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.

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