Answering the Tough Questions

This is important, and I refuse to let anything else deprioritise it again!

This happens a lot, a lot, a lot!

Your kid notices someone who is different from them, and they say it out loud.

s is their custom, young kids will often use really poor word choices to make these observations at the top of their lungs.

“Mama! That man looks like he rolled in mud!”

“Daddy! What’s wrong with that lady’s legs?”

“Grandma! Why is that guy so fat?”

“Uh, why is that kid acting so wierd?”

“That lady is wearing a scarf on her head in the summer!”

“That guy looks like when you get out of the shower with a towel on your head mama!”

“Why doesn’t that kid talk?”

“That guy talks funny.”

I could go on and on and on.

Our instinct when this happens is to shush our kids, right?

Cause we don’t want them offending someone especially when they make an observation that has turned into a slur like observing that someone wearing a turban looks like they have a towel on their head.

By now, I feel like most parents understand that by shushing our kids we’re telling them that what they observed is shameful and our kids may read that as shame on them for making that observation, or they may read it as shame on the person who they’ve observed.

Either way, it doesn’t send a good message and leaves your children with a lot of questions and generally the person who your child observed feeling like shit.

How can we navigate these situations in the moment, and how can we prepare our children for people to have differences around them proactively and hopefully avoid the embarrassing call-out in the first place?

Let’s start with what to do pro-actively, especially if you know you’re going somewhere where they’ll meet others who have differences beyond what they’ve already encountered.

The first thing I recommend parents do is mention it by asking a question.

“Hey, we’re going to the park to meet some of Daddy’s friends. Have you ever met someone who has dark brown skin before?”

“Have you ever met someone who is autistic?”

“Have you ever met someone who is Jewish?”

Whatever you anticipate your child will notice about this person or group of people.

Generally if you have to ask, you already know the answer: and it’s no. But if you have kids who are in daycare or school full-time, they may have had experiences without you.

Either way ask!

Because even if they say no, then you can say we’re going to meet someone today/ next week/ whenever, and they’re black, autistic, jewish, etc.

I want to give you about some heads up about what you might notice about them so it’s not a surprise.

Then tell them as simply as possible.

You’re going to notice they have dark brown skin. Do you know what gives people different skin colours? It’s called melanin, and some people have a lot of it in their skin, some people don’t have any and that’s okay! Do you have any questions about that?

You’re going to notice that they don’t talk much, and that they sometimes repeat you.

Repeating words is how they think about what you’re saying to them or you might notice that they’re wearing a little hat on their head, it’s called a yamaka.

Keep it SIMPLE.

Just like I’ve advised you many times before the best thing to do is give simple information, and leave space for your child to ask questions.

Often in an attempt to normalize things we over-explain and give our kids more information than they can reasonably process which overwhelms them and overwhelmed kids don’t feel safe.

By overwhelming them with information, you’ve unintentionally communicated that this topic is scary or dangerous in some way. Which is exactly what you were trying to avoid.

Give simple information, leave space for questions and then answer those questions simply and leave space for more questions.

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Eventually they’ll run out  at which point they’ll start asking if they can go play and I always end these conversations with “If you have a question about this when we see them, you can come to me and I’ll answer it for you.”

This way they know that this isn’t a case closed thing.

I will continue to answer their questions, and they don’t have to blurt them out at people who are just trying to live their lives.

What about when that does happen?

When your child sees someone in a wheelchair in the grocery checkout and goes “What’s wrong with their legs?!” or “That person is wearing a scarf on their head!” or “That person is brown!”

You instantly wish you could disappear.

Here’s the thing kids don’t have context that tells them that this is a sensitive topic.

To them, they’re just observing something new and again, when we shush them, they get the message that omg you just pointed out something we’re supposed to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist.

Only people with differences don’t want to be erased and ignored. They want respectful acknowledgement.

Take a deep breath, and confirm what your child is seeing and correct them if necessary.

“You’re right, it’s called a hijab. Muslim women wear them as part of their religious observance. It’s very pretty, isn’t it?”

Often if my kids are pointing I’ll add on “It’s okay to notice things about people, but pointing is considered rude. Please put your hand down.”

This acknowledges it, it gives them more information, and still sets boundaries around how we notice people. 

Another example:

“You noticed the man in the wheelchair? I’m not sure why he uses a wheelchair people use wheelchairs for lots of reasons, none of which are our business. It’s pretty neat though, isn’t it?” 

“You’re right, that person has dark brown skin. Do you remember what gives skin it’s different colours?”

In the past, I’ve seen a lot of advice on the internet about addressing the person directly. I only advise this is the person is like right there beside you.

Even if the person clearly heard your child, do not herd them over to the guy in the wheelchair and say “he’s curious about your wheelchair, can he ask you some questions?”

People who are different from you are not museum exhibits.

Generally what I say if the person is “We don’t talk about people like they aren’t there, you can say hi.”

It’s important to acknowledge that the person is being spoken about, but that you’re not trying to draw them into the conversation about whatever it is your child noticed about them.

You’re just acknowledging their presence.

Often, in my experience, once your child goes “hi!” They smile and say something like “Hi, do you have questions about my wheelchair?” But that’s their decision to make.

Some people really have no patience for being your child’s diversity teacher and nor should they be required to be.

Some just say “Hi, nice to meet you.”

In which case you continue the conversation like you would with anyone else.

Some grunt and turn away, and that’s okay too.

They don’t owe you conversation. In which case you can say “It doesn’t look like they want to talk, that’s okay!” and generally I try to turn the conversation to like ice cream or Pokemon or something they really like, and then continue the conversation in private.

We can’t raise diversity-positive kids by ignoring diversity.

We were all raised with colour-blindness and so it’s natural that these conversations feel really fucking awkward because we were never modelled how to have these conversations.

We never experienced them as children but as I said people don’t like being ignored or erased!

If we want our kids to embrace diversity, we need to get comfortable talking about differences!

Yes, some people will still get offended and upset- we can’t control others’ reactions, we can only keep giving our children the information we have in as respectful a manner as possible.

If you have questions about how you can explain certain differences respectfully, come into the Posse and ask! We have such a huge membership now that I’m sure there’s someone who has that difference who can share their perspective, and if not we can brainstorm with you!

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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