MaxBarry.com
nice idea, shame about the execution

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Fri 05
Feb
2010

My Kid Says the Darndest Things

Max I have a little parenting problem. I need some advice. The other day I was out walking with Finlay (four years old; I know, I can’t believe it either) and an elderly woman stopped to coo over her. This woman was clearly someone’s grandmother. She was matronly. I’m thinking of the word “battleship.” You know what I’m getting at.

“So cute,” said the grandmother. I said thanks and Fin said nothing and the woman began to move away. Then Fin said, “She’s got big boobs.”

Into my stunned silence, Fin added, “Really big boobs.”

A few days later, out with her mother, Fin remarked about a passer-by: “She has large upper arms.”

Before that, on a train: “Look at that little person.”

We’ve tried to raise her to believe there’s nothing wrong with people who look different. That differences are interesting but not shameful. That seems to be working. It’s working a little too well. What do I do now?

I don’t want to tell her that some people are embarrassed about how they look. That starts with “are” and ends with “should be.” I can see a case for not commenting on people’s weight, because being very over- or under-weight is unhealthy, and we’ve talked about health and eating balanced meals. But I know she’s going to spend her life drowning in messages about body size, and she doesn’t need that yet. Also, it only deals with the “large upper arms” comments, not the “Look at that little person” ones.

My feeling is that while there is nothing wrong with being a three-foot-tall grownup, and it is interesting, they probably don’t want to be singled out for it all the time. But maybe this is my hangup. I wouldn’t be offended if a four-year-old pointed at me and said, “That man has no hair,” but if his mother acted embarrassed and tried to shush him, I would. Because she would be making it into a bad thing. Maybe it’s the same with everything.

But that leaves me, what? Smiling at amputees after my kid points out they have no legs? Saying, “Yes, you’re right,” when she remarks on the size of an obese man’s buttocks? This is a minefield. What do I do?

Comments

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Machine Man subscriber Mapuche (#1184)

Location: Darwin, Australia
Quote: "Inconceivable!"
Posted: 3393 days ago

Dang kids. Fortunately they grow out of innocent observation into repressed silence and PC falsehoods. I suspect most objects of childish observation quickly become somewhat immune to embarrassment, and it is the parents who are left to suffer the most.

Tommy Mandel (#2554)

Location: nYc
Quote: ""You want me to sign this now?""
Posted: 3393 days ago

I think you're on the right track when you said that physically unusual people

probably don’t want to be singled out for it all the time.

Maybe you could dovetail your kid's comments into a game, like:

The Guess What I Saw Today Game.

the rules would be she'd have to wait until she got home to talk about the dude with the head on backwards, e.g. because he :probably doesn’t want to be singled out for it all the time."

kitty (#1326)

Location: Upstate NY
Quote: "sweet"
Posted: 3393 days ago

Our our wee one would make similar comments when he was about Fin's age. I was so worried that one day when I saw a 'battleship' approaching, I nudged him hoping he'd get the idea and keep his mouth shut for once. He looked up at me, very annoyed, and announced, "Hey! I wasn't going to say she was fat!"

This age will pass, and soon, without even trying, you'll say things that embarrass her :)

...

Melissa (#3033)

Location: Sydney, Australia.
Posted: 3393 days ago

Do as my mother did: Teach her a second language, and practice it in public. She'll be able to make all remarks without any fear of reprisal, as well as garnering praise for her new skill. Win, win!

Hans Miniar (#2600)

Location: Iceland
Quote: "~your love is made of happy, and sometimes exhasperation~"
Posted: 3392 days ago

What I've done with my daughter is try to explain to her that people don't like it when you point and stare, no matter what they look like.
It makes them uncomfortable because most people aren't used to being shown so much direct attention and they might not really want it.
So it's not nice to draw attention to people who you don't know, cause you don't know how they would feel about it.

Didn't have to mention how they look or how they feel about how they look at all. :)

Olivia Mayer (#3953)

Location: Melbourne
Quote: "'Anarchy means crossing when it says "don't walk"' - TISM"
Posted: 3392 days ago

I *love* Melissa's suggestion of teaching Finlay a second language - it's brilliant on so many levels! (Obviously, you're going to have to learn one yourself too so you can understand what she's saying, but that's a plus too really.) My suggestion isn't half as creative and forward-thinking, I'm afraid.

I should probably also point put that I don't have kids so.. .well.. what would I know? But my lack of parenting experience hasn't deterred me from forming opinions on how children should be raised in the past and it's clearly not going to prevent me from offering advice now.

I love that you're so committed to shielding your daughter from society's messages about how people should supposedly look. But would it be possible to tackle the problem from the perspective of what are no doubt ongoing messages about respect? Aren't kids being taught respect for others anyway when they learn, for example, that they're not allowed to hit people they don't like or jump up and down on the tram seats?

If you want her to be shielded from irresponsible messages about body size, wouldn't it help to communicate why she should not be one of the people imparting those messages, however unwittingly 4-year-oldish her comments are? I'd simply try telling her that everyone likes to be able to walk around without hearing unsolicited opinions on how well they're presenting themselves.. even from a child. It's about people being free to walk down the street without being made to feel any more self-conscious than they already are - a freedom you want for Finlay herself. As her father, you want to hear her opinions, sure. But I don't see the harm in teaching a kid that not everybody wants to hear what they think about how they look.

But, like I said, I'm not a parent so maybe I'm missing something here. You should probably go with the teach her a second language idea anyway... I think that's genius!

Nathicana (#1331)

Location: Iowa, USA
Quote: "Dimmi con chi vai chi ti diro chi sei."
Posted: 3392 days ago

It happens, and yes, they do grow out of it. My oldest little darling had a habit of speaking her mind - loudly - when she was little. Gems like "That lady needs to put on more clothes, right mom?" or "That smoke is stinky! That man shouldn't be smoking!" or "Woah! She's HUGE!". This was all when she wasn't busy oh, shedding her clothes for no reason and running off, leaving a trail of discarded articles behind her.

Oh yes. Trips downtown were a never-ending adventure for a while there, let me tell you.

Honestly, sounds like you're doing fine - kids just are real open and honest, sometimes brutally so. We don't learn to hide things until we get older. Not sure that's such a good thing in the end.

Machine Man subscriber Neven (#3696)

Location: Brazil
Posted: 3392 days ago

Mapuche, I disagree that it is fortunate that innocent kid remarks turn into PC falsehood adults. How often do we catch ourselves wanting to say something unpleasent and then supress ourselves, fearing it may be too direct. If we mean it, it will get out, and most likely at the most inconvenient point in time - which is worse.

Max, I do think that you should tell your kid that strangers do not like being pointed at and singled out, because it may hurt their feelings. However, make sure your kid remains open to people that he knows, such as family, his friends, your friends. If they have a problem with your 4 year old being open and honest, then they have a problem, big time.

Small anectdote from my childhood, my mom keeps telling me when I was three and had been through Sex-Ed 101. This is 1978 and I walk up to this 60year old woman in the supermarket and say: "Are you a woman? (pause) Do you have a vagina? (pause and then proudly) Because I am a man, and I have a penis!" Unfortunately, my mom cannot remember the womans reaction, because she grabbed me and ran out of the store. Have a nice weekend!

Machine Man subscriber Neven (#3696)

Location: Brazil
Posted: 3392 days ago

BTW, I have two kids of my own, boys, 3 and 5 years old, and yes, they give me hell. :-)

Machine Man subscriber ToddRM (#4708)

Location: Kokomo,IN
Posted: 3392 days ago

True embarressment is likely yet to come. My oldest son, who is now 14, had a very large vocabulary for a young man. He had recently learned the word masquerade at around age 5 IIRC, and put it to good use at the Bath and Body Works store near us. He turned to a rather mannish looking older woman behind us and asked her straight to her face, "Why are you masquerading as a woman?" The woman appeared to be unphased and quickly replied, "I AM a woman."

We were mortified. (I don't think he beleived her)

Fortunately this phase does pass. But we explained to him that it was rude to point out peoples differences, they may not want to hear about it.

You could use your baldness to help explain this to her (We share the same hairstyle). That it doesn't bother you, but it may bother other people to be bald and they probably don't want to be reminded of it.

Kristy (#4441)

Location: Baltimore, MD
Posted: 3392 days ago

I had a friend who's sister once had the following exchange with an adult who they ran into a restaurant:

*sister looks under the table*

Sister: "Does your foot hurt, Sir?"

Man: No, why would it?

Sister: My daddy says you shot yourself in it.

No kids yet, but I personally enjoy being irreverently blunt about the behavior of other people. Wonder how that will transfer to my spawnlings.

Machine Man subscriber Alan (#4053)

Location: SF Bay Area
Posted: 3392 days ago

I think this is a lot more simple than you are making it.

Max, why didn't you make the same comments? Because it isn't polite.

When you speak to a woman with large breasts, why don't you stare at them while she speaks? Because it isn't polite.

Why aren't parents and children allowed to belch or pass gas at the dinner table? Because it isn't polite.

Why don't you point and stare at anyone a bit unusual? Because it isn't polite.

So you tell your daughter that it isn't polite to stare at someone, or make comments about them. It is perfectly acceptible for her to ask you questions when the subject is out of earshot.

joylene (#4556)

Location: Cluculz Lake BC, Canada
Quote: ""Man's heart away from nature becomes hard." Standing Bear"
Posted: 3392 days ago

It takes time to teach our children not to hurt people's feelings. But just like the rest of us, your innocent one will learn. Habit. Just keep correcting her and she'll get it eventually. "Honey, that's rude. We don't hurt people intentually. Oh, and try not to laugh. (I'm remembering my DH's response) That's probably what happened to some of those comedians that now spend their lives insulting the audience.

Billy McMahon (#4690)

Location: Variable
Quote: "revolution"
Posted: 3392 days ago

As long as it's observation and not ridicule, I'm sure that most of the people being "observed" will understand that it's a small child and it's what they do.

However, I see your concern, and have no idea of how you can stop it. Good luck.

Connor C. (#3507)

Location: San Antonio, TX & Peoria, IL
Quote: "I think, therefore I am. This but merely scratches the surface of what it is to be Human"
Posted: 3392 days ago

Well the bright side is she is being isn't intentionally trying to cause mayhem here, but merely being inquisitive and I guess informative. However in modern society we run into the easily offended crowd, where we must learn to censor and choose our words with care.

I would merely have a talk with her, and say some people get unhappy when those kind of differences are pointed out. You should treat them the same but you should also respect that they may not appreciate being told about their differences.

Since you are trying to instill the thought that differences in appearance are irrelevant as to the quality of the person. Simply continue with that notion and tell her it is sometimes rude to point out the differences. Instead you should act is if there was no difference.

On my personal note, I pay no attention to the differences in a person. I remember when I was younger my parents were amazed when they noticed I was talking to another boy with muscular dystrophy but didn't even pay attention to it at all.

That would be my advice. Tell her its ok to notice them, but tell her not to acknowledge that there is in fact a difference.

Machine Man subscriber Guy Wright (#2861)

Location: Toronto, Canada, eh
Quote: "push the button max! (Jack Lemmon as Prof. Fate)"
Posted: 3392 days ago

Well, as the father of two (almost grown boys @ 23 and 16) kids, I would rather say that all kids say the darndest things. Mine sure did (do).
When you are a young parent, I suspect that your reaction to what your kids say or do is equal parts concern for what they are taking from the experience (your pedagogic parental function, as it were) and mortification at the thought of what other people will think of your child and, more significantly, you (my god, is this child being raised in a zoo?) As I "matured" in my parental function, I began to realize that what my kids say or do (or even who they are) has less and less to do with me or anything I do - so why am I investing so much emotion in how they conduct their life. (My wife doesn't have the same degree of success in this that I have achieved, unfortunately)
I realize that this is quite a bit along from where you are at in your stage of parenting, Max, but the sentiment can maybe supply you with an idea of the right attitude in responding to what young Finn says or does.
I wouldn't assume first off that Finn loads her observations up the same way that you or I would. As an adult I am vesting her comments with all sorts of subtleties of thought and social conventions (or horror of horrors, social "unconventions") that she as a four year may not have (or hasn't been imbued with yet). I think, though, that kids can be extraordinarily sentient about social phenomena. They realize that there is something "other" about little people, for example,that warrants comment but perhaps what we should be doing is using that as a starting point to get them to define what they "mean" by that comment, instead of falling over ourselves in a rush to give the kid the correct social view of the subject at hand, as any responsible parent wants to do (..."early detection and treatment" is as important in curing these antisocial views just like any other cancer...).
Geez, this sounds awfully Socratic, and I apologize for how pompous this is sounding. I do know, based on my experience as a kid and those of my acquaintances, that more damage seems to be done in the full-bore panicked response that our parents engaged in when confronted with social faux-pas. My parenting at a comparable age to Finn occurred in the 50's. Dude, you want to talk about a buttoned-down era...
I'm really not advocating an entirely laissez-faire attitude to child rearing. I think you have every right and responsibility as a parent to "rear" your child. I just have come to think of the parenting process as us merely having our "crack" at socializing our kids, and probably you are coming to the tail end of the period within which you can actually be responsible for anything your kid "thinks" or "feels" (at the ripe old age of four) 'cause with every advancing year, an average kid is being "raised" by a chorus of relatives, school contacts, daycare workers, neighbours, random encounters with various strangers in the course of a normal day and perhaps most significantly of all in our times, various forms of media in the form of tv, dvds, radio, ipods, smartphones and the internet with the emerging preeminence of "social media". Soon enough, you'll be getting the indulgent "sure thing, pop" when you take exception to a comment from your progeny or the less indulgent rolling of the eyes or sullen silence or my personal favourite response, "whatever". Hopefully, violence will not be involved - it has been known to happen, even in the best families.
Perhaps the best thing we can foster in our children at a young age is the habit of self-examination, not in an obsessive way, but one which will lead them away from "received opinion" on things and acceptance of social norms as "given". In short, they learn to think for themselves and as part of the process, gain a little of the grace that comes from empathy for our fellow beings.

or not

syrup6 (#1224)

Location: Arkansas
Quote: ""Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion" - Kierkegaard"
Posted: 3392 days ago

I know exactly what you're saying. We were in the grocery store the other day and I ran into a friend of a friend who is a little person. We chatted for a bit and she what my daughter's name was. I said "Kathryn Anastasia" and Kate added "Little!". Which is, in fact, our last name and I ended up looking like a tool explaining that because she responded with, 'yes, I AM little!'. /sigh

Being PC is so over rated.

Machine Man subscriber Russell (#3897)

Location: USA
Quote: "O Lord, Protect us from those to whom you speak directly"
Posted: 3392 days ago

Find something else "interesting" about them, and remark on that. "Oh look, they are also ugly!"

binoculars help too.

OR, on a more serious note, you can point out something perfectly normal about them. "And brown eyes, too! how about that!"

not that i know a thing about parenting.

Adam A. (#256)

Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Quote: "Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that." -George Carlin"
Posted: 3392 days ago

I also have a 4 year old daughter, and somehow, strangely (she's very talkative), she hasn't done this yet. I'm expecting it at any moment though. I'll just tell her, as someone mentioned before, that it's not polite to talk about people out loud, maybe make her comments quietly just to me. But on the other side, I also agree that most people probably won't mind, as they are most likely used to it, and hopefully understand innocent child behavior.

Machine Man subscriber Rebecca Giono (#4607)

Posted: 3392 days ago

Have you asked Finlay why she remarks on these things? It'd be interesting to hear what makes her see people in this way and want to tell you about it.

kitty (#1326)

Location: Upstate NY
Quote: "sweet"
Posted: 3392 days ago

Rebecca asked, "Have you asked Finlay why she remarks on these things?"

Because she four years old. It's what little dudes do.
...

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 3392 days ago

Good stuff, people. I knew I could count on you.

@Melissa: The second language idea is great. It's kind of a cheat, but it's great.

@Hans Miniar: "No staring" is pretty good. That's a nice general-purpose, non-stigmatizing rule. Although I'm not sure she'll understand the concept of people not wanting to be looked at. She wants EVERYBODY TO LOOK AT HER ALL THE TIME.

@Nathi: I love those quotes! They're adorable.

@Alan and others who suggest telling Fin not to comment on people's appearance: I should have mentioned this in the blog, but that means she can't say nice or neutral things, either, like, "That woman has long hair." I don't really want to cordon off the entire sphere of how people look. She's really interested in that.

@Zard: This made me think about turning Fin's observations into positives. We already do this with local people who ride in little motorized scooters: Fin thinks they're pretty cool, so I'm comfortable with her yapping about them. The person we're discussing I think can tell it's just a child being curious, and that we're talking about them in a positive way. So maybe I can apply that more widely. Although that is still a challenge. "Yes, that big lady must be very strong!" Not sure everyone would appreciate that.

Diana (#3505)

Location: North Carolina, USA
Quote: "Why get high when there are other ways to achieve a smug sense of superiority? Sarcasm, my anti-drug."
Posted: 3391 days ago

The best and really only thing to do is to try to explain to her that some people just don't like to be singled out. I use to do the same thng when I was little until my Dad sat me down and had a long talk with me about it, though it was only long because I kept asking questions about everything. It worked for me, just be sure to do it when you have time to spare, she sounds like a girl who will ask alot of questions too, lol.

Machine Man subscriber Todd (#3429)

Location: New York
Quote: "It's fun to have fun but you have to know how."
Posted: 3391 days ago

Note to self: Don't teach two-year-old son the word "boobs."

Nick Dantanavatanawong (#254)

Location: United States
Posted: 3391 days ago

I don't mean to sound rude or anything but wouldn't it be easiest to talk to her about like...not saying those things? Like it is impolite to say those things about other people out loud because you don't know how it will make them feel? I really don't know the mentality of four year olds or anything. Or if you don't want her to feel like she can't speak her mind. But that leads to then explaining how and when to give compliments to people's looks and how to take it.

Arancaytar (#2358)

Location: Frankfurt
Quote: "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. -Sagan"
Posted: 3390 days ago

My biggest blooper as a five-year-old was when I loudly asked my mother if that person we were passing was a man or a woman.

I didn't understand what was so bad about that either. I was honestly curious. Why would people react so badly at being mistaken for the opposite gender? It made no sense to me.

katya boyd (#4726)

Location: san diego
Quote: "Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out. - Anton Chekhov"
Posted: 3388 days ago

You're thinking waaay too much. It's foolish to point out that everyone is just fine the way they are if that isn't reality. What should be and what is are the very things your daughter is trying to make sense of.

By trying to stuff a lot of liberal notions into a four-year-old brain -- this is the sort of weird result you get when you walk down the street.

Let her be a little kid. Don't preach or give her a lot of confusing notions. She is learning from your EXAMPLE, not your notions. (Where did she learn the phrase "big boobs"?)

One thing you can always fall back on -- a kind person cares about the feelings of others and doesn't point at them or loudly describe their bodies in company. Unless, of course, you actually do this.

Charles Rotramel (#4727)

Location: Tulare CA
Quote: "TANSTAAFL"
Posted: 3388 days ago

I remember saying waytooloudly, "Wow, if I curled up I'd fit in one bun ..."
Mom was mortified. The big lady just snorted ...

Name Person (#4729)

Posted: 3387 days ago

Sounds like it COULD just be a phase, but maybe you should just tell her not to say those things, out loud? (I really don't know)

Moskali (#4731)

Location: Somewhere over there.
Quote: "Hit it with an axe and see if it argues."
Posted: 3387 days ago

Teach your kid a foreign language. That or teach your child about human ideas. I am positive that simply hearing someone say something like that would apply a small amount of stress. Reason for that is the fact that you are reminded by your problem. Or you could assume it is a phase, and do nothing. However, developing your child's character starts early, so some phases so be silently crushed or subtly discouraged. Remember, children WILL say the cruelest things without knowing (noticed this with my little cousins). If you view everything as a phase, then what will happen, eh? Phases can often be destructive and seeing today's society, they might not learn from their mistakes. When your child is an adult, it is be for your her to not know where her values comes from rather then having it visibly being forced down her throat. However, that is just my opinion. It may sound like brainwashing, but... well, it just might be, but you as a father have a great and legal way of doing it! As long as you don't torture her, erase her memory, reprogram her fragile 4 year old mind, or send her to a South American "Education" camp, she should be fine with no negative mental side affects. Hopefully.

Machine Man subscriber Michael Harrell (#2372)

Location: Olathe, KS
Quote: ""Every day we must persevere. For we are engaged in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress."Adapted from the masthead of "The Economist""
Posted: 3382 days ago

I think kids are a lot smarter than we think. For example they learn a lot more new words each day then I do. Anyway, why not explain it as you have for us above. Just tell her it is complicated, that no one get's it right, and the goal is to make others feel as good or better than we do about our encounters. Then just deal with the questions. I find the questions my son asks me, no matter how hard, are the best part of my day.

Shoe (#4776)

Location: D.C. Suburb
Quote: "“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” —Muriel Rukeyser"
Posted: 3360 days ago

Yah, been there. Mine are now young teens, but I well remember the days of them pointing out "the brown man" or giving a lecture to the stranger about smoking being bad.

They grew out of it, as they got old enough to notice negative reactions of others. Mostly.

I made a point of discussing with them that size and color were things that made people look different on the outside, but were normal. I never stopped them from giving the anti-smoking lectures. Kind of loved those, actually.

As for "staring" well, that is just what kids do. I'd rather my kids look at the person with no legs, and smile at them, than look away, and pretend they didn't exist.

Just pray she doesn't ask some chubby young woman if she's pregnant or just fat.

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