What do you do when your kid is inadvertently rude to strangers?

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Shut up!
By: thefuturisticsCC BY 2.0
I’m a server at a restaurant that has a unisex uniform that includes a button-down white Oxford and tie. I’m a woman who has a very short pixie haircut. Recently, a young girl loudly proclaimed to me, “YOU LOOK LIKE A BOY!”

Her mother was mortified, but it didn’t bother me. I was just so surprised I didn’t know how to respond. I just laughed and told her mom I didn’t mind, but I wish I had come up with something more thoughtful to say. I identify as a distinctly feminine individual, but what if I didn’t? What if I was transgender? I wish I had just told her, “Maybe, but I really love my hair this way.”

How do you deal with strangers when your child blurts out a rude/awkward question or statement? How do you wish the stranger would respond? — Janelle

Comments on What do you do when your kid is inadvertently rude to strangers?

  1. If it were my child, I would have no qualms about speaking up to correct my kid. “Do you want to try that [sentence, response, answer] again?” is a favorite phrase I have when dealing with my students. It doesn’t point-blank say “You’re wrong” but has more of an “uh oh…that wasn’t okay to say. Have another go”. That way, it teaches them to be mindful of what they say AND you get the benefit of instant correction.

  2. My mom would always say something along the lines of, “Apologize!” and then, “How would you feel if someone said something like that to you? How do you think it made that person feel?” etc etc. I think teaching empathy goes a long way but all little kids say random things like that all over the world. And usually it’s a phase they grow out of as they realize their words can affect how people feel.

    Now if the kid had been like, 13 years old, I’d be scratching my head a bit.

  3. I typically try to not make a big deal out of it– if needed, depending on the comment/situation, I would apologize on the child’s behalf. I would defer conversation with the child about the comment until we were in a private place.
    In this particular situation with a young child, I would probably comment that people enjoy having their hair in all sorts of different styles and colors, and that both girls and boys might enjoy having really short hair, or really long hair. I might explore that further, depending on the context and where we were. Depending on age/ development of the child, I would have an empathy related conversation later.
    ETA: it would depend on age whether or not I would also ask the child to apologize… I would also want to not further embarrass the individual the child had made a comment about, if that was an issue.

    • I like this.
      When little kids make “rude” comments to me, I do my best to be open to discussion. Let’s talk about the mole on my face, my short hair, my tattoos, my gauged ears. I try to convey to the parents that I’m ok talking about it if they are.
      I also think it’s the parent’s responsibility to take cues from the person they are discussing.

      • I love talking about my stretched ears, tattoos, and piercings with my friend’s 3-year-old daughter. Her mom is mortified when she (the kid) sticks her fingers through my plugs, but I think it’s really, really funny.

  4. I think your answer would have been great “Maybe, but I really love my hair this way.”
    This shows that men and women can have short hair because they simply like it that way.
    And then the parent can talk to them in the car about “how would that make you feel if someone said that to you?”
    Kids have very little social context about the world and they just call them like they see them!

    • Right, the girl I nannied (blonde, w/ a blonde mom) was going on about how pretty her hair was, and asked if I thought it was pretty. I told her I did, then asked her the same question about me. She responded, “Well, your hair is BROWN.”
      After suppressing laughter, I told her that hurt my feelings, and that brown hair is nice too. But considering that her primary role model was blonde, I got her logic. (Don’t get me started on blonde barbies, princesses, etc…)

    • Also, young kids use hair length as a primary way of identifying gender. They also think that by simply cutting your hair, you can change from a girl to a boy, so (depending on age) the kid could have genuinely not understood that a woman could have short hair. Or, if they were older, they just might not understand the social rules at play.

  5. Haha, I have heard such things a lot of times! “You have boy-hair”or “do you have a baby in your tummy” and “what’s that on your face?” (a mole). (Do I look attractive,or what?)

    Many times small children ( NOT school age-kids,intentional rudeness is another story) don’t mean to be rude, they actually wonder about these things. The best thing is just to explain what that on your face is, why you have stretchmarks etc.

    As the parent you can then explain to the kid that it is ok to wonder about why people look like this or that, but that some people can get sad when you ask them, so it is better to ask the parent when said person cannot hear them.

  6. My 15 month old son isn’t quite old enough to be “rude” to strangers, but when we’re out in public (which is often) he will almost never smile back at strangers. He’ll just stare, like he’s never seen a human being before. Meanwhile, unsuspecting friendly person is just going on and on trying to get him to smile and just…crickets.

    He’s a pretty happy kid, so this just seems out of place. And it’s not like he isn’t used to strangers. This just happens all the time.

    I just try to acknowledge the situation, usually speaking out loud to him – more for the sake of the stranger – saying something like “hey buddy, you don’t want to smile back? Why don’t you wage your tail a little?” And then, if I feel like it, explain to the person that this is just what he does when we’re out and about.

    • My two year old daughter is exactly the same! She refuses to smile or talk to strangers usually. She is typically a very happy and talkative child too but just doesn’t want to respond to strangers.

      I usually just laugh it off or respond for her. It’s hard because I don’t really feel like she should have to respond but I wish she would- it would make things less awkward sometimes!

    • My son didn’t get it until a month ago (he’s 2 next month) that he’s supposed to say hello to people who say hello to him, and smile back at people who smile at him. Now he’s an incorrigible flirt.

    • I have totally felt self-conscious about my daughter doing the same thing, especially since when she was closer to 12 months she would say hi to strangers all the time. Now, at 2, she just keeps pointing at me and telling the stranger that I’m her mommy, refusing to say anything else. At some point I decided it wasn’t rude. She just isn’t comfortable chatting with strangers. It’s her prerogative. I just make sure that I myself am kind and pleasant with the stranger, as much as is possible considering how socially awkward I am.

  7. Depends on the age… “you look like a boy” isn’t necessarily rude unless a person is aware that girls usually don’t want to look like boys, which a kid under 5 or 6 might not realize!

    They also may not have the impulse control NOT to say whatever they’re thinking.

    In the moment, I’d probably try to cover for my child because I’m a peacemaker like that, but only if what he said was actually unkind would I talk to him about it later.

  8. EH, permissive parent here. I wouldn’t (and don’t) bat an eye but would probably absently say “some girls have short hair” or some platitude, so as to not charge the comment with any emotion. The child’s not meaning to be rude, it just sounds that way to our domesticated (and slightly warped; after all, there’s nothing wrong with looking like a boy) ears so I don’t think it’s fair to chastise them in the absence of maliciousness on their part. If a child says “you look like a poo poo head”, well, I would ask them to apologize. Because even the really little ones know it’s not nice to look like a poo poo head!

  9. Young kids are honest like that, so from the “stranger” perspective, I take it at face value. I have short hair and a less-than-womanly figure, so I’ve gotten, “Are you a boy or a girl?” before from really young kids. IT doesn’t bother me, because I know it’s an easy thing for kids to mix up. I’m also a teacher, so if the situation was appropriate, I’d have no problem chatting with a kid about how girls have short hair sometimes (or whatever the issue at hand was). I think that people need to look at the intent rather than the content of the question or comment. If the child wasn’t trying to be rude, don’t be offended. If the kid *was* trying to be rude, I’d probably say something along the lines of, “That’s not a very nice thing to say to someone,” and couple it with a sad/disapproving look on my face.

    If I was the parent in this situation, I would smile politely and apologize if the stranger looked offended, and then talk to my kid later about why some people don’t like to hear those types of comments/questions. If my kid was being rude on purpose, I would scold them and have them apologize, with a lecture to follow on being respectful.

  10. I’m an elementary school teacher and former preschool teacher, so I’m very used to the comments – both the inadvertent and intentional variety. I have a range of responses that I give, depending on the developmental level of the child and the context.

    Below the age of 2 most kids don’t have enough conversation to offend anyone outright – other than perhaps by being very shy, crying, preferring to be held by some people rather than others, etc. but most people understand that they’re dealing with a very young child who doesn’t have the social awareness to snub or offend.

    Children ages 2-5 typically define female/male by hair length and clothing. They “know” intellectually that girls can have short hair and wear pants, but in their dress up and drawings they’ll use a lot of long hair and skirts/dresses to denote girls and women (and female animals too). This is also the age that many girls become enamored of Disney princesses and want to wear sparkly, dressy clothing – it’s part of solidifying their stereotypically girl identity. If they attend preschool, it’s reinforced through interactions with other kids and there’s lots of attention to which toys, tv shows, games, etc. are “for boys” or “for girls”. It’s not political at all, just kids with very young brains trying to figure this out. These are the same kids who think that an animal can’t be both a Golden Retriever AND a dog – we’re not talking high abstraction. A book I love about this is “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”, in which the author describes trying to help her little girl navigate these gender identity issues and also to smooth out the adult discomfort of watching this all unfold and understanding the political context.

    When I’m with children of that age, I’m very matter of fact. I often do answer appearance questions (they like to ask about my teeth and my skin, particularly). At this age (and well into the elementary school years actually), most kids have some vague awareness that words can hurt, but little idea that questions or comments about appearance or age should be avoided. Especially since so many people seem to focus on what children are wearing or how “big” they’re growing! It’s natural that they’d get the idea that commenting on appearance and age would be a good way to start a conversation.

    As kids get older, I teach them rules of conversation. We don’t ask someone we don’t know about their age because we don’t know if they’re comfortable talking about it. We don’t comment on people who look “different” but can approach them in a friendly way and get to know them first, and then they’ll feel comfortable answering our questions. We don’t say anything that we wouldn’t want said to us. And so on. If they do offend, I help them to smooth it over. You didn’t mean to hurt so-and-so’s feelings, but it seems that your question was too personal. Why don’t you go tell them that you were just curious and you didn’t mean to be hurtful? If they don’t have the words, I’ll supply them, or act as the intermediary in the conversation.

  11. I don’t necessarily think that comment from a child qualifies as rude. They are constantly bombarded with messages about gender, race, etc and then we teach them its rude to talk about? I don’t think its a good idea to make those topics taboo. In that situation I would just explain to my kid that how people dress or wear their hair isn’t what makes them a girl or a boy. I wouldn’t really expect anything of the stranger, except that they not be offended. I think your response was just fine, if you had the time and patience to explain that you like having short hair (or that boys can have long hair, and like pink, and so forth) then great, but as long as you aren’t angry at childish curiosity (and lack of impulse control) then that is plenty good enough.

  12. I would tell my chid to, instead of assuming someone’s gender, ask. I know some kids use the phrase “Are you a boy or a girl or what?”(the “or what” part is for people that don’t identify as men or women.) That’s easy enough for kids to understand and it shows them not to assume people’s gender identity.

  13. I worked as a preschool teacher for three years and I LOVED the “are you a boy or a girl” question! I would always say “what do you think?” and the kids had the funniest answers, like “you’re a girl because you have glasses,” or “you’re a boy because you have cool shoes!” From there we could talk about how lots of people wear glasses, or have cool shoes, or long hair, or what have you, not just girls or just boys.

    • This was always my answer/question too. I find that with young kids, even if they’re fixated on gender, they’re pretty willing to change their mind about whatever they think they know.

  14. I think situations like this are perfect for opening up discussions with younger kids. ie – Why do you think having short hair makes someone look like a boy? Girls enjoy having short hair, and sometimes boys enjoy having long hair too etc, etc. I’d probably apologise on their behalf and discuss it with them privately so as not to further embarrass anyone.

  15. Start a conversation! I don’t have kids, but I was a kid once and I come across them at one of my jobs. Usually they smile at my a lot and ask about my nose rings. Curiosity is a chance to learn about things you don’t normally come across. Maybe you were the first short-haired girl they really took a look at, which is cool, now that could be part of their normal!

  16. Ahh I get this all the time! I have a double whammy – I’m a girl with a boy’s name, plus I have the short hair/tattoos/piercings/various other decidedly gender-neutral accessories to boot! In my job, I work with adolescent girls in public high schools, so I’m constantly being bombarded with questions and misjudgements about my identity. Because of the age of the kids, a lot of these are the intentional/hurtful sort. A surprising amount of them actually come from a genuine interest and an honest lack of information.

    Regardless of the nature of the interaction, I ALWAYS make sure to turn the conversation into a positive learning experience. If someone asks about my gender identity, I refuse to get offended and I simply explain that girls can have boys names too. If someone asks about my body modification, I explain that it’s not for everyone, but that it’s a very important part of my life. When I have time, I’ll go into more in-depth explanations: Gender is a continuum, body modification is a serious endeavor and you shouldn’t let your friend pierce your nose in her bathroom, etc. It can be exhausting sometimes but any amount of inconvenience on my part is worth any amount of education on theirs.

    That being said, I have zero experience with small children so thank you everyone for all this great information!!!

    • Just wanted to thank you for this:

      “It can be exhausting sometimes but any amount of inconvenience on my part is worth any amount of education on theirs.”

      Sometimes I get tired of educating people about things like why I don’t identify as a lesbian even though I’m very happily and openly married to a woman, or why same sex marriage will *not* inevitably lead to marriage between trees and cats. Thanks for the reminder in words I can remember and draw on when I’m exasperated.

  17. I think it’s important to distinguish between “rude”, and when a kid is just being a kid and making an observation. In this story, for example, I don’t think it’s a rude, I think it’s the kid’s worldview that hair length equates with gender. Of course, we don’t know how old the kid was. But I think just saying “well, some girls have short hair and some boys have long hair” is enough. I do think it’s up to the parent to initiate the conversation though.

  18. Oh jeez, this reminds me of a time when my (much younger) little sister was two. I was walking her home from the babysitter’s house and we walked by a woman and my sister yelled, “Her fat!” I was so mortified and I think I just turned bright red and walked faster. Obviously, she was too little to understand the woman probably didn’t want to hear that, she just thought she was making a clever observation, not being insulting. I still wish I would have reacted to it better, but I don’t even know what that would entail.

  19. I don’t feel like that situation is especially rude. Neither is “mommy why is that man so fat?” or something of that nature. People who have distinctive bodies KNOW that they’re different and are probably used to comments like that (from children).

    Now my 7 year old son is a winner. We were in an elevator with another mom and baby. I say “isn’t that a cute baby?” And my son blurts out “she has a weird lookin’ face”. I was horified. I told him that was a rude thing to say, and later pulled him aside and talked about it more. At 7, I expected him to have at least some sort of filter! Sheesh…

  20. I doubt the kid meant to be rude. If she had meant to be rude then your response is both for the parent and the child. My son and I are both pretty gender neutral. I have short hair and he has long, I wear button ups and ties and he wears girls pants and shoes. He is often mistaken for a girl. When people think he is a girl he thinks it is really funny that someone mistook him just because his hair is long. I was picking him up from after school care and another little boy was calling my son “she”. He saw that I was amused so he asked if “she” was a boy or a girl. I responded that he was a boy and he commented on how he has long hair and that is why he was confused. I asked the boy if I was a girl or a boy. He said girl and I took off my hat to show him that he and I had the same haircut! He smiled and REALLY loudly exclaimed, “Well, THAT was awkward”! I died laughing at his genuine response. But it is totally ok to ask. I support my kids in their curiosity; especially the way that gender “norms” are growing more and more loosely defined, (Yay, high fives all around!). Its all about the intent. If the child was saying it to be mean then I would ask why looking like a boy is a bad thing. She may realize at that point that she really doesn’t believe that or look toward she learned that idea, (parents or other role models) and get a peek into a world of better understanding for gender neutrality.

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