I didn’t used to know if kids actually embarrassed their parents by saying super inappropriate things in public, or if that only happened on TV.
I thought maybe it just was a convenient comedy device, like kids wearing off-center baseball caps and scrawling backwards letters on their lemonade stand signs as they learned the value of a dollar. Or running away from home carrying all their jacks and marbles tied up in a red bandana on a stick.
Maybe I’m getting modern kids confused with kids from the 1930’s, I don’t know.
But after our family’s last trip to the zoo, I DO know the public embarrassment deal isn’t just a sitcom gag.
And I’m not talking about public tantrums, either. Yes, those can be embarrassing, but on some level everyone knows toddlers have tantrums, so it isn’t all that shocking when it happens.
No, I’m talking about the blood-freezing, chest-locking public humiliation that can happen when the planets line up just so to make your painfully honest, naive toddler shout out just the wrong thing at just the wrong time. It doesn’t help that toddlers have intermediate language skills, at best.
Let me tell you what happened…
We had been walking all day at the Sacramento Zoo, following our hyperactive kids as they darted from one animal to another through a mass of crowds. It was HOT and we were tired.
Even the kids were winding down by this point. It was nearly 100 degrees and the crowds were feeling it, getting touchier by the second. Our four-year-old daughter Brontë was frustrated by her inability to find cheetahs and her baby sister kept trying to eat popcorn off the ground.
Pushing on, we suddenly saw a beautiful oasis off to the side: a koi pond with Japanese statues surrounded by gardens and stone benches. My husband and I rushed over to rest on the benches while Brontë and her two-year-old sister Bridget ran up to the pond.
Awesome, we can sit.
There was a large family to our left. They appeared to be Mexican. There was a black family to the right. Both families included kids, which was great because Brontë LOVES to introduce herself to new kids and try to make friends with them. I figured she would start talking to the kids and end up playing with them for a while, so John and I could take a nice long break.
But that was not to be.
Instead, Brontë stared at the pond for a minute before bunching her little eyebrows up in a ball. She turned to me before saying, “Mom? There’s orange fish and brown fish and I DON’T LIKE BROWN FISH.”
I got up from the bench and walked over to her. Maybe being next to her would help keep her volume down.
“Brown fish are okay,” I said. “Brown fish and orange fish are BOTH nice.”
Brontë gave me a hard look, angry that I didn’t seem to get it.
“NO, mama,” she said, with rising volume. “I like orange fish. Or white fish. I DON’T LIKE BROWN! WHITE IS BETTER!”
OMG… My face gets hot as my eyes dart side to side. I’m wondering why my daughter is saying these things and am suddenly painfully aware of everyone tan in our vicinity.
Brontë looks at me dead in the eye, throws back her head, and screams, “BROWN IS UGLY!”
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH, for the love of all that’s holy, child, SHUT THE HELL UP!
I had no idea where this came from and was beginning to panic. But it felt like if I got all flustered, telling her to be quiet, it would make me look REALLY GUILTY. Like everyone hearing it would assume she’s just repeating stuff she’s heard at home.
Not sure of the best way to handle it, I tried turning her around on the whole issue of brown.
“Brown isn’t ugly,” I told her. “LOTS of thing you love are brown. Chocolate is brown. Cinnamon is brown. Deer and horses and big beautiful eyes are sometimes brown. Brown is beautiful too.”
I was talking aimlessly, but was so mortified by my toddler’s sudden public screamfest about white superiority that I didn’t know WHAT to do.
Where did this come from? After Brontë spent two weeks crying about not being “pretty enough” because her hair isn’t blonde like Rapunzel’s in Tangled, I made such a huge point of teaching her why Aryan blondeness isn’t the only way. How could she say these things after her special moment with Princess Tiana in Disneyland?
After I ramble on about brown beauty for a while, Brontë looks me dead in the eye, throws her head back, and screams:
GRANDMA SAYS BROWN IS UGLY AND SHE HATES BROWN FISH AND WHITE IS BETTER AND GRANDMA THINKS WHITE IS BETTER AND WHITE FISH ARE BETTER THAN BROWN!”
The Mexican mom looks at me sideways as I fantasize about the Earth swallowing me whole.
Great. Now everyone thinks my daughter has a racist grandma and God knows what we’ve been telling her on the side.
I took some time to ask Brontë how grandma feels about brown fish and white ones as I grabbed her hand and made a speedy exit.
Later, I tried to figure out the best way to broach the subject with my folks.
I didn’t want to straight up ask them, “So, have you been saying racist sh*t around my kids?” Because that would be really offensive and unwarranted, considering everything I know about my folks.
BUT, the next time we had dinner with my parents, I planned to raise the subject when the moment was right.
My dad had invited us over for ribs, which was awesome because he’s really good at cooking ribs. We had all eaten not just babyback but St. Louis too, all had a beer or three, and the kids had run off to play with a bevy of Barbie dolls. Everyone was relaxed and the time seemed possibly right…
I tried to think about how to bring it up without sounding like I was pointing fingers.
“So, umm…” I started. “We were at the zoo and were hanging out at the koi pond and Brontë, out of nowhere, starts talking about how much she hates brown fish and how white fish are better…”
I try to relay the story as best I could, ending with how Brontë shouted about grandma thinking brown was bad. Didn’t want to insult my parents, of course, but sometimes 60’s sensibilities aren’t the same as modern day.
“Ohhhhhh…” Dad started. “Well, we have the koi pond out front, and the filter was on the fritz.”
“So the pond wasn’t getting cleaned and a brown film was building up. Maybe we said something about the white fish turning brown and how it was ugly and we needed to fix it.”
Ahhh. It was all starting to make sense…
Still, the things that come out of your mouth that your children end up repeating with their limited understanding and even more limited tact…
I was happy the explanation ended up being reasonable, but still…Parenting is nothing if not boot camp for control issues and sensitivity. There comes a point when your kid has crapped or screamed or thrown things enough in public that you finally start building a thicker skin.
This was not one of those times.
But it’s still early. I have no idea what’s still in store for me. I’ve already braved my child screaming what sounded like racist rants in public, so there’s no telling what’s coming next.
What about you? Has your kid embarrassed you in public, or are they the quietly-coloring type that I always see on TV? 🙂