiene, I reflected on the whole scenario. Did I handle this appropriately? What should I do if my children obviously offend someone? And better yet, what can I do to proactively help my kids to be empathetic to others?
I came across a Parents Magazine article loaded with practical advice on the matter. In “How to Deal with Your Kid’s Inappropriate Comments,” author Steve Wilson shares professionals’ viewpoints on why little kids make these outlandish comments and how we as parents should respond to them.
Here are the points that I found especially helpful:
- First of all, WHY? Why do they seem to choose only people’s most undesirable aspects to publicly announce (sometimes at ridiculously high volumes)? Apparently, people’s differences are particularly noticeable to young and inquisitive tots. Young children may want to “show off” how observant they are, but haven’t refined the art of tact or empathy.
- Pediatric psychologist and family coach Lynne Kenney advises against quieting or admonishing children. Kids could assume it is wrong to ask questions or make observations.
- If you ask your child to give an apology for making the “offending remark,” be certain to explain why. Otherwise the phrase “I’m sorry” could become fairly meaningless.
- Follow this 3-step approach to these moments: 1. respond quietly to your child’s statement or question, 2. give your best effort at damage control and 3. talk to your child in private about how the other person may have felt hearing the comment.
- Do not point out your embarrassment to your child. You never want to discourage your child from communicating with you and asking questions. After all, chances are that your kid wasn’t trying to be rude, just curious.
Reading this article made me reflect on other past circumstances in which I was the one who pointed out differences to my kids.
- I remember the first time that I noticed my kids staring at an elderly woman walking with a cane. The staring was so blatant that my children’s bewilderment might as well have been exclaimed. So, in the moment, I decided to address the elephant in the room, attempting a peppy remark something like this, “I bet y’all haven’t ever noticed one of these nifty things before!” Going on with my typical verbal diarrhea that accompanies awkward moments, I began rhapsodizing about the beauty of the cane, trying to engage the woman in educating my children about how it helps her balance, etcetera, etcetera. Gag. Someone should have told me to shut my yapper 1 minute into my cane commercial. This woman was entirely too gracious to put up with me.
- In a similar situation, the 3 of us were in the grocery store. At the deli counter, a man in a fancy-schmancy wheelchair came cruising up, showing off his driving expertise with a very challenging but perfectly executed turn. “Wow, you have quite the talent!” I effused (followed by probably WAY too much talking). This dude was equally as patient with my ramblings and, to my great pleasure, took my queues seamlessly as he told my kids all of the cool things he could do in his wheelchair.
- Lastly, on a family vacation last summer, I struck up a conversation with a very friendly woman who was with her daughter, a 6-year-old with fairly severe mental disabilities. My then 3-year-old children stood back wearing expressions of concerned curiosity. When we were out of view and earshot, I asked them, “Were you wondering about that little girl?” Thus began a conversation that I will likely always remember as being so valuable. We talked about how some people learn differently from others. Some people don’t have the ability to speak like we do or get around like we do. But we are all God’s children and he loves us all. We should do the same.
In the end, that’s what it’s all about. We can come up with all of the speeches and strategies and damage control, but if we teach our children in every moment we can to show love and kindness to others, regardless of what they look like or act like, they’ll be all right. Don’t you agree?
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