Exactly What To Do if Your Kid Comments on Someone's Appearance in Public

Kids can sometimes have no filter. But what do you do when it's in public and directed to a stranger? Here's how experts say parents can handle this situation.

Daughter lies on the ground with her head on mother's legs as they have a talk.
Photo: Kristen Curette & Daemaine Hines/Stocksy

This past summer my family was enjoying a warm day at a Vermont lake. In between licks of her popsicle, my 3-year-old announced loudly that the lady behind me was "really fat." I was sure that the woman heard her, as did all the other people around us, but I was caught between embarrassment and shock.

In a quickly-decided move, I poked my daughter's stomach and told her that her belly was fat and that I loved it. The truth is I had no idea how to properly respond to my daughter's comment.

The question for a lot of parents in this situation is whether they should condemn the child for making negative statements about another person's appearance. That might be your first instinct, but it's not always the best reaction. Here's how experts say parents can navigate this tricky parenting moment.

Acknowledge but Celebrate Differences

Sarah Thunell, a parenting coach and former nanny based in Seattle, says a child's curiosity is OK and normal. During such a situation, Thunell, who focuses on body-positive parenting, advises acknowledging the child's observation by saying something along the lines of, "I see that you're noticing that every body is different." But it's important for parents to emphasize the fact that differences are totally fine.

When Thunell was a nanny and a child asked why her belly was bigger than their mom's, she used her go-to explanation: "'All bodies are different and this one's mine.' And then we end up playing a game where they bounce off my belly."

Whether a child's comment is about a person's weight or disability in public, Lori Fishman Psy.D., a child and adolescent psychologist in Massachusetts, also suggests pointing out that it's not polite or kind to comment on people's bodies. "You can then talk about it privately at home if there are questions, and explain further that everybody's body is different—different colors, different shapes, different sizes, different abilities."

Encourage Kids to Focus on Attributes

It's best to teach kids to avoid commenting on a person's appearance at all—even if it's meant to be complimentary, says Dr. Fishman. "That girl is so pretty," "She's so tall," or "She's so skinny," can still have a negative impact on a child's confidence. "We should teach them to instead focus on attributes like smart, funny, talented, brave, and hard-working."

Use Comments Said to You as a Teaching Moment

During a typical evening in our household, my kids, 3 and 7 years old, were running around me with more energy than they had throughout the day. I begged them to get undressed for their bath while peeling off my own shirt so that I could put on my pajamas. My 7-year-old daughter stopped, eye level with my belly button, and said with a hint of contempt, "Your stomach is fat." I laughed and said, "Yes, it is." But there was so much more that I wanted to say. I wanted to remind her that I grew two babies in my belly, and that I loved my belly. But I didn't say more because I was, in fact, trying to accept my new body and still had a long way to go.

Dr. Fishman says that as hard as it might be, as a parent, your response should be as matter-of-fact as possible. Instead of responding emotionally, simply confirming that all bodies are different makes the conversation more educational. "You're not trying to shame your child for noticing differences," says Dr. Fishman, "but you can also let the child know [their comments] can hurt other people's feelings."

Lead by Example

Parents are faced with the often-endless task of doing and saying the right thing. Making this endeavor even more difficult is learning to dissect our own feelings. I know that it's harmful to talk about my body in front of my daughters in a negative way. I would never look at myself in the mirror and say "Ugh, I'm so fat." I know that I should love my body for its strength, power, and all that it has accomplished, no matter what my jeans size. But it's not that simple. We all, despite our best intentions, battle inherent self-image issues from time to time.

Katie Beane-Lewis, a mother and yoga instructor outside of Portland, Maine, says "If I can celebrate my mama body for all of the ways it serves me, then my children will be much more likely to see and celebrate all that is good in their own bodies, and in the many different bodies they see in the world."

Dr. Fishman encourages parents to also pay close attention to the ways they comment about others in front of their children. "I walk around with my teenage daughter and catch myself saying things like, 'I wish I could wear that.' So I'm always self-correcting because my doing that is highlighting a standard."

The Bottom Line

As parents we carry so much responsibility while also navigating our own internal voice, all while trying to teach our children about the world. Kids may throw us off guard with no-filter comments, but we should always lean into that curiosity and use it as an opportunity for growth and to teach them that people have different bodies and one isn't better than the other.

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