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When my then 4-year-old nephew came to visit one day, I knew within minutes about an argument Daddy and his new girlfriend had -- and how they kissed and made up. Too much information? For sure. Typical preschooler behavior? Yep!
While toddlers express themselves using simple sentences ("I'm hungry!"), by ages 3 and 4 kids have the communication skills to describe what's going on in their lives, says Silvana Clark, author of Fun-Filled Parenting. "It's a wonderful leap, because your child can start to have real conversations with adults," she notes. "But the downside is that kids this age don't understand what's appropriate to share and what isn't unless you tell them." You can begin explaining now.
Start From Scratch
"Many parents just tell their kids that something is private, but kids often don't really know what private means," says Betsy Brown Braun, a child-development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades, California, and author of Just Tell Me What to Say. So discuss the concept in terms that your preschooler can understand, and be specific. See whether this explanation works: "Something is private when it is just for you and our family to know. You don't tell anyone else about it, but you can talk about it with Daddy or me."
Help him distinguish between what falls into that category and what he can freely share with others. "You can't possibly go over every single fact, so it's best to help kids develop the skills to make their own judgments," says Clark. Her strategy: Come up with a few silly scenarios and ask your child if he thinks it's okay to tell someone else about them. Then reverse roles. "My daughter would ask me things like, 'Mom, would it be okay to tell my teacher that you think her shoes are ugly and she should put them in the garbage disposal?'" recalls Clark. "My husband and I would answer her question and explain why it's something she should or shouldn't disclose."
Check On It
Even after what seems like endless role-playing, your child probably won't be 100 percent sure about what to keep to herself. Tell her that if she's uncertain whether it's okay to share something, she should check with you before saying anything, suggests Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Melbourne, Florida. Be aware, though: She may ask you loudly enough that the person she wants to tell will overhear anyway! Either way, praise her for asking and not just telling. And then request that she whisper it to you the next time.
Give a Sign
To stop your preschooler from airing all of the family's dirty laundry to friends and neighbors, establish a "secret signal" you can give him when you get a sense that he's about to bring up an inappropriate subject. "Pulling your ear or simply putting your finger to your lips could be your sign to your child to stop talking about that topic," says Clark. The main advantage of a signal: It's a quick, silent reminder that doesn't embarrass your kid (or you) in front of his friends or relatives.
Do Some Damage Control
No matter how much you emphasize restraint, your kid is bound to blab every now and then. Instead of blowing a gasket, give her a matter-of-fact response. "Tell her, 'That is not appropriate' or 'That is not something we say in public,'" says Susan Epstein, a clinical social worker and parenting coach in New London, Connecticut. And what should you do if your child embarrasses someone else? Apologize to the other person, and then leave the subject alone. "If you make a big deal of it, it'll likely make everyone feel worse," says Epstein.
Really, the only way you can be absolutely certain that your child won't repeat something you've said is by not telling her to begin with, says Dr. Panaccione. And it helps to remember that the walls have ears. Even if your 4-year-old seems completely immersed in playing with her favorite toys in her bedroom, you can bet her ears will prick up if she hears you on the phone telling your sister how cute the new UPS guy is. You already know what comes next.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Parents magazine.