Any caregiver, especially one with young children, has likely found themselves in this scenario: their kiddo asks (probably quite loudly in public) why someone’s body shape, skin color or even behavior is different from their own.
“It’s challenging because usually the situations I hear about, the parent or caregiver is just incredibly embarrassed,” said Bonnie Harris, Director of Connective Parenting. The adult is unprepared and likely focused on the task at hand, maybe paying for groceries. “It’s really hard because it’s not something that you would be expecting,” Harris noted.
But she added it’s also an important moment because “you can’t pull the words back.” In her mind, one of the least helpful responses is the universal “we.” For example, the caregiver might quickly respond, “We don’t say things like that.”
But Harris pointed out, “The kid has just said it … and now you are naturally excluding the child.” It sends the message that if the child wants to be part of the universal “we,” they must do things a certain way, and that can lead to feelings of fear, shame or isolation.
“I don’t know whether the child is really going to feel that way, but boy, I feel like it’s very possible,” Harris described. Whatever the situation, the first thing to realize is that the child isn’t doing something wrong or bad. “They haven’t learned yet what the social way is. They haven’t learned that what they’re saying is embarrassing to the parent or hurtful to the person,” Harris said.
If the caregiver pauses for a moment, they’ll likely start to notice that the person with the most immediate discomfort is actually themselves. “So, it’s taking responsibility for your feelings about it and owning that and not blaming the child … just responding as factually as you possibly can,” Harris explained.
The first thing she recommended is getting right down on the child’s level and instead of trying to brush the conversation aside, answering simply and honestly with something like, “People come in all shapes, sizes and colors.”
If the child has asked about someone with a disability, “You would just say that person’s body works differently,” Harris said. “Keep it really simple, and if your child wants to know more, they’re going to ask,” she explained.
However, as children age, these conversations of course, become more complex and nuanced. For instance, how might a caregiver respond if they heard their middle or high-school age child speaking in a derogatory way about someone with a different skin color?
“Then you really want to be very, very careful with it and not at all blaming because this child has obviously learned from the culture around him or her,” Harris said. She explained that no matter how old a child is, “We can’t just expect them to come into life with all PC attitude and language.”
But that doesn’t change what a shock it might be to hear the child talking in those ways. It might even be something that has been going on for a while, and then the caregiver suddenly hears a remark. First step: pause.
“Don’t react and just take a moment to breathe and maybe take an hour,” Harris said. The caregiver should wait until they’re sure they’re not going to be reactionary or judgmental. “Because then you’re doing the same thing,” Harris said. “We never take that into consideration, how we’re always asking our kids to be different from how we are with them.”
This is another time to avoid punitive language like, “Don’t you ever talk about anyone like that.” “That is only going to push the child further away than when you come at it with a very understanding and compassionate attitude,” Harris said.
The caregiver must remember that the child hasn’t learned this yet. It’s good to set aside time that won’t feel like an interruption, maybe evening card time or near bedtime, and focus on empathy. Then the caregiver can let the child know they heard them talking earlier and would like to point something out.
Harris suggested opening the discussion like this: “Whenever we talk about anyone who’s different from us, we typically have an attitude or belief about it, that because they’re different they’re perhaps not as good. And that is a very, very dangerous place for any of us to be.”
The caregiver can then lead into a conversation about how the person is no different on the inside and how important it is to be respectful of everybody. “That is always the bottom line — being respectful,” Harris said.
The key to really making this (and any other important dialogue) sink in is connection. “You’ve got to first connect with your child’s reality of the situation in order to really gain their ability to listen to you and then afterwards talk,” Harris explained.
To find out more about connective parenting, check out Harris' podcast “Tell Me About Your Kids.” “It’s one-on-one sessions with parents, so it’s like being a fly on the wall in counseling sessions,” she described. Tap into that resource and others at BonnieHarris.com.