Recently, while dining out with my two boys, my loudest son beamed with pride as he announced, “Mom, I promise that I will not call that lady right there fat!” He, of course, made his announcement loudly as he also pointed to his subject matter, leaving no doubt about which “fat” woman he was referring to. While I was embarrassed, I had to choke back my smile.
You see, only weeks before we had had our first talk on the subject of calling people “fat.” We had gone out to eat for my husband’s birthday, including Aunts, Uncles, Cousins and Grandparents, at a bustling Italian restaurant. My four year old had been having an especially hard time sitting still, eating his food and using an inside voice throughout the dinner. He was in rare form to say the least so when I noticed him noticing a rather round man approaching our table, time began to move in slow motion. It’s not that he had any prior history of poking fun of overweight people, but recently he had begun to display extreme curiosity toward anyone and everyone who looked “different.” As the man walked closer, I instinctively felt the need to remove my kid from the table, to cover his mouth or to create some sort of a diversion; anything to wage a preemptive strike from what I sensed was about to happen. Too late- before I could do a thing the words were flying from his mouth in singsong style, “Look at him everybody, he’s fat!!!!!” This proclamation was followed by hysterical laughter and cackling as he waited for the desired response from the rest of his family. When no one joined in to celebrate and cheer him on, he looked completely bewildered and his expression slowly wilted to one of disappointment.
As I took him by the hand to lead him to the lobby for a much needed talk, I was filled with mixed emotions. Obviously I felt sympathy for the man who had just been harassed and publicly humiliated by my naive Son. And yet, while I completely recognized the importance of addressing his behavior, I felt just a little sorry for my son. For most of his life thus far, inhibitions had been nonexistent. But he was nearing an era when socialization and inhibitions would take over and start to rule much of his behavior, when he would become more and more concerned with saying the right thing, if only for the sake of appearing “cool.” I kept tenderly picturing the confusion and sadness that had come over his face when he found that no one was amused by his joke. I also had to hold in my own laughter now as I realized that this was a classic example of the type of behavior I’d been warned about from most every parent I know who’d gone before me.
So we had a nice talk, my Son and I. I explained the importance of considering other people’s feelings before speaking. I told him that people who look different can be sensitive about their appearance. After some discussion, we walked back to the table with me feeling rather proud. I had constructively seized a teachable moment and said all the right things. I had really gotten through and made an impression on him.
So why now, weeks down the road, was he embarrassing me again? I was humbled as I realized that this was my teachable moment. It’s often after I’ve preached my best sermons, believing that I had appealed to my Son’s sense of empathy and goodwill, that he has found the loopholes. It’s then that I’m reminded that kids need to not only be taught empathy, sensitivity and goodwill, but they also need concrete rules, boundaries and consequences. I was still certain that all of my flowery speech had not fallen on deaf ears. I had obviously made an impression on him in our talk; enough for him to acknowledge that he wasn’t supposed to call the woman fat, as he ironically did exactly that. But had I been clear enough? Obviously not. It was back to the drawing board. This time around, he was asked, prompted, and when that failed, forced to go and apologize to the woman he had embarrassed. She graciously accepted. Taking this course of action seemed to really effect my son, who tends to shy away when asked to approach a stranger.
On the car ride home, he said to me, “Mom, I don’ t think I’m going to say the word ‘fat’ anymore.” Good choice Son. Best to err on the side of caution. This time I think I got through. Here’s hoping!