We are taught that honesty is a virtue. And for the most part, I agree. For instance, apparently it is no longer socially acceptable to wear underpants with yoga pants. Perhaps this was never socially acceptable. I can take the honest criticism that underpants and yoga pants are not a becoming combination. But given the number of things unbecoming about me sweating my unflexible body through yoga, I don’t think I will be changing my ways any time soon. Perhaps my glaring panty lines will distract my fellow yogis from noticing the even larger lines between my heels and the mat whenever I attempt downward dog. I do appreciate the heads up nonetheless.
With kids, though, it is easy to see the fine line between honesty and tactlessness. My kids are no different from any other kids. They are curious about the world. They want to understand when something is different or strange to them. I am also no different from any other mom, which is why these observations can feel uncomfortable.
Of course, the real jewels are saved for me. Observations about my breasts (otherwise known as my “tummy” in these parts), nose hair (“What are those pointy things?”), careless shaving habits (“Why are you so scratchy?”) and pimples (“Ball!”) are all fair game. (No panty line observations yet because, come on!, people are supposed to wear underwear!)
For the most part, these observations roll off me. I understand that they are just curious and there is no animosity behind them. Usually I respond honestly and make a mental note to buy a push-up bra. Sometimes, not often, I’ll explain that a comment about how I look can feel hurtful. But generally, I am not hurt or made uncomfortable by these comments. I am happy to talk about the parts of me that are different.
When it gets tricky is when these comments are made to people outside our family.
My first time witnessing one of these innocent but awkward interactions, it was not my child doing the questioning. My oldest was then maybe a year old and we were seeing a short play. It was extremely casual, and everyone was sitting on gym mats waiting for the show to begin. A woman in front of us sat with her child. She had a lot of facial hair. Not a full beard, but close. A young child turned to her and asked “Are you a boy or a girl?” The woman responded, “Great question!” and then calmly explained that some women are born to grow more facial hair than others, and that usually when this happens women shave. She had decided she didn’t want to shave, and that she would just be comfortable with what she was given. She then asked if the child had any questions. The boy’s curiosity was sated and he went back to waiting for the show to start.
I was so impressed with this interaction. The woman could have felt upset or judged, but at least outwardly she didn’t. She was honest, open and calm. She diffused any potential negative interaction and turned it into a teaching moment – not just for the child, but for me.
As my son learned to talk and grew more curious about the world around him, he began to make similar touchy observations. One memorable trip to the zoo, he loudly proclaimed “Mommy, that man has the biggest belly EVER!” I don’t think the man heard him – or at least he feigned deafness – but it gave me my first opportunity to channel the calmness of the woman at the play. We talked about weight and how some people may feel uncomfortable with their size, so it’s best not to make observations out loud about it just in case. This completely perplexed my son, who couldn’t comprehend why it would be a big deal. If he were tall, we could comment on it, but we can’t comment on his weight? It was an interesting conversation, and surprisingly difficult to talk about so openly.
We’ve had many others questions since, questions about age, size, ability and skin color. Even knowing that they are coming from a place without malice, they can still make me hold my breath. It has been one of my biggest challenges as a parent, checking my knee-jerk response of shushing them or scolding them, and instead working through their well-intentioned questions with honesty. I’ll admit, sometimes I just have to let one go (for example, “Everyone who gives out samples at Costco is so old!”), but for the most part, I try to answer them. If I am not honest and tactful with them, how can they learn to be so themselves?