A little “foot in my mouth” story for you. Every time my daughter steps onto the mat at her Tae Kwon Doe class they have to say the word of the month.
Last month it was “Communication”.
So I sat and watched 7 toddlers huddle around the instructor as he lectured them on what the word means.
“What’s communication mean?” he asked.
“Talking to people,” the kids answered.
“What makes good communication,” he asked.
“Listening!” they all joyfully shouted out at once.
“OK, listening. What else?” he asked.
“Looking people in the eye,” they exclaimed, each trying to answer before the other.
I marveled as I sat there and thought, how can a group of kids get this but so many of us have a hard time?
We can learn a lot from watching kids. Each week, I quietly observe, watching the four and five year olds in their element. A few things that stand out.
- They aren’t afraid to stare.
- Their expression and body language says it all.
- There is very little filter as to what comes out of their mouth.
Then one day I had one of those moments where a parent gets caught off guard. We were one of the first ones there, only one other student had arrived. An Indian girl and her father. The room was very quiet and the two girls came within inches of one another and smiled at one another. Then came the question; “Daddy why is she so dark?”
It was like a movie. Everything stopped and the camera zoomed in on my face in a tight close up. My heart rate increased. I must’ve misunderstood. This isn’t happening. My daughter didn’t just ask me why the girl’s skin was so dark. (palm banging against my ear) CAN’T BE!
A million synopses began scuttling around in my brain. Time comes to a slow motion stand still. “Hurry and think of a good answer DAD!”, I say to myself. Seconds felt like hours.
What is the right answer? Where is my rule book? You know, the parental reference guide on this situation?
I quickly went down to one knee, to get on their level, composed myself with a deep breath and looked back up at the girl’s dad and asked “Do you mind if I use this as a teaching moment?”
Of course he agreed, almost with a smirk of intrigue, as to say “Let’s see how he explains this one!”
“Ella you remember that book we read about the duck flying around the world to all the different countries right? She’s from India. Their skin is just a little darker over there.”
Boom! Got it. Whew! I’m in the clear. The Dad smiles, the girls smile and the moment of distress and meltdown passes right?
Couldn’t let myself get off that easy.
As the girls make their way onto the mat, I look at the Dad and verbal vomit all over myself.
“You know, my best friend in high school was Indian….”
WHAT!!! I thought to myself… What did you just say?
The internal dialogue was at a furious pace now…
You really didn’t say that did you?
You went with that? WHY?
Why? You were in the clear!
Just walk away David.
As if it wasn’t bad enough, I doubled down and really put my foot in my mouth.
“I love Indian food. I like the spices.”
Whoa. Now the only thing left for me to do was make a hee-haw sound and show my teeth like an actual jackass.
As you can imagine for the rest of the day, I contemplated this conversation in my head. What was I thinking? I’m not that guy. It was like an episode of Seinfeld and I was George Costanza.
Here’s the lesson.
I should’ve just learned from the children. Sometimes we put too much thought into things. We process things though this politically correct filter we think is supposed to exist instead of just thinking like a kid and being completely honest and natural.
As adults many of us think five steps ahead instead of just being completely real. When we communicate we draw on life. The “what ifs?”
As in this case, “What if this guy thinks I never exposed my daughter to anybody from a different culture, or different race?”
When in reality the day before my daughter was sitting on the lap of an African American woman who was visiting our house. The whole time she never had any questions. At four, they are curious and everything is a why? “Why this. Why that?” But nope, she didn’t see any color that day for some reason. When I asked her why she did one day and not the next she gave a kid answer “well, this girl was my size so I was curious”. Simple, no filter, that’s really how her brain worked.
Innocence is the best excuse for reality. Think about it. To a four year old, that’s a normal question. She doesn’t watch the news. She hasn’t seen any movies. She knows nothing of being politically correct or how to phrase a curious question in any other manner than being 100% direct.
Wow. What a novel concept.
You mean speaking in codes isn’t the best way to communicate? Meandering around the issue isn’t the most effective?
Of course as we get older, we become influenced by, dare I say etiquette? Surely that’s not the term. Political correctness? Na, that’s not it either. We just are taught by society that its not right to be completely blunt and honest. Fear we may hurt somebody’s feelings. Or as the listener, take it the wrong way.
But it’s a visual observation.
The same way if an adult saw somebody with hair to the ground and asked “Why have you grown your hair so long?”
Obviously there is a story. Kids are only being curious, learning, looking for answers.
What about somebody with an earing in their nose or a tattoo on their arm. Pretty obvious they didn’t put it their to be ignored. So why would most people be afraid to ask?
Skin tone is not a choice, but it is a fact of life. In terms of our DNA, we’re all 99.9% identical.
Communication is the key. The tone with which you ask your question. The body language and facial expression. We’ve all known those people who could ask anything and get away with it no matter how direct and forward, simply because their tone, body language and facial expression were pleasant and non confronting. We’ve also known those who are the opposite. If they asked you for directions you’d cover your purse and scowl at them.
Being “real” as they say is a utopia. Think of all the crap we could cut away if we didn’t have all the garbage floating around in our heads. Imagine a world where would couldn’t tell a lie (Jim Carey’s movie Liar, Liar) or said exactly how we feel. It would be completely awkward at first but then it’d become normal.