Kid’s embarrassing comments to strangers

How do you respond in the moment when your kid says something offensive or embarrassing to another person? Our extremely curious, observant, spirited kindergartner will regularly strike up conversations with strangers (and friends) and ask about or point out physical characteristics that are out of the “norm.”  Anything from the benign “why do you have crutches?” “Why is there a hole in your shirt?” to slightly more embarrassing “why are you missing a tooth” “why are you eating so much food?” to downright offensive “you have a fat stomach” “what is that? (Facial birthmark). It looks creepy on your face”.  All remarks said to adult strangers.

She is curious about other things but it feels most problematic and pronounced when it’s about bodies.

I have reminded her many times privately that if she has a question about someone’s body she should ask me quietly first; we don’t talk about other peoples bodies; we get to know people very well before asking personal questions, etc.

My questions are: what can I say in the moment to diffuse the sting of a kids harsh words? What’s an in the moment reminder that these questions should stop (she’s persistent)? What messages could I repeat outside of the moment to help her remember appropriate questions and topics and inappropriate ones?  I don’t want to quell her interest in connecting with others but I’m often on edge when I spy someone in her vicinity with a physical outlier. She will point it out.

Much of this is my own discomfort, most  recipients of her interactions are gracious, but I would hate for some comments to ruin someone’s day. Plus these are social skills I’d  like her to learn. She tends to be impulsive and strong willed in her daily life.

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We bought a great book on this called Taste Your Words by Bonnie Clark. It's well-written, entertaining, and effective!

Another book that we really like: Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder. That has helped us have conversations as a family and we role play how to act and what we would do and say in different scenarios and when we see people with different bodies. Sometimes I'll act out an appropriate and inappropriate response first and then have my children practice it back to me. It's built their confidence by giving them practice and context in a safe environment. They're surprisingly capable of nuanced conversations, especially when done in a safe space before we're out in the world. 

I think it’s so so so important that during the moment, you correct your child in front of the stranger. Most adults will excuse the comments of a child but they will also GREATLY appreciate the parent stepping in and saying something like. “No, that’s not nice/appropriate/kind. We don’t say things like that. Please say sorry.” It shows the stranger that you acknowledge the comments were hurtful and that you are working on it with your child. Just keep correcting your child over and over and over again till she also gets it. 

My grandtwins now ten were similarly inclined at the same age. Outgoing and extroverted, they often chatted up complete strangers, as I watched proudly. No longer. I observed their mother correct this behavior with a word and a stern look: "Do you know that person?", which seemed to stop them in their tracks. Just last year at age 9, a twin was rude to a  store clerk with a speech impediment. She asked him if he was chewing gum or had something in his mouth. She knew better. Out of earshot, I took her to task.  

I was struck by a few things in the post that reminded me of my own child at that age-- making comments that are truthful, but not understanding that some people might find them offensive. Also the remark about being "impulsive and strong-willed." Both of these described my kid at that age, and voila-- they were diagnosed with ADHD in middle school. None of these things are necessarily specific to ADHD, but being impulsive (in action and/or words) and being behind on social skills/cues can be part of it. It's not to say you need to run right out and get an evaluation, but more of a "hmmm" bookmark to use in case any other symptoms show up or a teacher ever makes some observations. 

Either way, I think continuing with your current corrections is a good idea, while trying to maintain a neutral tone. Also, frontloading reminders before social gatherings may help, maybe even coming up with a cute phrase or song about "keeping the comment in my mouth" or something. And maybe getting kid-level books on differences so you all can talk about things during calm times when no one else is present. Public libraries around here often have lots of picture books about all kinds of differences, so you can really go to town on that aspect. Best of luck!

My kid is also "impulsive and strong willed". He's said some funny stuff, in hindsight...

I think it's fine. Kids are naturally curious, and I believe most adults can see when a child is asking without malicious intent or to mock anyone. Some folks might take offense, and then that's when I would address it with my kid back at home. It sounds cliche, but we always tell him that everybody is different, so no big deal. 

When my kid was about 3, we were walking to the hardware store together, and one guy came along with one leg. I didn't say anything, the guy went into the hardware store too, and my son asked "where is your other leg?!" And the guy said something like "I left it by the side of the road!" and kind of laughed. He then explained he was in a motorcycle accident and they had to cut his leg off. My son asked if it hurt, is the leg still there, etc. and life went on. 

When he was about 4, he had a teacher with an arm deformity. He asked about it (and I'm sure the hundreds of kids before him have asked too), and she just said she was born like that, and that was it. 

She'll probably grow out of it sooner or later. My son doesn't do that as much now, because he's seen more and experienced more. Now he knows (has seen) people so big that they have trouble walking, people with missing limbs, people who have disabilities due to serving in the military, people who have no teeth at all (his own grandfather)... 

We had this! Of course it's natural for kids to notice what's 'different', and that's how our brains work, noticing patterns and then noticing exceptions to those patterns, but it's never a good feeling being the object of those observations, and teaching our kids how not to make people feel bad about their bodies is important. We would say, in a nice clear voice, so the person being discussed knows we're on the case, "(child name), nobody likes it when strangers make comments or questions about their bodies when they're out in public so we don't do that. I respect your curiosity but you have to respect that person's right to go about their day without being the subject of your curiosity. We can talk about (birthmarks, scars, crutches, baldness, whatever) later if you have more questions". Trying NOT to make it "We don't talk about (birthmarks, scars etc) because they are shameful, gross, weird" but "because we are observing a more important rule about not discussing strangers' bodies in general".

I have been in this situarion both as a parent of the child asking/commenting and also as an obese person who has been the subject of these comments from other people’s children.  It very naturally comes up because our observant children are out in the world noticing that not everyone is the same and trying to make sense of that.  So I have done a lot of reading and thinking and trial and error and what works best I think is to acknowledge what they are seeing and frame it in a more neutral way. (Ie no gaslighting or shaming for making an observation but to shape a more tolerant and accepting view of diversity). For example… I think you’re noticing that bodies/tummies/hair come in all shapes sizes and colors.  Isn’t it great that we have so many different types of bodies/skin/hair/etc in our world? Recently a boy about 4 shouted out to his grandma “why Is her tummy so fat?” As I sat on a nearby bench.  I looked at him and nodded and said “tummies come in all shapes and sizes.  It’s okay.” And left it at that.  I think as children get older we can have a more nuanced conversation with them about commenting on bodies and manners etc but at the early ages when kids are naturally just taking in what they see I think it is important to acknowledge the truth of what they see while also using it as an opportunity to model Acceptance for difference. Fatness exists in the world.  So does baldness.  So does amputation.  It’s okay and our children will learn that when they see that we openly see and accept these things in the world around us without shaming it or avoiding it.

We have the book Bodies Are Cool. Your kid might be too old for it but the drawings are really great and there’s a general theme of the characters in the book going through different life stages- so it’s diverse in physical appearance and age. Also discussing things based on, ‘in our family we speak with kindness’ for example. Also your desire to support her curiosity is great. encouraging a surprise question like ‘what’s the funniest thing you heard today’ for her to use with strangers. 

I saw an Instagram clip about teaching kids that if it is something that a person can change in 3 seconds (food in their teeth, something in their hair, on their shirt, etc) that is okay to comment on so that the person knows. But if it ISN’T, then it is something can hurt their feelings. So it’s something that can be talked about later in private with Mom. 

So I would do it IN THE MOMENT with her so the stranger sees that it’s a teachable moment.  

If in fact you have thoroughly explained to your daughter that these comments can and will be hurtful to people, and she still makes these comments, that is concerning. I would highly recommend  taking her to a therapist. Empathy is a very, very important issue.

When my children were younger and would make comments or ask seemingly intrusive questions about people, I would respond along the lines of "All bodies are different, and everyone's body is amazing in it's own unique way. Wouldn't it be boring if we all looked the same?" Privately I would follow up with my children about how, even though all bodies are super interesting and super cool, it can make other people uncomfortable when we talk about them, and would still encourage my kids to ask me questions privately. There were also times when I was able to trust that they would ask questions politely, and when it seemed appropriate, I would sometimes encourage them to ask a person why they need crutches, or say something along the lines of "I don't know why that child walks differently from you, but they look like nice and I think that it would make them happy if you said hello and asked them their name!" I would also recommend the book "Bodies are Cool" by Tyler Feder.

As an adult who has at times been the target of such comments, it actually feels hurtful, and I wonder what the family says about fat or disabled people when they are together. I usually do try to respond to children in those circumstances in a positive way. On the other hand when my child was three they made some comments like "Is that a boy or a girl," about a man with long hair. The emphasis on empathy I saw in some of the other posts seems like a good idea. Also, the lesson that you can have a thought and hold it until you are home or in a private place with your parent might be a good idea. Five is old enough to start learning about kindness when interacting with people, both in the child's life and with strangers.

Thanks for sharing this!  I will be curious to see what replies you get.

Nearly 30 years after the fact, I am still cringing about an incident from when our daughter was about five years old.

A UCB colleague of mine had a child approximately our daughter's age, and they had become playmates.

One evening my daughter and I were at the home of this colleague. Their parent was the respected director of an academic institution in another country.  The family members were conversing in another language.  While I am not fluent in the other language, I could follow the casual conversation.

My daughter announced loudly, "Why are they saying all that blah-blah-blah?"

In the moment I was so mortified with embarrassment that I did not react or say anything to my daughter.  Big mistake.

After the fact, I know that I was judged harshly by my colleague and members of that family, for my poor parenting.

If I had it to do over again, I would have said, "(Child's name)! They are speaking (language).  Is this the first time you have heard people speak (language)?. Let's learn some words in that language (cat, Mom, Dad, grandma, etc)."

But in the moment I froze with embarrassment. 

I hope that this discussion will help other parents be prepared for this type of incident.

BTW my daughter is now an adult with good social skills and is compassionate to other people.  But these are things she had to learn; social interaction comes more easily to some individuals than to others,