My children have an uncanny knack for embarrassing me lately. As much as we discuss that the world is a big place with lots of different people, and as many times as we have the discussion that sometimes it hurts feelings to have someone point out how a person is different. . .my children are still little, and sometimes apparently just can't help themselves from being inquisitive.
So, while in an elevator last week with a woman in a motorized wheelchair, Miss M asked me quite loudly why the woman was in that type of chair. In fact, it was quite an advanced motorized wheelchair, and a type Miss M had surely not seen before, so I understand why she asked about it. It intrigued her. But I'm never sure quite what to say in the situation. My standard lines are "because that's how god made her," (even though we are not particularly religious--she attended Catholic school, so it is familiar concept to her), and "she's like grandpa" (because her grandfather has a significant birth defect, and she's familiar with the concept of people being born different--which is also where I found the "because that's how god made her" line, as it's one I've heard him use). In this case, in response to uncomfortable followup questions, I think I also said "because she needs a bit of extra help," and Miss M of course followed up with "what does the chair do." The woman and her companion were obviously a bit uncomfortable, but when the elevator doors mercifully opened, the woman said "it goes really fast," and grinned and sped off. It was a nice moment, and a good opportunity for us to (again) discuss that it would be better if she asked me her questions about a person's differences outside of the presence of the person.
Which she promptly forgot.
Today, while at the grocery store, there was an African-American man with uneven pigmentation on his hands. Parts of his hands had almost no pigmentation, and parts of his hands were dark brown. It was fairly distinctive, and immediately drew Miss M's attention. "Why are his hands like that?" she asked, within earshot. "Because that's the way god made him," I replied. But before I could pat myself on the back for the smooth transition away from the subject, she said "I think he used to be white." I was mortified. The man thankfully started laughing, and turned to tell the woman next to him what she had said. I think we were out of earshot before she made the next comment. "Maybe he's just dirty," she said. Dear lord! It was a hot mess of childhood innocence. We had a conversation about skin color and melanin on the way to the car. I'm actually surprised it had not come up before, given that her school, this city, and our friends are very diverse.
So, I continue to search for the perfect lines to use when my children blurt out uncomfortable questions about strangers. I'm mostly focused on making the other person less uncomfortable. What do you say to manage such a situation? And what conversation can I have with my children that will stay with them so that they hold their questions until a more appropriate time?