When my daughter was about four years old, we were at the beach. Not a beach in another country where it is customary for men to wear Speedo-style swimsuits, but in Galveston, Texas, where most of the men wear longer swim trunks instead.
There was a community shower head where we could all rinse off before we put our sandy selves back in the car for the ride home. At the outdoor shower, the man who was rinsing off in front of us was over six feet tall and wore a bright red bikini Speedo.
“What swimsuit is he wearing?” my daughter asked. We answered something benign like, “He has a red suit, doesn’t he? And you have a pink one.” We then tried to divert her attention, but her level of confusion about a grown man in a Speedo exceeded her capacity to move on.
“Why’s he wearing red panties, daddy?” Her tinny voice seemed to echo through the area. We tried to explain it as best we could while trying to get her to change the subject, but I don’t think that red Speedo was out of her mind until the man moved on to his car, and probably not even then.
Someone wrote me asking for advice the other day because her almost four-year-old daughter has been commenting on her classmates’ skin color. She wanted to know how to get her daughter to stop commenting.
My response to her was that there is no need for her to stop her daughter’s comments. It is natural for young children to ask questions. They ask questions all day long. Any parent of a 4-year-old will hear “why?” 500 times a day as their child tries to make sense of the world.
“Why is his skin a different color” to a child is no different than “why is the sky blue” or “why is the grass green?” Their questions are innocent, untainted by judgment and experience. And how we answer their questions truly matters.
“His skin is lighter (or darker) than yours, isn’t it? What color is your skin? And mine is peach. Dad’s is brown. Isn’t it great that skin comes in so many colors!” is a good potential response.
If a young child is comfortable asking the question, but I am uncomfortable answering it, I need to realize that the discomfort is mine, not the child’s. And I want to do everything in my power to not transfer my own bias to the next generation.
Last fall, I was sitting in the stands at a youth sports game. I heard a child, around 12 years old and not on our team, chirping at his friend. “You suck” and “you bat like a girl” and all kinds of jabs came from his mouth. And then he yelled out “you’re a fa$$ot.”
I whipped my head around and willed myself to not get involved with the language of this child whom I’d never met. I bit my tongue and stayed quiet. But it bothered me all day.
I know this 6th grader was just trying to be cool in front of his friends. But I couldn’t help but wonder why he thought this derogatory language was OK. Did he hear that language at home? Was he not corrected when he used it at home? How can I ensure my kids don’t talk this way?
The way we answer our kids’ questions when they are four leads to the way they will talk when they’re 12 and beyond. I have to answer their question at age four the way I want their words to come out when they’re an adolescent and I’m not around to hear it or guide them.
My kids have used and will use language of which I don’t approve. For that matter, I have used language of which I don’t approve. My husband and I still laugh about how awkward and hilarious the “red panties” conversation was.
If you’re stuck without an answer to a question that makes you uncomfortable, you can start with “isn’t it great that….” and then complete the sentence. Isn’t it great that there are all kinds of bathing suits? Isn’t it great that families come in all different combinations of people? Isn’t it great that we all have different things we’re good at? Isn’t it great that there are different cultures/religions/ethnicities? Isn’t it great that you can love whomever you choose?
As our kids get older, it becomes more appropriate to talk with them about biases we all carry, generalizations we all make. The questions will get bigger as they grow, and the answers will get harder. Sometimes the answer will be “I have no idea.” But setting the foundation for calm, accepting answers when they are young will be building blocks for their adolescent thoughts.
Maybe the next time they see a grown man in a red Speedo, they will politely nod “hello” and move on. And someday you will see the results of your efforts coming back at you. One day I commented on how someone I didn’t know “should not be wearing that outfit.” My now teenaged daughter whipped her own head around and said. “Why do you have to judge? Why can’t you just let people live their lives?” Touché.