Did He Really Just Say That?

Dear Mamas,

What do you do when your child says or does something embarrassing or not “pc” in public?


Hi Ginny,
You never know what’s going to come out of those innocent looking mouths, that’s for sure. But what you do depends on a number of factors, their age and the particular behavior being the most important ones.

The younger they are, the easier the solution. For kids two and under it’s simply a matter of redirecting their attention or stepping in and smoothing things over calmly, kindly, and often with a sense of humor.

If he points to Grandpa and says “He has a really big tummy,” you could just redirect it right back to him and say in a light, friendly voice, “And look at your tummy, where did your lunch go? Is it in there?’ and then change the subject immediately to something else. Most likely, no one will think it’s a big deal if you swiftly navigate around it. Most people give toddlers a lot of slack.

Other times, your child may say something that could unwittingly hurt feelings. For example, say she starts pointing at someone with a visible handicap or injury. Little ones will do this simply because it’s not something they have seen before. You could handle it by smiling at the person, saying “Hi,” and then getting your child looking at or interested in something else right away. If the child was frightened and pointing, you could smile an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, somebody missed their nap today,” or give a warm, sympathetic smile and then make a graceful exit.

A child that age really can’t understand a big explanation but an older child can begin to understand that everyone is different and that’s okay. You can begin to teach tolerance, acceptance and compassion from a very early age. Age appropriate explanation is fine. Just try not to mix in judgment or pity.

For an older child it may involve removing them from the situation gently and without a lot of fuss and then explaining why their behavior was unkind or inappropriate. And then you may need to help them figure out how to apologize, if necessary.

The last point covers the possibility that your little one spilled the beans about something he shouldn’t have, or embarrassed you in some way by repeating something he overheard. We all eventually learn the hard way that little children are sponges and will echo everything they hear us say, whether we think they are listening or not.

Just assume they are and be careful of what comes out of your own mouth when you are in their presence. If you’re not, you may end up having to eat your own words later!

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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