“Mommy, what’s wrong with her FACE?” my toddler not so quietly asked in the grocery a few weeks back. Of course, we were within hearing distance of the subject of the question, a woman minding her own business trying to get groceries before my toddler got involved. My first reaction? What any parent would do — “SHHHH! That’s not nice. Please be polite.” But my kid isn’t one for skipping answers, and was in a particularly persistent mood. “But what’s WRONG with her?” The woman smiled kindly, and came up to my kid, and said “I have a problem with my skin that makes it look a little different, but it doesn’t hurt.” My kid nodded and moved on, pointing to the bag of apples he wanted to buy. “Thanks, sorry about that,” I told her, through my embarrassment.
“Kids say the darndest things” is a show for a reason, and almost every parent has been in an equally embarrassing scenario, frantically shushing their kids’ curiosities in public. Since the encounter, I realized that the woman had a more mature reaction than I’d had, and had handled the question like maybe I could in the future — with a clear, direct, answer. It made me curious about experts’ ideas on “best practices” for dealing with these types of comments, and walking the line of being polite, not commenting on others’ bodies and actions and more, but also learning from the environment around them.
My four sons under 7 have had similar questions in public (typically a little less loudly) about topics like race, culture, disabilities and neurodivergent people, and those using medical devices to help, from eye patches (“Mom there’s a pirate!) to canes (“Why did he bring his hiking stick inside!”). Here’s what the experts have to say about how to navigate these awkward, but potentially educational interactions.
“Feeling embarrassed is a choice,” Jennifer Kelman, licensed clinical social worker and parenting/psychology expert on JustAnswer told me. “All kids are natural inquirers and we should feel thrilled that their inquiring minds want to know. They are not burdened yet with societal norms and boundaries so when the thought and question comes to mind, often it is blurted out without regard to time and place.” Instead of shushing our kids, she says we should express pride and welcome questions from them. “Either address their questions at that moment or let them know that when you have some private time together you will talk about their questions and thoughts. If you shush kids at a young age, you're communicating to them to hide their feelings and questions,” she added. There’s nothing wrong with explaining that some topics need a more private space to get into the details than the apple aisle at the grocery. “Encourage your kids to speak up and share all of their thoughts and feelings so when the tough stuff comes up they feel safe to explore it all with you.”
While the woman in the grocery did feel comfortable explaining her condition, not everyone will, nor should they be. But, I’ve also found that many strangers are okay addressing it, and even have enjoyed the opportunity to explain a bit about themselves rather than have others making assumptions.
Tamika Simpson, a perinatal mental health specialist and lactation consultant at Ovia Health, has experienced this herself with her 4 year old. “When he was around [2 or 3] we were at Disneyland, and there was someone with a disability in a wheelchair, and was very curious about what was happening with this person, was staring at the person, asking me questions — ‘What’s wrong with her?’ and those types of questions they do,” she says. “My first instinct was to “shhh! Stop!” because it feels like the other person will be offended, but in reality what happens is we are silencing them and their curiosity.” That tells your kids that they shouldn’t be curious; but what we’re really trying to show them is there’s a way that’s more appropriate and more meaningful. Instead, address it, saying “I don’t know that person’s specific situation, but it’s also not really nice to stare,” she says. In some situations, some people might be okay with a child walking up and asking their questions. “You have to feel that out.”
She recalls another scenario involving her grandmother who lived with her, who had a below-the-knee amputation. She had 12 great-grandchildren and they’d each reach an age where they’d say, “Oh, where’s your leg?” She’d respond by explaining how she’d been sick, and they had to take it off, but also that this doesn’t happen often. “It’s important to keep in mind that this curiosity can turn into fear with children. That’s one of the things you have to be aware of — you don't want the children to take on that this is going to happen to me.”
We also have the power, Simpson explains, to provide our children with alternate vocabulary to explain what they are seeing and ask questions, shifting their words rather than stifling them. “Maybe the child says something like ‘That’s weird’ which could come off very offensive — it’s important for parents to correct that… and change it to another direction, explaining that could hurt someone’s feelings.” Instead of weird, suggest “different.”
Finally, Simpson says that it’s useful to expose your child to a wide diversity of books and materials that include people with different appearances and abilities, ahead of time. Simply incorporate these into your nightly reading routine with your kids. You can also bring a topic back up in the car after the grocery, she says, where your child can speak more freely, and real education can happen.
The end goal should be to develop empathy in your kids. “The best thing you can do is to help the child understand from a feeling perspective what the other person might have felt when receiving the comments,” Kelman said. “If a child can display empathy and understand what the other one is feeling then they can learn from that experience.”
I guess hissing “Be nice!” at my kids was a start then, but there’s more work to be done.
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.