What To Do When Your Kid Says Something Wildly Offensive In Public

Dear Because I Said So,
How do you teach a kid tact? My son will say things to his grandfather like, "If you're the same age, why are you so much more broken down than my other grandpa?" I'm raising boys, so I partially think teaching them to be over-considerate instead of under is a public service, but I know I personally err in the other direction — sometimes being too concerned with what other people think. How do I teach my kid to simultaneously get down with his bad self and mind all the feelings and needs of others? — Kids Have No Tact
Dear No Tact,
My daughter was barely 3 years old when she told great-grandma, “Actu-wally babies come out of a mommy’s bagina and not from a stork. You know nofing!” She once leaned out of a car window to yell, “Look at that fat man on a small bike!” And she shouted to our cranky neighbor who wears a lot of flowy skirts, “What, are you a witch or somefing?” Tactlessness is my life, and I’m #sofreakingblessed.
The world is a wild, weird place — even for those of us who’ve been here for a while — and kids are just learning to sort it all out. When they talk about what they see, they aren't motivated by cruelty but awe. And it’s true: Some people have brown skin, some people are big or small, some people don’t have legs. Sure, it is annoying as hell to have your child shout these things in the grocery store, but it’s not ill-intentioned the way it sometimes is when older people comment on human difference.
Shushing a child when they point out someone’s weight or disability doesn’t teach them tact, it teaches them that being different isn’t something we talk about. But we should talk about difference — and often. Your child’s questions (rather, assertions) are the perfect opportunity to help them begin to understand the world around them.
One way to mitigate our children's surprise at difference is putting them in scenarios where they are surrounded by different types of people. My younger brother has Down syndrome; talking about Uncle Noah and why he is different has helped my kids not be so flummoxed by disability when they see it in the people around them. If difference is a way of life for kids — and one that is explained as positive — it won't be so jarring when they encounter it.
There are also really good books out there that teach children the concept of pairing truth with kindness. I’ve read my kids Princess Kim and Too Much Truth dozens of times in order to make them understand why their aunt cries when they pat her belly and ask when the next baby is coming. The book is too princess-focused to be perfect, but it gets the conversation started.
When your kid says something truthful and awkward, just nod. Later, when things are less tense, explain, “Yes, that woman was making weird sounds at the library, but she was actually speaking French, which isn’t weird at all — it’s just a language you don’t know. And also, people don’t feel comfortable being pointed to in public, so next time, just ask a little quieter. We don’t want anyone to be made to feel sad for who they are.” That’s all you have to say.
In safe situations, like with family or friends, encourage your kids to ask the person the question themselves. Once, my daughter asked a friend of mine if she was a boy or a girl. The friend gave my daughter a lovely talk about being born a girl but feeling like a boy inside. And my daughter just took it all in, then offered her a cookie and said, “Do you.”
So, take a breath and absolve yourself of the anxiety you feel when your kid tells grandpa about his broke-down face. It is not your job to apologize for your kids. They are kids. This phase is normal. In fact, young children are developmentally unable to view the world from someone else's eyes. They don’t yet understand moral behavior and empathy. In sum, kids are tiny sociopaths. Take a stiff drink, learn to shrug and laugh. It’s not your job to manage the emotions of others. And honestly, while tact is a useful tool for them to add to their kit over time, it’s not your child’s job to manage the emotions of the people around them, either. If grandpa gets mad at your son for being a normal toddler, that’s grandpa’s fault. Not your son’s.
We thrust these little humans into a weird and wonderful world that is frankly flummoxing. It doesn’t make sense to get mad at them when they point this out. And if we can’t give them answers, at the very least, we owe them the space to grapple with the world on their own terms. Even if that means grandpa gets called old in the process.
Because I Said So
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