My daughter called a stranger fat. In public. I wanted to cry and then die. But I had to fix it. So I did what any mother would do. I did my best.
It happened about a year ago. My girls (ages 3 and 2) and I were shopping. Happily shopping. (When is shopping not happy?) We decided to take a lunch break. I still remember how everyone was particularly well-behaved, polite and extra-fun-and-cute that day. We were seated at our table, coloring in our books and sipping from our toddler cups. I was extra-extra-happy that day for no good reason (although, dressing up my girls like dolls and taking them to lunch like little ladies always makes me feel content). We were in one of those tables against the wall, with a bench across the back and chairs on the other side. A nice woman and her adult daughter were soon seated right next to us (like, 1 foot away). We had a nice hello (an account of being seated so closely together), they sweetly complimented my girls, asked me about the salad I ordered, and that was that. Until...
"Mommy ... that girl is big!" The observation, exclaimed by my 3-year-old, came with a tiny pointed finger toward the two women seated just next to us, that nice woman and her daughter we just exchanged hellos with minutes earlier. The ones who just commented on how adorable my girls were. (Did I mention that that nice woman's daughter happened to be significantly—severely—overweight? Obese, clinically speaking.) My daughter, sitting across from me, was pointing to that nice woman's daughter sitting next to her. "Big." I died inside. I cried inside. As a mother I wanted to punish my kid and hug that woman's grown kid.
I know what you're thinking: No, my family is not constantly surrounded by strange skinny Hollywood folks who eat nothing but kale all day. (If you must know, I served mac and cheese last night for dinner.) In fact, we are part of several very diverse social circles that includes people of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. We know and love people who deal with issues of obesity and I truly do make the effort to raise my family with the utmost sensitivity surrounding issues of differences. Identifying someone as "big" had never been a question, issue or observation ... until THAT VERY MOMENT. My daughter's words came out of nowhere.
To pick up where I left off: I wanted to die. My heart sank for possibly hurting our table neighbors and making them feel uncomfortable. I noticed the pair in my peripheral vision: They were eating and talking. They didn't even hear my daughter. I could stop this now. I was in control. I immediately gave my girl that intense, silent shut-up-now-or-else expression with my eyes and mouthed BE QUI-ET across our table. (My younger daughter just kept coloring through all this.)
"Mommy, that girl is big!" Again. Louder now. Apparently I missed the note that 3-year-olds don't always understand the shut-up-or-else expression unless you actually tell them out loud in words.
I don't want to yell at a 3-year-old in public over something she doesn't understand, but I want to make sure she learns that ... this was not OK.
"I know I'm big, I'm sorry..." the grown up daughter that my toddler daughter was pointing to turned to her and responded. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.
No time to think this out. I pulled the rip cord and shot with my gut.
"Stop. There is no need to apologize!" Holding back my own tears of guilt and embarrassment, I looked the young woman in the eyes. I could tell she was either really hurt or really annoyed ... maybe both.
Handle this, I thought. I don't want to yell at a 3-year-old in public over something she doesn't understand, but I want to make sure she learns that, in the name of having respect for your fellow human being, this was not OK. I turned to my daughter. "Sweetheart, everybody comes in a different size. Everybody's different. Some people are small, some people are big, some people have dark skin, some people have light skin. We're all here together and that's what makes this world nice and interesting." I then turned to the women beside us. "We're 3 now, and the more we go out, the more differences we notice and the more we say them out loud. I am so sorry if that made you uncomfortable."
I didn't quite know what to say, but that's what I said. My little girls' eyes were really wide. She knew she'd done something not right, but I could tell she really didn't know how to process it. My heart hurt. I still don't know how I didn't break down and weep right then and there. (Just writing this makes me want to weep.) I love my girls and don't want to berate them for an innocent mistake, but I also really care about strangers' feelings too. And it's my job to teach my girls about differences, respect and kindness.
The mother and the girl shrugged the incident off, half-laughed, said something casual about toddlers speaking their minds and how (as teachers) they've heard it all and that it was no big deal. I responded with something like, "They don't warn you about this kind of stuff when you become a mom," and the situation was deflected with that.
But the pit in my stomach was beyond palpable. My girls and I finished our lunch in silence and left.
I did survive, but my heart still hurt. I later explained to my daughter (privately this time) how everyone is different, that we don't always have to point everything out, and that if she ever has a question about anyone being different she can ask me as a secret and that I will explain anything she wants to her. Too much to expect?
Looking back, it’s not like my little girl said anything bad. She simply noticed that the girl was big. I mean, lots of things are “big”: The world is “big.” My daughter is a “big” sister. Papa is “big” and tall. But, I think we both know that this particular identification of “big” had a sensitized meaning attached to it, even if it were an innocent observation and she didn’t mean anything negative about it.
No one is exempt from the honesty of toddlers, no one. But in the name of raising helpful, gentle, responsible, generous, happy, kind, loving little people who have respect for everyone we share this world with, I will keep on explaining what's right, what's wrong and what should be kept to ourselves out of human compassion and decency. Even if both my girls are still under the age of 4.