Teaching Manners: Little Kids, Big Mouths

It's mortifying when your pint-size chatterbox blurts out something about a stranger's size, age, or disability. We'll help you save face and teach your child a lesson about tact.

Inappropriate Comments

child saying something embarrassing to mother

Thayer Allyson Gowdy

When your child's verbal skills really start to kick in, usually around age 2 1/2 or 3, she'll share her thoughts on anything and everything. That's good. But you never know when she's going to say something offensive or humiliating to another person. And whether it happens on the street ("Why can't that man walk?") or in line at the supermarket ("That woman is so fat!"), you're the one who has to try to clean up a messy situation.

Although it's tempting to blame your child -- or your parenting -- for this behavior, experts say you shouldn't. Toddlers and preschoolers aren't willfully being mean or insensitive.

"Young kids are simply flexing their 'look-what-I-notice' muscles," explains Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say. "When something seems different from the norm, that's noteworthy to them." Think of it this way: These inappropriate comments are actually the product of a curious and very literal mind, one that hasn't learned how to be tactful or express empathy. So when your child lets a remark slip, avoid shushing or shaming him, as this will make him think it's wrong to ask questions or make observations, says Lynne Kenney, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist and family coach in Scottsdale, Arizona. Nor should you make him apologize without explaining why, or he'll conclude that "I'm sorry" is an empty phrase. It is your job, though, to help your child think before he speaks and learn how to observe the people around him without passing judgment -- gifts he can use forever. Since developing an internal monologue takes time and practice, it pays to start when your child is still a toddler. As he gets older, those innocent remarks will seem less and less excusable -- and will be an increasingly bad reflection on you. In the meantime, follow this blueprint for handling awkward moments: Respond softly to your child's cringe-worthy comment or question; do what you can to make the victim feel better; then discuss with your child in private how to be considerate of people's feelings.

Physical Differences

Kid comment: "Why does that man have such a big tummy?"

Instant response: "People come in all shapes and sizes," or "Yes, he's quite a large man. We'll talk about it more when we get home."

Damage control: "Sorry. My child is at a stage where she's very aware of other people's appearance."

At-home lesson: This is an opportunity to teach your child to be accepting of everyone, regardless of body type. "Let her know that the world is full of all sorts of people who look different from each other, and that's actually what makes it such an interesting place," suggests psychologist Aaron Cooper, PhD, author of I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy: Why You Shouldn't Say It, Why You Shouldn't Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead. Compliment your child for being such a good observer, but explain why it's impolite to make a comment in public about the negative things that she notices: "A man who has a large belly or a pointy nose might not like the way he looks, and it could hurt his feelings if he hears other people talking about it."

Next: Old Age

Old Age

Kid comment: "Look at all those yucky wrinkles on that lady."

Instant response: "Yes, she has wrinkly skin because she's older than we are, just like Grandma."

Damage control: "My son likes to talk about my wrinkles too."

At-home lesson: "Tell your child he should be respectful toward all people, including the elderly, and make it clear that it's not polite to point out things you don't like about someone's appearance," says Sal Severe, PhD, a Parents advisor and author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! This is also a good chance to explain that aging is a fact of life. Just be careful to make getting older sound like a positive thing. You might put it this way: "Your body changes every year as you grow up. You get bigger and stronger, you can run faster, and you get smarter. And when you're a grown-up, your skin starts to change too. It happens to everyone."

Next: Homelessness

Homelessness

Kid comment: "Why is that woman on the corner asking for a quarter?"

Instant response: "She probably doesn't have any money to buy food or clothing, so she's asking for it."

Damage control: "Please excuse us. My daughter is worried about you. She didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

At-home lesson: Since seeing a homeless person may be disturbing to a 2- or 3-year-old, it's best to keep your explanation simple: "Some people don't have a job, and so they may need to ask other people to help them out." By age 5 or 6, your child is probably capable of handling the idea that some people have no permanent place to live. If she seems concerned and wants to assist the homeless, you might suggest volunteering together at a soup kitchen or, if she's a little older, having her donate a portion of her allowance to a shelter. Whatever your child's age, however, it's important to reassure her that your family is fortunate enough to have food to eat and a comfortable home.

Next: Disabilities

Disabilities

Kid comment: "Why is that woman sitting in a chair with wheels?"

Instant response: "She must have trouble walking. That chair is what she uses to get around."

Damage control: "I hope my child's comment didn't bother you. He's never seen someone in a wheelchair before."

At-home lesson: Let your child know that it's perfectly okay for him to be curious about how such a device works and why someone needs to use it. Explain that some people's legs stop working and they need a chair with wheels to help them get around. "Tell him that everybody has things that make them unique -- some of which we can see and others which we can't," says Dr. Kenney. You might also suggest that the next time your child sees a person who has a physical challenge, he should try talking to her rather than talking about her.

Next: Skin Color

Skin Color

Kid comment: "That man is brown."

Instant response: "Yes, that's true. Skin comes in lots of colors."

Damage control: "My daughter is just starting to learn her colors."

At-home lesson: Reinforce to your child that people come in a wide range of colors. You might say something like, "A person's skin color depends mostly on his parents. It might be dark brown, light brown, tan, or pink. But the color is just a coating -- we're all the same on the inside." You can drive home the point by holding your arm up against your child's and noting that even though you're her mommy, your skin isn't exactly the same shade as hers.

Next: Bad Hygiene

Bad Hygiene

Kid comment: "Pee-yew! That man really stinks!"

Instant response: "When you notice something about another person, please whisper it to me next time."

Damage control: "Kids say the darndest things, huh?"

At-home lesson: Tell your child that nobody's perfect. Adults, like children, should clean their body regularly, but sometimes they haven't had a chance to wash themselves after they've gotten sweaty, and some people simply can't help the way that they smell. Dr. Severe suggests using the opportunity to reinforce good hygiene habits: "That's why you need to take a bath, shampoo your hair, and wash your hands well after going to the bathroom or playing outside."

Skip the Scolding

Even if you're horrified by your child's comment, it's best to avoid these loaded phrases.

"Be quiet!"

Don't silence your child for speaking his mind, since his observations are an important part of learning. Instead, kneel down to his level, talk in a soft voice, and explain (as briefly as possible) what he wants to know.

"Apologize right now!"

There's no reason to put your child on the spot, and it's better for you to make amends with the other person anyway. Use the incident as an opening to discuss the types of comments that are off-limits in public.

"You've embarrassed Mommy!"

If you act as if your child has done something wrong, he may be reluctant to ask questions in the future. "Remember that ultimately it's far more important to protect his feelings than those of a stranger," says Betsy Brown Braun. "You probably won't see that person again."

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

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