When Kids Say Shocking or Rude Things – What’s a Parent To Do?

A parent is distressed that his son says he doesn’t like, or is afraid of Black people, a sentiment that is abhorrent to him. “Worst of all,” the dad writes, “he will say this when he sees Black neighbors.” This dad realizes that his strong reactions may be making matters worse, but his son’s statements are striking a particularly sensitive nerve. “If this were literally anything else I would just minimize my responses to it and acknowledge the feeling.” This parent feels at a loss and is hoping Janet has a solution. “This is absolutely the biggest parenting challenge I have faced.”

Transcript of “When Kids Say Shocking or Rude Things – What’s a Parent To Do?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. I have a question today from a parent who reached out to me on Facebook and is very concerned that his son is saying shocking and rude things in regard to Black people. And what I would like to talk about in this podcast is understanding why children repeat, and then sometimes start to say publicly, disturbing, dismaying and rude things. Why does this happen? How does this happen? And what can we do about it?

Okay. Here’s the note that I received on Facebook:

Hi, Janet. I hope you can offer advice here.

Set up for this question is: My wife and I are both white and our son is white. We live in a small Southern city that is still pretty segregated and most of the people our son sees in our daily life and our personal life are white. My son will be five next month and has largely been home with one of us since birth, with the exception of a very rocky attempt at starting preschool that was ended by the pandemic. He’s very bright, has great language and critical thinking skills, and is inconveniently insightful about how to find exactly the right framing to turn a situation in his favor.

He’s extremely attached to my wife and sometimes seems to see me as the “not mama” and project a lot of his frustrations onto me, which I largely just acknowledge, “You would really rather mama were here to do this with you, et cetera.”

Anyway, this is the context for which he has started saying he doesn’t like or is afraid of Black people. A sentiment that is abhorrent to us. Worst of all, sometimes he will say this when he sees Black neighbors. Needless to say, he’s learned that these statements get a response. Recently, he has told me that he learned to not like Black people from me because I have told him it’s not okay to not like Black people and he wants to be the opposite of me.

If this were literally anything else, I could just minimize my response to it and acknowledge the feeling, but saying you don’t really like Black people doesn’t seem like an acceptable or appropriate response. We work to include books and movies that have Black leads, acknowledge the wide diversity of human bodies, affirm the dignity of all people, but can’t really broaden his social experiences right now nor do we want to expose Black children to anti-Black statements from our son. This is absolutely the biggest parenting challenge I have faced and I’m really at a loss. I hope you will have some thoughts.

Right. Wow. So, I feel how upsetting this situation is. And it sounds like this parent is handling their life with a lot of care and thoughtfulness, doing everything right. And then this happens and it is so dismaying and, as this parent says, abhorrent that his child would be saying these things.

So many of the answers for this parent, I feel like, the parent already knows on one level. Also the child actually explains what’s going on, very honestly says: I’m doing this because you’ve shown me that it bothers you and that’s something I’m exploring. That’s what children do. They want to explore why these people who are so powerful and important to them, that they look up to, that they need to depend on, they want to understand everything about us and everything about their power with us.

So, when they happen to say something that triggers us, they get kind of stuck, pressing it and pressing it, to explore those vulnerabilities that the parent has. As I say a lot, this isn’t an evil tendency. It shows this child’s amazing insight and perception and it shows the innate drive children have to explore and learn and go deeper and deeper into understanding their world. And especially these powerful figures: us.

I hear from parents about issues similar to this, not in regard to race, but I’ve heard it in regard to, “I don’t like Grandma.” Or, “Go away!” to people on the street or, “Go away” to neighbors that are being kind. And I’ve heard it happen with other things that parents care about. For example, if it’s important for a parent to raise children who are gender neutral and they have, let’s say, a daughter who only wants to wear pink, frilly, princess dresses, that can become a thing that starts as an in-the-moment behavior or exploration and then, because it hits a chord with the parent, it takes hold and becomes a thing.

In this case, I don’t think the child believes in their heart that Black people are scary. I don’t think this child actually believes that. And yet it’s continuing because the child wants to learn about their power with this parent.

Another thing about young children is that they’re not expressing these philosophical viewpoints about things. They’re expressing something very in-the-moment. So, my guess is what happened here is that in that moment, for whatever reason, I don’t like this person that looks different than us that we don’t socialize with and I don’t like. Or, I’m a little afraid. But even “afraid” to me sounds like something that this child caught wind of, that maybe a parent responded, “Oh, are you afraid?” It doesn’t sound like something that a child would naturally feel, unless they were scolded by a Black person or they heard people arguing or there was something disturbing that actually happened that scared them.

I think it’s probably with this child… who this dad says is inconveniently insightful about how to find exactly the right framing to turn a situation in his favor. I mean, this guy reads these parents like a book and it’s a gift. Most children, young children, are just naturally so aware and perceptive about their parents. That’s why we have to be on our game as much as we can. We’re not going to be perfect.

And in this case, I can empathize with this parent. This sounds like a very disturbing, horrifying situation. The last thing… As this parent says: if it was anything else, I feel I could handle this, but this is so deeply important to me and that’s exactly why this has happened.

So again, backing it up… Something happened that this child had that momentary feeling that, I don’t like that, I don’t like this person, I don’t like these people. Then they felt instantly that they hit on a big nerve and now it’s become a place they have to continue exploring.

So, what do we do as a parent? What do we do especially in this case, when the ship has sailed?

First, I’m going to talk about how we can handle it the first time. And then I’ll talk about how to right this ship, which is very, very possible. It’s really going to come from understanding a child’s process, the way children view the world, which is just much more innocently and usually specific to one situation at one moment. So even when they say something like, “I don’t like…” What does that mean to them? It doesn’t mean what it might mean to us where we’re just painting all this as, “I don’t like any of these people.” It could mean that I’m not used to these people, it could be a lot of things.

So, the first thing as a parent, I would want to try to do, if I could calm myself enough, is be curious. And I would want to understand. “Oh … What happened? What don’t you like?” And again, we know that children are born with a tendency to be biased, that even babies prefer people that are familiar and look like their parents. So, it’s a natural thing to have that bias. But if we can use this magic word for ourselves as parents: curiosity, we will be in the mode that we want to be in. Openness, curiosity, trusting our child, trusting that our child is a good person and that we are good parents and that whatever they’re saying, there’s a reason in that moment that they’re feeling that way.

We want them to be able to explore with us. We want those feelings or those thoughts to be able to land with us safely. Not pushed back on with fear, if possible. As soon as we’re judging, as soon as we’re pushing back, “Don’t say those things about people. You can’t feel that way.” We’re closing the door to understanding and connecting with our child and to being that person that we all want to be for our children — somebody they can confide in, somebody that there are no taboo topics with. You can say anything to me. This is gold as our children are getting older, that they feel safe saying anything to us. They don’t have to hide and feel wrong for what they’re doing or saying.

So, first I would be curious and I would want to understand. We’re not going to be perfect and I totally understand where this parent is coming from and the trauma this parent is going through around this. But that’s what we want to aim for as much as possible. And I think this parent knows this, because the parents says, “If it was anything else, I would just minimize my response to it.”

But we don’t even have to think about minimizing our response because, there, we’re trying to control something. What I would do is embrace a clearer understanding of the way children think and explore and how driven they are to learn, especially about us.

So, maybe we’re caught for a second, like, “Whoa, huh?” And then we settle into, “I want to know more about this.” And most of us do want to know more, but our judgments and our fears will get in the way. So, trust in your child, trust in their process, be open. In this case, I would say, “What don’t you like? Did something happen or where did you get that feeling? What makes you feel that way?”

And then I’m going to breathe and just remain this open place. And that can be easier, because we don’t have to come up with a response. Sometimes parents put pressure on themselves that: Oh my gosh, I got to steer this child immediately. I got to fix this right away. And that can get in our way, because then we’re coming back with, “No, no, no, you don’t feel like that. That’s not okay.”

What’s going on in your heart? That’s what children need and that’s the parent that I think we all want to be, with the realization that it is a learning process and that the feelings are momentary. This isn’t my worldview now for the rest of my life.

I did a podcast with Jennifer Eberhardt who is a bias specialist and she’s amazing. She’s a Black woman and she noticed her son saying some very biased things that were pretty shocking to her. I recommend listening to that (HERE) because she gives examples of responding to her son. Asking why in an open way, in a trusting way, in a genuinely curious way.

If we could all embody curiosity with our children, parenting would be a lot easier because we’d understand a lot more and we wouldn’t create these patterns that we don’t want to create. But it takes courage, especially on these certain topics that are so, so important to us.

If we don’t get triggered, if we can respond in that curious open way, then a child is much less likely to take it out and have it be a thing that they do in public. Our openness at home can prevent a lot.

But if you’re where this parent is and it’s already coming out in public and being repeated, I would say:

“You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that when you say these things about Black people, you can see that I get upset. I get angry because this is really important to me that we love and respect all people. So, I think what happened when you first started saying this is that I started worrying that you don’t love and respect all people. And so I told you you shouldn’t say that and I got upset. But now I realize, and you even told me yourself, that you’re doing this because I told you it’s not okay and I’m sorry, because I want you to feel safe to tell me anything that you’re feeling. I would love to be that person for you. And I’ve decided I’m going to be that person for you. It’s really, really important to me. So, I’m not going to say that anymore, but I really can’t let you say that to other people when we’re out in public or in front of people. But if you want to say it to me, I’m not mad at you for saying that. I would like to know where that’s coming from. I’m interested in everything that you think and say.”

Obviously we don’t have to say all these words, but that’s the content that I would want to share with my child to back this up. And that means being very honest and straightforward, which I think is important with every child, but this type of child, especially, because he will know the difference. He will know. And it will feel so good to you to share vulnerably in a way that isn’t judgmental of him, in fact the opposite, saying, “You know what? I was wrong to push those thoughts away. I’m sure you had a reason to feel like that in that moment. I’m sorry.” And then follow through. Believe in your child as a good person with a process.

And children, it’s part of their healthy development to be the opposite of us, like this child says. He wants to be the opposite of me. This boy’s so insightful and that’s healthy development. If you all like this, I’ve got to say this, even though I actually really do want that, but I’ve got to be different. Especially if you’re making a strong stance, I’ve got to be my own person.

So, while I wouldn’t let him turn situations in his favor in terms of limits that we have or boundaries or make decisions that we feel are a, “No” and that he tries to turn it into a, “Yes.” I would not let that happen, so that he does get the safety and boundaries that he needs. The attitude I would have is, “Wow, that’s a very interesting argument you’ve made. This is what we’re doing though.” Something like that, where you welcome him to try to turn it in his favor, but you’re still going to make the decision. If it’s a decision that you don’t care about either way, then you might say, “Huh, you know what? I can see your point. All right. I think we will do that.” But I would still come at it as a leader and being decisive, because children like this need more from us actually. They can’t tell us that, but they need more leadership from us. Not the judgmental kind, but the assured kind that still welcomes their perspective.

And so if he says something like this again, then after explaining the path that you’ve been on to him, I would say: “Hmm, there you go. You’re saying that. What is it now? Do you still want to be different than me? Or what is this that you don’t like? Because you told me before that it’s not about you not liking Black people, it’s about you wanting to be opposite to me.”

Just call out all those elephants in the room in a friendly, loving way.

And then if something happens in public, I would try to calm yourself, know that, okay, this is still getting tested a little bit. I would say, “Oh, come here. I can’t let you.” And then I would take him aside, like, “No, buddy. That’s not okay. You can share anything you want with me, but no, I can’t let you do that. That’s harmful.” So, you’re going to bring him into you to coach him in this, to have his back, ideally not being threatened yourself.

Then with everything else, also, that I learned from Jennifer Eberhardt, it’s great that you’re doing the books and the movies and that you’ve embodied these beliefs yourself. But if there was any way to bridge into just one actual relationship, maybe this parent does have this but, especially with a child, for him to befriend a Black child, for you to have a family or families that you socialize with if you join a group or something. I realize that’s difficult right now with the pandemic. But if you can find activities, even online, where you can have a teacher or some personal connection. When we have relationships with people and enjoy them, that can disrupt bias. So, I would consider if there might be a way, even online, to do that. Somebody that tells stories or something that he likes to do. That can make a real change. It’s important and it is possible.

I hope some of that helps.

For more, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon,  Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can also get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes and Noble, and in audio at Audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

4 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Tracy Nice says:

    Hi Janet,
    I don’t know if your website has algorithms but the first article in your newsletter this morning was the EXACT article that I was trying to find last night. An event occurred between my daughter and her friend that got me ruffled up. Her friend told my daughter she didn’t like her and another friend didn’t like my daughter either. I told her friend (very angrily) that it was hurtful to say those things and if she didn’t have anything nice to say she had to leave.
    ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it.’ I have never been a fan of those words, yet I use them often. This article has reaffirmed my dislike of this statement. Thank you for posting it and many other articles that help me become the parent I want to be-understanding and patient instead of shameful and easily frustrated. Thank You Thank You Thank You!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Hi Tracy – You are so welcome! I’m thrilled that this was helpful and that we were together on our timing. 🙂 This is a brand new podcast post so would not have been available until you got it. You sound like a wonderful, open-minded parent, which bodes very, very well. Take care and please be good to yourself!

  2. avatar Christina J says:

    “Believe in your child as a good person with a process.” As always, I really appreciate these insights. I especially like that you covered the different stages (first time, in public, etc.) and how you’d handle each one.

  3. avatar Kelsey Gant says:

    Hi Janet,

    You mentioned a child not naturally feeling afraid unless “… they heard people arguing or there was something disturbing that actually happened that scared them.” What would be a helpful way to respond if this had been the case?

    I’ve done my best to keep this brief:

    I’m living in a multigenerational family home with my toddler (3). My toddler is often (not always) unfriendly/“rude” to a relative. This relative is often yelling at another relative in another room. But my toddler is often unfriendly to other relatives who live with us who don’t yell, as well.

    I’ve thought many times over the past year or two about writing to you, but my question seems to be more about my relatives than my child. I’ve read and reread your articles on dealing with family members, as well as many related articles (and many books by other authors on family dysfunction).

    I try to sort of sportscast whenever we do hear yelling (or other dysfunctional verbal things). I keep it sort of generic (sort of “it’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to yell at others because you are mad”) because he tends to repeat much of what I say to him to relatives. But sometimes when I ask if he heard the yelling, he says no (it would be difficult not to hear).

    Is there a better way to “call out all those elephants in the room” if they are from other people, not my toddler? I grew up having to pretend not to see the elephants, but that causes issues that I don’t want my toddler to have.

    Maybe for my toddler it is less impactful because the relatives aren’t primary caregivers? I do my best to manage my own emotions about the situation, since my toddler would likely sense that.

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