Back in preschool my son Jonah, like most kids his age, usually said the first thing that popped into his head. This led to cringe-worthy moments. For example, he commented out loud on the skin color of every person in the pediatrician's waiting room. But children this age aren't hopelessly rude, or racist -- they're just age-appropriately clueless. "Three- and 4-year-olds don't know the proper context for sharing information," explains Susan Verwys, Ph.D., assistant professor of early-childhood education at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The good news is that you can help your pint-size pundit button up when it's prudent to do so. Try out these expert tips the next time your kid says, "That man smells bad, Mommy."
Your daughter unwraps her birthday present from Grandma and instantly tosses it aside with a disappointed "I already have that!" Use her burst of honesty as a wake-up call to begin teaching the art of being gracious. Though you might feel mortified in the moment, keep your cool -- her bad manners aren't intentional. "Get down at her eye level and tell her matter-of-factly, 'We always say thank you when we receive a gift, whether or not we already have it,'" suggests Dr. Verwys. Then follow up at home with a lesson on gift-receiving skills. Instead of lecturing, try a little role-play: Together, wrap up some toys along with ordinary household items, and take turns giving and receiving. As you unwrap an object, explain how you can always find one nice thing to say about a gift -- even if it's a flashlight or a pot holder.
It's almost inevitable that your preschooler will do something embarrassing, like pointing at a large person and loudly exhorting everyone in the vicinity to "look at that fat man." If you find yourself in this scenario, wait until you're out of earshot and then calmly let your kid know that it's not nice to point or to make comments about someone's appearance in public. But don't get angry. "Preschoolers don't blurt out inappropriate things intentionally, so they won't understand your anger," says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. "Don't force your child to apologize either. A simple 'I'm sorry if we offended you' to the man will do." Once you're home, explain: "While we're out, if you notice something about someone's body or the way he looks, it is nice manners to keep it to yourself. Instead, you can talk to Mommy in private later on." But just to be on the safe side, come up with a secret code like squeezing his hand twice to block blurts in public.
Let's face it, you can't always control what comes out of your kid's mouth. But you can control what comes out of yours. So not only do you have to be careful about what you say to her, you also need to be mindful of what you say when you're in her vicinity. You can almost count on the fact that a snarky comment you make under your breath about your weird neighbors will haunt you when you hear it repeated verbatim by your 4-year-old. As you're teaching her how to zip it, you need to develop an awareness of your own bluntness and blabbing. Let's face it: The blurter doesn't fall far from the tree.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Parents magazine.