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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

Recently, my 3-year-old made the following comments in public: “Mommy, he is fat!” What do you do when your child makes embarrassing comments about people?

Q: Recently, my 3-year-old made the following comments in public: “Mommy, he is fat!” And then, a few days later: “Mommy, that lady has brown skin.” What do you do when your child makes embarrassing comments about people? How can I teach her what is and isn’t appropriate?

A:  Ah, the joys of parenthood. We can’t wait until our little ones start to speak and can tell us what they are thinking and feeling. Then when they do, we are surprised to find ourselves wishing that they would just stop talking! But you’re not alone.  An informal survey of parents on the embarrassing comments made by their toddlers included gems like:  Is that a lady or a man? Mommy, your belly is sticking out—are you growing a baby? Why doesn’t that man have legs? Grammy smells bad! 

It’s natural to feel mortified when your child makes a statement that may hurt another’s feelings. But it’s also quite common and very normal—and doesn’t mean that your child is mean or insensitive.  When handled with care, these moments can actually be rich learning opportunities for your child.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that your child isn’t doing anything wrong. Your toddler is very observant and notices differences, which is an important skill to be successful both academically and socially. For example, observation skills help her understand the difference between a square and a rectangle, notice the colors in the rainbow, and put sizes in order of small, medium, and large. These abilities are all useful for math and science skills later on. As she grows, observations also help her understand and appreciate the differences among people—a critical social skill. So, remember that your child is not making these statements to be hurtful. (The individuals on the receiving end of these comments probably know this, too.) 

For a toddler, there is no “wrong” information. She sees something interesting or unusual, comments on it, and waits to hear your response. You give her meaning and context for what she is seeing—this helps her learn.  For example, your toddler says, Ducks are swimming!  You say, Yes, the mama duck is in the front and the baby ducks are swimming behind her so they don’t get lost.  Just like I ask you to stay close to me in the mall so you don’t get lost. When your toddler says, Why that man has no legs? she is doing the same thing—looking for information and meaning from you. The challenge is  to find a way to provide information at a level your child can understand, while also introducing ideas like sensitivity, respect, and empathy.  Not an easy task!

What to do?  First, when your child makes these kinds of statements, it is important not to react with anger or shame. Why? Because it will be confusing to your child (who is not purposefully trying to be hurtful). Your anger would indicate that you are assigning malicious meaning to her comment, which is not the case. The wonderful thing is that your child does not yet know that a person might feel bad about carrying around extra weight, for example. 

Instead, say something that validates your daughter’s observation while also modeling tolerance and acceptance of difference. When she comments on someone’s body, you might say, Yes, people come in all different shapes and sizes. Look at our hands; how are they different?  When she comments on skin tone, you might say, People come in all different colors.  Let’s look at our faces, what color is yours? What color is mine?  Help her see the different tones, for example beige skin, reddish cheeks, etc. By responding sensitively, you are teaching your child how to be sensitive to others’ feelings and to respect differences. You can also tell your child, You are so good at noticing people, like the color of their skin and the size of their body. But sometimes people can feel hurt if we talk about how they look. You can always tell me in my ear what you see, instead of saying it out loud. We can talk about how people are the same and different together.

Through discussions like these, you help your child become an accepting and empathic person—one who would never ask (as my preschooler did once):  Mama, why does your bottom jiggle when you walk?    

A version of this question first appeared in "Your Child's Behavior," a column written by ZERO TO THREE in American Baby magazine.

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