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What does It Mean to be "Treated with Kid Gloves"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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When something or someone needs to be treated with kid gloves, this means that extra care is required. The term can be used to discuss a fragile or expensive object, or a situation which needs to be treated with tact and respect. It may also be used directly to refer to specific people, such as customers which are notoriously difficult to handle, suggesting that they need to be treated gently to avoid a scene. The colloquial term may also be used pejoratively, to imply mollycoddling, or excessively careful treatment.

The origins of the term date back to at least the 1800s. Kid gloves are gloves made from kidskin, the extremely soft hide of a young goat. The soft gloves were favored by members of the upper classes, especially women, in the 1800s because they protected the hands while also being soft and comfortable to wear. Since most of polite society wore gloves in the 1800s, finding comfortable and stylish gloves was very important. The soft gloves would also have felt gentle on the hands of others, reinforcing the idea that the wearer had smooth, touchable skin.

In the early 1800s, kidskin gloves began to be very much associated with the nobility and the elegant upper classes. Partially this was because the gloves would have been rather expensive, and not very accessible for other members of society. But kid gloves are also not very practical for hard or serious work. Since many upper class women in the 1800s projected a frail or weak image reinforced by society, kid gloves were probably linked with fragility and a need for gentleness as well.

The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that people were writing about the necessity for something to be treated with kid gloves by 1830, but the term may have been around before that. In the sense of a person or group of people, the term often refers to a potentially delicate or volatile situation. If the situation is treated with kid gloves, it can be easily and pleasantly defused for all. Fragile objects, of course, require delicate treatment because otherwise they will break.

When critics of a situation believe that it is being handled too delicately, they may suggest that the kid gloves need to come off. This is often the case with complex political situations which are not being handled directly and appropriately. A critic of such a situation might suggest that it is being treated with kid gloves because of political concerns like a desire to retain trading rights, to save face, or to hold a position in office.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon210373 — On Aug 30, 2011

I have a shaker of powder from my great aunt who was in her 80's when I was born in 1962. The letter I have with it states that it was used to powder the kid gloves to keep them white. That is why I was looking up this topic. Apparently, there was some upkeep required for kid gloves.

So, not only were they soft, but had to be protected from getting dirty. Kind of a better than thou attitude I would guess, which would go along with the royalty and upper class of the time period issue.

By anon142413 — On Jan 13, 2011

i know this guy who is 22 years old. Everyone treats him like a piece of gold and no one ever said anything bad to him but he can be rotten to every one if he chooses and they don't say anything to him. They kind of worship him and girls love him. He calls people names and he calls his own sister fat. He says what he likes but dares you to say anything nasty to him.

By googlefanz — On Jan 07, 2011

I always find it really interesting to look at the differences in cultures when it comes to handling people with kid gloves.

For instance, many Americans I know would really hate for someone to handle them with kid gloves, because it implies that they are too immature or volatile to accept criticism.

On the other hand, the same straightforward behavior that an American might want would be considered extremely offensive in other cultures, and in that case handling someone with kid gloves would simply be politeness.

I think that a lot of times it's a very situationally-based issue though. Whereas one individual might prefer a more roundabout, preferential treatment, another might find it offensive. I guess it just comes down to people skills, and being able to tell when it is appropriate to treat someone with kid gloves and when it is offensive.

What do you guys think? Where do you come down on the whole treating people with kid gloves idea?

By closerfan12 — On Jan 04, 2011

Don't you just hate those people that you always have to treat with kid gloves? I'm talking about the people who get offended at the least little thing, to the point where even kid leather gloves are harsh -- silk lined gloves is more that they need!

I always find it so annoying when you meet people who are selfish like that. And it can go two ways -- you have the person who gets monumentally offended at the least little thing, and then you have the person who acts like they're so sensitive that anything can shock them or hurt them.

I honestly don't know if I prefer the angry version or the sensitive version. Although the angry version is certainly louder, the sensitive version has more of a potential for causing guilt.

Do you guys know what I'm talking about, or am I the only person who runs into these kind of people in my life? And what do you do about them, anyway? I mean, it's not like you can just continually censor yourself to please everybody, but at the same time, you don't want to cause trouble, right?

What do you all do?

By yournamehere — On Jan 01, 2011

I have to say, I have always hated the whole idea of treating someone with kid gloves. I'm not at all suggesting that people need to be super harsh towards one another or anything like that, but I really hate it when people are so worried about offending someone or how the other person will feel that they insist on treating others with kid gloves.

To me, that just makes the whole situation worse. For example, if you have to tell someone something awkward, then isn't it worse if you build up to it with, "OK, now, don't take this the wrong way, I mean, I just feel like I have to tell you..." etc, etc, etc, then to just come out and say it?

I know that I always feel worse when somebody tells me something like that, because with that set up, you are automatically expected to feel bad and overreact. If the other person just comes out and says whatever it is they have to say, it's just so much easier on everyone.

Anyway, I didn't mean to get up on my soapbox -- but as far as I'm concerned, don't treat me with kid leather gloves -- maybe bright pink leather gloves, but not kid ones.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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