What to do when your child comments on a stranger’s physical appearance in public
The first time my daughter verbally communicated in public about another person’s physical appearance, we were on an Amtrak train back from visiting friends in Boston. She had just turned two.
The ticket collector had an olive complexion and having overheard me talking to my daughter, spoke to us in Spanish when he checked our tickets. He had just moved to the next row when my daughter stood up in her seat and said, “pinta cara” (face paint), pointing to the large, purple birthmark that covered part of his neck and one side of his face.
The man was otherwise engaged and didn’t hear the comment but the situation finally pushed me into the role of a parent in a story I have heard dozens of times: a child on a bus, subway, train, in the playground, park, sidewalk, restaurant (substitute ANY public place), says something about another person’s race, gender, intellectual or developmental disability, body type, clothing with religious or cultural significance, etc. and the parent freezes in embarrassment and doesn’t know what to say.
With so much anticipation on my part as to what this “first time” would be like, I almost laughed. Since the World Cup when we had painted my daughter’s cheeks with blue and white stripes in honor of Argentina, she had been obsessed with face paint.
I responded in two parts exactly as I would have had the ticket collector overheard:
“First of all, we don’t point at other people and talk about them because it might make them feel uncomfortable. I wouldn’t like it if someone pointed at me and started talking about me.”
Part One is not about the content of what my daughter said but rather about where she said it. I want her to know it is OK to notice differences and to ask questions about them—but I also want her to know that it is socially inappropriate to point at someone and talk about them in front of them. About anything (even the mundane).
There is another advantage to Part One: You do not have to have this conversation with the whole train hearing you. (If you feel comfortable having the conversation in public, by all means, do so, but if you do not feel comfortable, bring it home to the safety of your living room.)
“This man isn’t wearing face paint, he has a beauty mark on his face just like I have one on my chin and you have one on your arm.”
There is nothing wrong with a child’s observations about differences, (racial or otherwise). I want my daughter to keep noticing and to keep asking questions, because I don’t want her to be color-blind. If she can’t say these words and ask (what some adults may consider) difficult questions, she will not be equipped to create change around racial (and other) inequities. Click here to read a related story, “Why I want your children to ask questions about my disability.”
If you can’t talk about it, you can’t change it.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.