When a kid calls a stranger 'The Fat One'

It's a dad's nightmare, but it's also a joy to observe the innocence

Recently, my two sons and I spent a highly enjoyable afternoon at my friend's housewarming. They splashed in the pool, ate hotdogs and played hours of Pokemon cards with my buddies.

And my 30something mates had a blast too, perhaps tapping into the childlike fun that still lurks somewhere inside all of us adults, buried deep beneath mortgage repayments and annual KPI evaluations.

On the drive home, I asked my four-year-old son Ciaran: "Which of the uncles did you like playing with the most?"

He paused for a beat and then replied: "I like the skinny one and the black one."

I spluttered on the mineral water I had just sipped. I had to concede that, yes, my friend Nikhil is indeed a dark-skinned Indian gentleman and my friend Yash can certainly be described as a noticeably slim individual.

"Ciaran! You can't call people The Black One!" gasped the uncomfortable dad.

"But I don't know their names," the offspring responded, the perfect picture of childhood innocence.

I recently saw a parenting video on YouTube, in which obviously different children (among them, one was Caucasian, another was Asian) were asked: "What's the difference between you two?"

Their adorable answers were gems such as "He likes Ben 10, but I like Slugterra" or "She eats ketchup with her fries, but I hate ketchup".

These kids, just like my son Ciaran, are wonderfully colour-blind and, on occasion, bluntly racialist all at the same time. What heavenly cherubs.

So, back to the car ride with Ciaran firing out labels like a Trump adviser…

I began my meandering explanation to my Bambi-eyed son on why we cannot call people the black one, the skinny one, the ugly one or the short one.

We should try to call people by their names and not identify them by their physical appearance. Go ahead. You try fluently explaining these concepts to a young child. It's not easy.

And how is a child supposed to grasp the linguistic subtleties of "slender" over "skinny", "distinguished" rather than "old", and "prosperous" being better than "fat"?

Actually, "prosperous" is still a no-no as anyone who has been accosted by a rude auntie at Chinese New Year will tell you - "Wah, you very prosperous hor."

All of us except those kaypoh aunties at CNY know that you shouldn't call someone fat, but how can you justify this to your child? What's wrong with someone being fat? Aren't we all wonderfully made, unique creations with a beautiful soul inside and out?

I've even caught myself telling my boys: "Make sure you don't call people fat, especially women."

What's up with that? Is it okay for men to proudly drum on their pot belly like a bongo champion, but women are forced into a higher standard of physical presentation?

Unfortunately, this pearl of wisdom from Daddy Shan came swiftly after a mortifying elevator ride, when my toddler pointed at our neighbour from upstairs and declared: "Why is your tummy so big, is there a baby inside?"

Kill me now, I thought.

Elevator embarrassment raised its ugly head again when my kid once asked the old uncle from two floors down: "Why is your face so old?"

Again, more and more headaches for long-suffering Instructor Dad: If I tell my son not to call people "old", am I then implanting the belief that being old is bad and undesirable?

Surely we are supposed to revere our elders, applaud their longevity and celebrate their "distinguished" faces.

But when you are in the swimming pool with your kids, you probably do the same thing as I do after half an hour - "Eeeewwww look, you've got old man fingers!" A disgraceful reference to make.

I have struggled with these concepts for a long time - maybe you have too - and I don't have any wise solutions to impart.

But the greatest joy in my day is to observe the innocence and purity in my son's eyes and I just hope and pray that he will live life free from adult prejudices, adult sensitivities and adult divisions for as long as possible. If that means that he'll be calling my buddy Nik The Black One from time to time, then I'm okay with that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'When a kid calls a stranger 'The Fat One''. Print Edition | Subscribe