"That kid was really fat," my son said flatly after the boy walked past. Fortunately, the boy didn't seem to hear but I was otherwise dismayed. Aside from the occasional bout of tattling or innocently curious questions, I had never heard my son say something unprompted and critical about another person, especially something negative about his appearance. My flailing response was something of a machine-gun reproach ranging from the simple to the nonsensical:
1. "We don't talk about people's bodies."
This seems pretty appropriate, right? Although to be fair it's a little disingenuous because, of course, my husband and I do talk about people's bodies, albeit when the kids are out of earshot... we think? Not that that excuses it. While we mean well, in reality when we say, "We don't talk about other people's bodies" what we mean is "Please don't embarrass us in front of other people," whether it's the chubby kid on the sidewalk, the lady with the big booty in the locker room or the woman with one arm at Home Depot, all of which were situations where our son talked about somebody else's body. Only one of those times did he seem critical instead of curious, and only one of those times it was about a child who might not be forgiving of a curious kid. At any rate, this response didn't seem to have much of an effect, so I tried to go more personal:
2. "Maybe that boy can't help being fat."
With this one I tried to get my son to practice a bit of empathy. Maybe the boy was sick, or maybe he was hurt and can't exercise. Maybe he's sad and he eats his feelings. Perhaps he hates his body and doesn't need some four-year-old discussing his unhappy situation. But then I realized that perhaps I was possibly inaccurately painting the boy as a victim, so I tried:
In the end it wasn't so much the fat judgment from my son that bothered me but that my son felt entitled to comment on anybody's looks in a critical way.
3. "Maybe he likes being fat."
This one came my way via my friends in the fat acceptance/health-at-every-size movement. Who am I to assign a state of victimhood to some fat kid? Perhaps he has an amazing life and is of the opinion that he's pretty great as he is. Maybe he doesn't need our pity. But at the same time I didn't want to get into a discussion of whether it's fine to be overweight, because, full truth, if I had a choice, I would opt for my kid not to be overweight, which is why I then went to:
4. "Mommy was fat once and she didn't like it when people said things to her about it."
This is sort of true. I used to be overweight and I got a modicum of crap about it from about three people. And it's true, overweight people don't like or need other people to point out the fact that they're overweight—they're very usually aware of their weight. However this didn't feel right because it seemed like I was only instilling empathy once my son could see it from the point of view of somebody he knew and not a stranger, which led me to:
5. "Maybe you'll be fat one day."
This is where I really started to lose the thread. What I was originally going for here was a "Don't judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes" thing but I think this came out sounding more like a curse, in which case I was making fatness sound like some sort of karmic punishment. It was at this point that I decided to stop talking for awhile.
6. "It's not nice to talk about people's bodies. And I love you and I expect more from you."
In the end it wasn't so much the fat judgment from my son that bothered me but that my son felt entitled to comment on anybody's looks in a critical way. The world doesn't need more of those people. After we spent a few minutes decompressing, I gave him one follow-up talk. The majority of the time, my son is a sweet, sensitive boy who cares about other people's feelings and who dislikes disagreement and strife. I just wanted that kid back.
Realistically, I know that I can't prevent my kid from saying crappy things about other people. My own parents couldn't prevent it in me, after all. I can just hope that one of these six half-baked responses landed in some way or another.