. . . come words of truth. But sometimes they’re all too true. The many ways your children or granchildren can embarass you will turn you pink!
From the moment your child can say its first word, it can embarrass you. The first word will probably – and unjustly – be Dadda. You’ll be standing on the doorstep innocently counting out change to the man from Unigate as your least-friendly neighbour walks by, and your child will point affectionately at the milkman and say its one word ‘Dadda!’
Awkward, unless you happen to be married to him. From that word on, it’s downhill all the way. It doesn’t matter how broadminded you consider yourself, your child will identify your personal embarrassment threshold and step right over it.
It all starts with name-giving. As parents, we are programmed to teach our babies to speak. Talking to them from birth, giving them objects and naming them. At home, it’s: `Here’s your rattle; `Kiss bear goodnight; ‘What a smart sweater!’ When we’re out, the naming of parts becomes obsessional: `See the big red bus!’ There’s Postman Pat emptying the letterbox; ‘Look at those lovely red apples.’
Look at the giant dog-poo!
Small wonder that kids learn to retaliate with their own name-calling. The problem comes when they select their own objects to name: ‘Look at the giant dog-poo!’ Or to make judgments on what they see: `See the policeman’s silly whiskers, Mum.’
Whatever the Psalm-writer said, what actually comes out of the mouths of babes and sucklings will turn you pink.
Often the most toe-curling experiences are children observing aloud physical differences and oddities. Like young Matthew, just recovered from chicken pox, pointing out a teenager with disfiguring fruit-cake acne: ‘I think he’s got chicken pox, too.’
Fatness, thinness, curious hairstyle and height (Look at the wee little man, Mummy’), bald heads, boils and bits missing – these are what attract juvenile attention and comment. They cannot help observing – because that is what you taught them to do. And they cannot help saying it, because their thoughts are connected directly to their tongues without diversions through deceit or discretion.
What comes out of those babes’ mouths is truth. And whoever said that the truth never hurt anyone, was lying.
Why have you got such red hair?
Occasionally the situation takes care of itself. I was once on a bus when a three-year-old redhead asked the ebony-faced conductor, `Why have you got such black cheeks?’ ‘I don’t know, honey,’ he replied very gently. ‘Why have you got such red hair?’ The quiet philosophy of his reply left her pondering in silence for the remainder of the journey.
Somehow these remarks implicate the accompanying parent. Many begin, ‘Look at the man with the . . .’ You are invited to look, to notice what you’d rather have ignored, and to comment.
A friend of mine’s small son pointed out the spiked coxcomb on the head of a young ‘punk’ next to them on a train. `Mum, look at that man with a fence on his head.’ She refused to be embarrassed. If anyone went out in the morning looking like that, she reasoned, he obviously expected, and probably wanted, to be remarked upon. `Yes; she replied, must have taken ages to do, mustn’t it?’
I don’t think I could brazen it out like that. So, after a near-miss encounter with an amputee (‘Mummy’, look at the man who hasn’t got a . . .’ but luckily he disäppeared into the bank), I felt I must take positive action.
‘You may notice, Ben, that there are some people . . .’ I began, and gave him the full talk about different shapes and sizes and hues of human beings, each of them deserving equal dignity and respect etc, etc. . . but if you see anyone you want to ask about, rather than hurt: ing their feelings by talking about them in public, remember what you want to know and ask me when we get home, OK?’
Shall I put it in the just drawer with the others?
Next time we were in a hamburger bar, an unfortunate woman with some goitrous or glandular complaint that made her vast, walked by. True to our agreement, Ben loudly stagewhispered: `Mummeee, look at the ‘normous lady we can talk about when we get home.’
Then there are the social gaffes – mostly the parents’ own fault for saying too much `in front of the children’:
Paul, in front of a guest who’s just brought round a holiday souvenir: `Mum, shall I put it straight in the junk drawer with the others?’
Emma, to father as her aunt (on whose home he has been commenting re-enters room: `Daddy, what does “appalling taste” mean?’
Jack, to everyone on top of the bus: `Do you like my Mummy’s new fur coat?’ (Pause). ‘It’s my Granny’s old coat.’
Is that man going to have a baby?
Sex is another ticklish topic for infant blunders, not so much what they say as where they say it. You’ll have told them unblushingly the facts of life in the privacy of your own home, but they only ask you the hard questions on the top of a crowded bus: ‘What does Daddy do with the seeds he doesn’t need for making babies?’
In a doctor’s surgery: ‘Is that fat man going to have a baby?’
At an outdoor wedding reception: ‘What are they doing?’ (Asking about two ladybirds on a wedding bouquet, when it is quite plain to the adults what the ladybirds are up to.)
We adults should blush ladybird red, too. It is our fault that children grow up to be, embarrassed. We teach them how. We tell them the words for things, then we forbid them to use those words. We tell them that differences don’t matter, but we have already pointed out differences. Perhaps they’d be better if we left them alone.
What thoughtless thing would Ben say?
Talking of no-escape places to be embarrassed by your kids, I was once with my son when young on an aircraft. He marched up to a quiet lad across the gangway. ‘Are you handicapped?’ he demanded, registering the unmistakable signs of Down’s syndrome.
My heart sank as I caught the eyes of his parents. How many moments like this had they faced? What thoughtless or unknowing thing would Ben say?
‘I’ve never met a “handicapped” before,’ he went on in a matter-of-fact way. ‘Can I sit next to you?’
Perhaps innocence cannot offend. Perhaps it is not what the children say, it is how we react that matters. Isn’t it possible that When we tell them how not to hurt feelings we are, in fact, also teaching them that feelings can be hurt, and how to do it? Until then they just say what they see and feel.
And perhaps that is wisdom. Maybe that’s what comes out of the mouths of babes.