I was accompanying my 4-year-old son into the bathroom where there happened to be a very large individual. At the sight of him, my son proceeded to say (very loudly), "Daddy, that man is really fat!" as the man was closing the door of the stall. Needless to say, I was more than embarrassed and felt absolutely terrible for the situation. I proceeded to tell my son that it's not acceptable to say certain things out loud and it could hurt peoples feelings, etc... but I am unsure if the man heard us talking.

As we were returning to our table in the restaurant we saw the man return to his table with his family or friends. I was ready to take my son over to have him personally apologize to the man, but I started to worry that this might make him (the man) feel worse. In the end, we did nothing, but I somewhat regret it at this point.

In this situation, is it appropriate to have my child apologize, or would that be more likely to (further?) embarrass that individual, possibly in front of other people at his table?

I wanted to add that I considered asking this question on the parenting exchange, but believe this is the proper place for it because I am more concerned about if, and how to approach it with the individual, rather than how to address it with my child.

  • 86
    My son (about 4) was with his father at the gym, changing. The obese man next to them was naked, having taken a shower. My son kept trying to say something: "Daddy, that man has a really big-" at which point, my husband's hand would cover his mouth. This happened three or four times, when the man said, "Go ahead, let him say it. It's ok." My son started over. "Daddy, that man has a really big penis!" To which the man replied, "Thanks, kid!" True story. He had never been taught not to comment on the size of one's stomach or privates yet. – anongoodnurse Sep 19 '17 at 20:35
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    I thought there is a movement against body shaming underway, especially in the U.S. 20 years ago it would have been an insult to call somebody gay; today, not any more, at least not in a large city. Is it indeed still insulting to call somebody fat? "I'm gay and that's good so" is what our Berlin mayor said after he was elected; I'm looking forward to people saying "I'm fat and that's good so" as well. – Peter A. Schneider Sep 20 '17 at 8:12
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    What's wrong with being fat? – axsvl77 Sep 20 '17 at 17:49
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    @axsvl77 Well, it's usually not healthy... – user45623 Sep 21 '17 at 11:23
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    @axsvl77 in terms of health? A bit. Obesity (i.e. not just a little chub) is linked to all sorts of nasty things. Then again, that doesn't make being fat morally wrong, in the same way that smoking isn't morally wrong. – Nic Hartley Sep 21 '17 at 13:20

11 Answers 11


Ooohhh, so recognizable! I've been overweight for at least 10 years, the last 6 I'm hitting a BMI of obese. I've worked in a shop, as a cashier. I've twice had little children call me fat, in such a way that is was audible for both me and their parent. They were always in the age range of 4/5 years.

I never felt an apology was really necessary. What I liked most, is that both times the children's parents immediately told them that 'it is not nice to call people fat!" and explained why. They did so where I could hear.

Both kids looked really confused.

It was the parents that were really embarrassed. The children were very proud. They had just learned the difference between lean and fat persons, and they were able to point out such an obviously fat person to their mom/dad, to show how smart they were!

I think that if you are unsure if the man heard you, audibly telling your kid to not call people fat is enough. Explaining why it is bad to do so is also good. I loved to hear the parents explain that

"not all people chose to be fat, sometimes being fat makes them really sad because they would prefer to be healthy and lean, so it is not nice to say out loud that people are fat".

If your kid understands this, and you're sure that the person heard your kid call them fat, having them offer an apology is good. It teaches them good behaviors that certainly come in handy later.

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    +1 I like & upvote! "The children were very proud. They had just learned the difference between lean and fat persons, and they were able to point out such an obviously fat person (...)" -- yes indeed that's the innocent reason, and parents should take these opportunities to educate their children not to use certain adjectives which have become negative due to social expectations of 'healthy lifestyle' and 'perfect figure' -- crucial too that the mother had the good sense to inform her infant that not all persons choose to be fat or anything else, which is a valuable life lesson for children. – English Student Sep 19 '17 at 16:37
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    This is a good outlook. Personally, I believe that (most) children don't actively try to be hurtful. They are raw curiosity and honesty, with no filter. Sometimes that leads to awkward situations. The tough part, as a parent, is refining the filter while maintaining the better parts of a child's behavior. – Mage Xy Sep 19 '17 at 19:35
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    I guess a better lesson than to not call someone fat would be to say that no one likes to be singled out, pointed at, and being labelled with any category they may or may not embrace for themselves. – Felix Dombek Sep 19 '17 at 23:13
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    @EnglishStudent actually... being overweight is (very very often) something you can choose do something about. Whether you are are twenty pounds overweight or 200 pounds you can take action, you can make that important decision to improve your health. On the other hand, being very short, having a large nose or severe psoriasis is not something you choose. And young children (and rude adults) will either stare or (sometimes) exclaim in amazement the physical "imperfection" they are witnessing at that moment. – user3114 Sep 20 '17 at 6:17
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    @Mari-LouA: It doesn't matter whether it is a choice or not. What matters is that another person's weight is none of your business. – gnasher729 Sep 22 '17 at 22:46

There's a reason why the following proverb is popular

Out of the mouths of babes (oft times come gems)

It means that young children will blurt out the truth. It is not the child's fault, he saw a very large man and innocently pointed him out. And I'm sure the large man is perfectly aware of being "fat".

But as a parent, you have the responsibility to explain that words hurt. And words soon become taunts. And taunts can become bullying. And bullying can lead to inflicting physical and psychological pain and suffering.

Next time, at home, explain this to your child calmly. Give your son examples of when his feelings were hurt, and tell him that large man probably had his feelings hurt hundreds of times.

It would have been good manners if you and your son had approached the gentleman when you met him the second time and said

Tom would like to say he's sorry for what he said. Please accept our apologies.

But you shouldn't beat yourself up over this missed occasion. The moment presented itself but you sensed that the gentleman would either be embarrassed or offended. And you might have been right.

And maybe, just maybe, he's quite happy with who he is and with his weight.

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    +1 for emphasizing that whether or not the child was correct in what he said, he was wrong to say it at all, in addition to in that time/place/manner. I also like the part about our apologies-- a 4-year old may not know any better, but a parent has at least some responsibility for how his or her children act in public. – Upper_Case Sep 19 '17 at 16:11
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    Loved the part about how innocent words from a 4 year old can transform into something much worse. Beautiful answer. – Crazy Cucumber Sep 19 '17 at 17:00
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    I initially read: "Out of the mouths of babes (oft times come germs)" and thought... true, but not sure how that's relevant – Dancrumb Sep 19 '17 at 19:30
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    At the same time, teaching not to say something perceived as true ... is a lesson in lying, especially towards someone that might not yet understand the difference. – rackandboneman Sep 20 '17 at 7:54
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    @pacholik bullying is very real, and the phenomenon usually begins in childhood. A child teases another because they are "different" in some way. It could be the colour of their skin, the shape of their nose, their height or their accent. In brief, a person can be made fun of for anything. And this very often begins at school. The 4-year-old was not teasing the overweight man, but as a parent, I would teach my child that words do hurt feelings. Why I would teach that is explained in the rest of the answer. – user3114 Sep 21 '17 at 7:01

I will be that guy right now, and risk all the downvotes.

If the truth offends me, then that is my problem. If the truth offends you, then that is your problem.

In this case, the child is only speaking the truth. "That man is fat". Depending on tone of voice there is no implicit accusation, judgment or condemnation in this statement. These could easily be imparted by the person being talked about. An overweight individual can take offense at a lingering gaze, even if you are looking because they remind you of a relative or friend.

In this case, the person who may have been offended would be self-conscious and highly critical of their own body. I recognize that body weight may be out of their control if it is the result of their genetics or a medical condition. On the other hand, it could also be a result of their lifestyle. Either way, it is still their problem if they take offense where none is offered. Also, as others have pointed out the individual is well aware of their own weight.

Maybe, like the Emperor being told he has no clothes, someone who is told they are fat will decide to make a few changes to better himself. There are a multitude of serious health concerns caused by and / or exacerbated by being overweight. It is not easy to lose weight, it takes work. It might take medicine or surgery. It is worth it though.

I would feel no embarrassment or inclination to apologize on behalf of a child's innocent remark. That said, it is still a good idea to teach children to be tactful when talking about others, and to know when to keep a thought or observation to yourself. Regardless of whether they can hear you or not. They will probably live longer that way.

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    As a fat person, I can tell you that we all know what we are. If I don't take my doctor's advice to lose weight, a little kid pointing it out won't make a difference, either. Just because something is true it doesn't make it appropriate to say out loud -- there are rules of propriety. Would you say the same thing if the statement had been that someone is ugly? – Barmar Sep 21 '17 at 16:20
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    @Barmar isn't that the difference between objective and subjective? – the_lotus Sep 22 '17 at 11:43
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    @Barmar the difference being that (admittedly with some very small number of exceptions) one has far less control over being ugly than one has over being fat. – Cronax Sep 25 '17 at 8:50
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    I'm saddened that this got so many upvotes. "Truth" is such a poor excuse to hide insults behind. Decent people don't call someone a "faggot" just because they are gay, and it doesn't matter one bit if it's true. There are nice words and not so nice words. If you use "fat" to describe a person it's a not so nice word. It's important for kids to learn the difference. – Peter Sep 25 '17 at 8:50
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    @Cornax Your statement is false. Both appearance and weight can be influenced by outside means, and neither can be fully controlled by everyone. – Peter Sep 25 '17 at 8:52

No, you shouldn't force the child to apologize, for two reasons. First, the child doesn't know that they have done anything wrong, and they have no reason to know. You may not have taught them that it can be rude to say such observations yet, and they have no idea which observations are rude. To the child, calling someone fat isn't much different from calling someone tall or pretty. They don't realize that "fat" is an insult until they get older.

Second, obesity is an objectively measurable thing, and it's not a desirable quality - no matter what justifications some people may try to make. Health is a desirable quality. It's a bit like smell; If someone smelled horrible, you'd probably move your kid away from them without a second thought. And it's easy (especially for a kid) to avoid becoming fat; the hard part is losing weight after being fat. You do want your kid to understand that a healthy, active lifestyle with a good diet is desirable (it really is better in every way), and you shouldn't contradict that by pretending that obesity is equal to that. I'm certain that some people are offended by this paragraph, but the point is that you shouldn't teach your child a dishonest contradiction.

The lesson that you want to teach your kid is that people don't like to be reminded of their flaws. That's a more complicated concept, but it's the correct one and your kid will be wiser by understanding it. It will help them learn empathy and Theory Of Mind which allows them to consider how the other person would feel. That's what makes humans intelligent; not a complex set of contradictory rules over what we should say and think.

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    “it’s not a desirable quality” doesn’t address the complex problem behind obesity. There are choices, of course, but they are often limited by the price and availability of a healthy diet (or better: the lower price and better availability of more unhealthy diets), access to health information, a good standing of such priorities in your family/community and so on. I worked some time in bariatric surgery. There were even adult patients who had to eat “as punishment” in their childhood. None of them wanted to be fat. Your kid is lucky that you care. Others don’t or can’t. – lejonet Sep 20 '17 at 7:01
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    @lejonet, are you seriuos? Where is "rice with some vegetables and a glass of water" more expensive than "fries with hamburger soaked in oil and a bottle of soda"? – Hans Janssen Sep 20 '17 at 9:18
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    @Geliormth Most inner-cities. I can go to McDonalds and get the burger meal you described for under five dollars. – user3306 Sep 20 '17 at 15:13
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    @Geliormth Your understanding of what food options are available to what people--and who has time to cook--is limited. Not everyone has the same life you do. – user3306 Sep 20 '17 at 17:13
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    @thumbtackthief, it takes 10-15 minutes. If that is too much to get healthy food then going for the unhealthy food everyday is a choice they make themselves, not one they can't escape. Unless you die from starvation if you don't work for 19 hours a day. I'm still not convinced that there are people who only have access to unhealthy food. – Hans Janssen Sep 21 '17 at 6:35

I'm not sure forcing a child to apologize is useful, the person probably knows it isn't sincere and it just draws more attention to them.

I would (and have) corrected my child and apologized myself to the person potentially offended, which was sincere, because the fault is mine: "I apologize, she is still learning she isn't the only person with feelings."

It ends the scene without taking up their time or embarrassing them further, accepts the blame, and lets us walk away.

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    +1 Instead of telling them to apologize, teach them how and when to apologize by acting as an example when appropriate. – Peter Sep 25 '17 at 8:56

I have a couple of slightly unusual features little children have commented on at different times.

They have not done it to hurt my feelings -- what they said was true and they are just saying what they see. I usually just smile; sometimes I agree with them (like "Yes I do have a big head. Look how big my hat is! It's like a big bucket. It took me a very long time to find a hat this big.")

Personally I'd feel much worse if the child was made to apologize than if they were not. I am very grateful that hasn't happened to me. Sometimes the parent has briefly apologized; I don't really see the need for it myself, but it's meant well so I just smile and say don't worry, it's fine.

An older child should probably know better - say a 5 or 6 year old will have learned the ropes - but one considerably younger will not.

I'd say if the child is going to understand, explain that people might feel bad if you point out things that make them unusual. If the person seems bothered, then maybe apologize yourself but I wouldn't make a huge deal -- that could be more embarrassing.

  • At this point the situation is done and over, but I would imagine similar situations are going to arise here and there (if not me, than someone else), which is why I asked the question here in the first place. Regarding what I had previously chosen to do, you answered this perfectly and gave me reassurance that I hopefully did the right thing! – T James Sep 21 '17 at 15:04
  • Indeed, yes, my intent was to mostly think about the situation more generally (what might we do when this sort of thing happens) – Glen_b Sep 21 '17 at 20:26

I would (and have) just addressed it in the moment. I do not think it is necessary to apologize separately (although we have had those moments too).

This is a great age to sit down now and talk about observations. We can look at things online, on TV, books, talk about those observations. Then we can talk about how it is not something we need to blurt out every time we have one when out and about. Believe me, you want to do this. I was trying on bathing suits when a small child with me felt the need to inform me my butt was "lumpy" very loudly, so that everyone heard. If they do it to strangers, it's just a matter of time before they find something about you to blurt out at a bad time. And they can make it sound much worse than it is. At the time this was said, I was very thin, working out 5 days a week, and no one other than a small kid would have referred to my rump as "lumpy". I was still new enough to parenting to be mortified. Today I'd likely laugh - and then talk about it later.

So the thing I focus on at 4 is reminding them we don't talk to other people about their bodies. It's a flat no. The reason is, it's a good policy for life. There is no reason to comment on other people's clothing, hair, shape, etc. It's just not something that will enrich anyone's life and it's a lesson that is good to learn sooner than later. They are free to compliment people, but that is the only thing they are supposed to say out loud. If they must say something, they are told to tell me it's a secret and whisper it to me, then I can tell them whether that is okay to say aloud or not.

To give you an idea why this is good (over a number of children these are real things I had happen when out)... "Hey lady you got a baby in your belly? It's going to come out your vagina, but don't worry, it's okay, that is why it's there. It's a baby hole" (said right after the birth of a new sibling). "Oh you have boobs! I love boobies. I bet you have a vagina too!", "If you are so old why don't you just go lay down. You look too old to be walking around." Sometimes they also but into polite conversations. While someone was asking me how I am adjusting to 2 kids, my 3 year old piped up and said "She is doing AWESOME but her hemorrhoids are still a BIG PROBLEM". (I think this is about the time I actually relocated in witness protection LOL). There is more and more and more. BUT, it will ease, and teaching helps.

It really is just like please and thank you. It takes children time to learn rules of etiquette, what you should say and what is expected in public, etc. One of the sentences I have uttered more than any other is "mind your own business" as children seem to naturally tend to minding everyone else's business as far as I have observed. I also think many parents seem to miss really teaching this as I still see far too many adults that never learned how to mind their own either.


Young children speak their minds, and it is well known that children's honesty crosses social boundaries they are not aware of yet.

The issue is whether or not you want young children to learn to be able to express what they feel. Beyond that, the issue is what aspect of their expression you want to curtail or train.

I think obesity is generally an issue of personal responsibility and allowing very young children to point out obesity is of general benefit. It is precisely the same as young children pointing out that a smoker smells bad. For me personally, the issue would not be the young child pointing out the person is fat or a smoker, but referring to the subject indirectly. Saying "that man" is rude. It is just as rude as saying "Look, that man has a red shirt," when the person can hear you. What the child needs to learn, is that the person is aware of what they are saying, and that referring to that person in that way is a casual objectification.

At a very young age however, this cannot be taught. It is to do with developing brain connections and the ability to empathise, and all adults, fat, smokers or otherwise, should know and tolerate this.

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    Very true, but I feel as though we are in an era where being morbidly obese should be accepted as completely normal and calling that individual anything other than normal is considered "fat shaming". – T James Sep 20 '17 at 15:31
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    @EnglishStudent You can replace "offended by" with "hurt by" and realize it's not always a choice we have the power to make. Being thoughtful costs nothing and is a good thing to teach children. – user3306 Sep 20 '17 at 17:15
  • It needs good sense from both ends, @thumbtackthief: as in, we must learn not to be offended or hurt by what infants say, and parents must certainly take these opportunities to teach their children not to make reckless or hurtful comments. – English Student Sep 20 '17 at 21:38
  • @TJames I hope that comment was sarcastically pointing out how society is going, not stating your current opinion. – user403 Sep 22 '17 at 5:06
  • @ immibis My comment was about society as a whole, and I do not agree with it, but I feel as though society is trying to glorify being overweight (oversize models, plenty of online posts about how being fat is beautiful, criticism to certain Disney movies being accused of fat shaming, etc..) – T James Sep 22 '17 at 15:01

Your child did something that was wrong (very rude), but didn't know any better. Being forced to apologise has the negative effect that your child will see it as an unfair punishment, and on top of that you amplify the rudeness by drawing even more attention to it, plus you force a strange to be witness and cause of that unfair punishment.

If it was me who was called fat, and I had to watch your child being forced to apologise, I'd want to tell you off for creating that situation, but would have to stop myself because I wouldn't do this with a child witnessing it.

The correct way is to tell your child as soon after as possible, in a safe place, that what they did was wrong, that it was rude, and that being rude is hurtful, but also can get you into trouble.

  • Would you feel the same if it was ME that offered an apology, rather than my child? – T James Sep 21 '17 at 14:58
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    @TJames : No. Not unless you did something wrong, like become aware of the situation and ignore it (allowing it to continue) when you knew better. Better to help me forget it about, rather than disrupt me further with an apology from someone who intended no harm. -- signed, a very visibly overweight man – TOOGAM Sep 24 '17 at 0:56

No, you should not.

The child spoke the truth, and teaching it to hide the truth while at the same time trying to teach it that it should not lie and be honest and such will result in an internal conflict that a small child cannot yet resolve.

The subtlety of communicating truthfully but in a manner that isn't rude or disrespectful is not adequate for a 4 year old. This will have to wait for some more years.

Also keep in mind that the target of the remark is potentially used to much worse comments, and from adults. People in general don't run out crying because a child said something. They understand that children are children and that's it.

Personal remark: I wouldn't teach my child that this was wrong at any age. If a person is fat, he is fat, that's a fact. If he can't stand being called fat, he should eat less. If he's fat due to a medical condition (the 1% that everyone thinks they belong to) then it is still true that he's fat, it just isn't his fault and he has no reason to feel bad about it. We have become to oversensitive to rudeness, and ironically this has made it much easier for bullies to exist, because people don't confront them anymore.

  • Thank you for the response. I love your point about people being oversensitive to this kind of stuff. Very true. Your answer has the tone that a child cannot really comprehend such a situation. This may be true, but I should have amended my questions with - is ANY apology necessary, even if it is given by me? Does this change the situation at all? – T James Sep 21 '17 at 14:57
  • Again, your child did nothing wrong, so what is there to apologise for? If you want to apologise for a kid behaving like a kid, you will be very, very busy for the next years. – Tom Sep 21 '17 at 21:30
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    Tom, among the worst people are those who claim to be "honest" when what they actually want is to be rude and hurtful, preferably without a comeback. If someone other than my doctor or my wife says "you should lose weight", then the answer is "and you should learn to keep your opinions to yourself". – gnasher729 Sep 21 '17 at 23:00
  • @gnasher729 note that the child did not address the man directly. It stated an observation to its parent. – Tom Apr 3 '18 at 11:12

You should have made your son to apologize him had the guy been alone on the table at the restaurant. Because apology in public for the mistake in private would have made aware other people about the incident of calling him fat which could make him embarrassed more. Even if you wanted to make your son apologize, it should have been done in private. Also, your son could have apologized in public had he called him fat publicly.

  • Make apology in private for the mistakes committed in private.
  • Make apology in public for the mistakes committed in public.

protected by NVZ Sep 21 '17 at 7:00

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