Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My kids and race

Niffer asks asks me to comment on an awkward situation caused by the innocent observation of a child.

And I must confess to being stumped by this one.I don’t really have any confident suggestions for this situation. Maybe the parent could have said something that would have alleviated the tension. But then again, looking at the links in commenter Liana’s post, it is apparently incredibly easy to say exactly the wrong thing and then be judged harshly by the internets.

Frankly, I’d prefer that everyone involved recognize that children often say blunt things. And no amount of parental input has kept my children from saying inconsiderate blunt things to other people. Children do this because they have no idea what impact those things will have. They don’t know that other people often get hurt when we say blunt things. When an adult says something blunt, we naturally think that adult did so intentionally to hurt the other person. Because we expect the adult to know, from experience, how others are likely to react. But we really shouldn’t expect this same thing of kids. And it really shouldn’t reflect poorly on that child’s parents, either. After watching my four children, and scores of their friends, I’m convinced that children just say blunt things, and that no amount of parenting can really prevent that. If you don’t believe this, then why do you know the phrase "Kids say the darndest things"? Because parents everywhere are surprised by (and frequently embarrassed at) the things kids say. This happens so often that we’ve developed shorthand to capture this, and it’s that phrase.

Had the situation happened to me, I’m pretty sure that in the midst of it, I’d have simply apologized and pulled my kid away from the situation. And I can even imagine the conversation I’d have with him in the car about people having lots of different skin colors. I might even stop to show him that hi skin color isn’t as dark as my own. I would then mention that a lot of mean people don’t like the fact that some people have darker skin than others. And as a result, when you notice someone else has darker skin, they don’t know if you’re one of the mean people or the nice people. They might think you’re trying to be mean. So if you’re going to say something about someone else’s skin color, it’s a good idea to say something nice about it. Then that person will know that you’re not a mean person.

But then again, I’m pretty certain that my 4 year old would have lost interest at about the point I was saying, "people have lots of different skin colors." Maybe that’d be enough. Maybe it wouldn’t. I don’t know. As far as I can tell, no parents anywhere have found an effective way to prevent embarrassment from the things their kids say.

The good news is that they will eventually become teenagers, and embarrassment will run much more easily in the other direction. I personally plan on taking advantage of this. Late for school? No problem. I’m going to dress up in the nerdiest outfit I can find, walk you to class, and announce that I’m your proud father. I will introduce myself to every person I meet, especially if they’re pretty girls, and frequently hug you. All under the guise that as your parent, it’s my job to make sure you get to school on time. If you can’t handle that on your own, then this is what I’ll have to do.

I’ve already announced this to all of my children in the hopes that the mere threat will prevent the need to actually do it. My own personal teenage nuclear weapon. I have it. You know I have it. Don’t make me use it. Yes. This is payback for the comments you made to the guy in the wheelchair when you were 4.