Kids Say the Most Embarrassing Things
As if waiting for the radiologist to x-ray my son's leg was not stressful enough, my then-three and a half year old daughter began to stare at a significantly overweight woman.
"Mommy, why doesn't she have a lap? She looks too old to have a baby insider her. Is she just fat?"
I stammered and wished for the ground to open up and swallow me. What do I say?
"We speak to people, not talk about them." No, I don't exactly want her running up to a stranger and asking her why she is fat.
How about, "That is not a nice thing to say about people?" I could just see the next question: "Why? Is it bad to be fat?" And, knowing my daughter, the questions would not have ended there.
My daughter was not being mean. She was just curious. And the experts back me up in this assessment.
Although preschoolers can understand the concepts of private and public, according to Dr. Sue Mandel, founder and director of First Attachments, "they may have a hard time distinguishing the subtleties." "Preschoolers are also working on impulse control," she adds, "so they might intellectually know not to say something but be unable to hold back."
Reassuringly, Dr. Jennifer Little, of Parents Teach Kids, says that the parent is probably more embarrassed than the subject of the remark: "Perhaps they view it as rude, but often take into account that it is a child who knows no better and dismiss the comments."
Dr. Little explains that parents are embarrassed because they view the child as an extension of themselves, while most people outside the family understand the child as a separate person--albeit a very little separate person who lacks a social filter.
As mortified as you may feel, however, Dr. Mandel cautions parents not to shame the child for his honest curiosity.
So, what can you do when your child blurts out something inappropriate?
- If you believe the person heard and may have been offended, you should immediately offer an apology as the adult. This is modeling polite behavior for your child who may lack the ability to apologize at that moment.
- As with any important "teaching moment", get down to the child's level and make eye contact. Speak softly and calmly.
- Explain briefly and simply why you apologized. Dr. Mandel recommends saying something like, "Honey, I know things about other people make you curious, but when you say things out loud it can hurt their feelings."
- If the subject of the remark encourages questions, allow your child to ask. Often, in the case of a disability, people are open to polite questions from children. Of course, if the person is not interested further discussion, that should be respected.
- Talk further with your child about public and private later at home. Dr. Mandel suggests the analogy of an open door versus a shut door.
- Develop empathy as part of an ongoing process. Make connections between a time when your child's feelings were hurt and how her actions can hurt the feelings of others.
As a parent, I want to encourage curiosity but I also want my children to learn polite and considerate behavior. The trick is to nurture one without stifling the other.