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So our 3 year old son is both talkative and imaginative, but hasn't necessarily learned all the social decorum that comes with age/experience and social development. There's been a number of embarrassing situations/social faux-pas that we've just about explained away, but sometimes it is pretty difficult.

As an example, we were in the photo printing shop waiting for our prints and my son exclaimed "Look daddy, a witch!". As I looked around he was pointing straight at a bedraggled-looking middle-aged lady whose hair was unkempt but was probably just having a 'bad hair day'. I calmly walked him around to the opposite side of the shop, crouched down to his level and said "I can't see a witch, but there's a picture of a dragon on the wall". He protested "no daddy, over there, with the green boots" (luckily out of earshot). I asked him "does she have a Broomstick, a Cauldron, and a Cat?", to which he replied 'No' and accepted she couldn't be a witch, then.

On this occasion, some quick thinking diffused any further awkwardness or upset.

Are there any techniques that you use to handle these types of situations?

..and have you got a fun story to illustrate your technique? :-)

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+1 just for sharing the story :) –  Koert Apr 28 '11 at 11:55
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everyone knows she can't be a witch unless you put her in water and she floats to the top.. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 30 '11 at 4:18
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5 Answers

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Luckily young children get something of a "pass" when it comes to social awkwardness since the world by-and-large understands what it's like to be a child.

I wouldn't go out of my way to downplay the situation. As a parent, your primary responsibility is in teaching the kid, not distracting him or otherwise quashing the social embarrassment. Most people understand that principle as well, so you get something of a "pass" as well. You don't have to be silent or unembarassing, you just have to be instructive.

So instead, address the issue with the child very directly and quickly in a way that the child will find satisfactory and which will help prevent this sort of thing in the future.

Remember, the thoughts going through the childs mind play out something like this: There's someone over there that looks very unusual; I don't know what to make of it. I'll point it out to Dad because he usually has the answers. However you respond will instruct him on how to behave in the future when that sort of thing happens again. If you ignore the situation, the kid will get confused and/or frustrated, and will likely escalate the situation -- he pointed it out for a reason.

So I would stop, make sure I have the child's attention and say, "No, sweetie, she's not a witch, she's a normal person like you and me. In fact, I don't think she would like it if you called her a witch -- would YOU like it if someone said YOU were a witch?"

This (a) addresses the kid's concern (there's a witch over there) and enlarges the concept of "normal people" to include those that look like she does, (b) establishes that we won't say she's a witch anymore, and (c) gives the kid a good rule that he can apply in the future when someone looks unusual ("would YOU like it if someone called you a ...?").

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+1 for the paragraph about pointing it out for a reason - understanding the trigger helps me to form a good response. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 29 '11 at 7:12
    
Thanks for the detailed response. I guess I can already see that the distraction technique failed here (a Witch being more interesting than a Dragon that day!) and so rational reasoning prevailed. His grandmother just says "Oh no it isn't" which descends into a pantomime act, but I guess that moves away from the embarrassing statement. –  JBRWilkinson Jan 12 '12 at 16:18
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I'd have walked up to the woman and whilst wearing a smile would have asked if she happened to be a witch(esp if she heard it the first time). Then I would have explained to the little one that this woman can't be a witch. heaving a lot of hair and green boots don't make someone a witch.

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I could talk all day about this. My kids, when they were a certain age, constantly embarrassed me, and it's kind of hard not to laugh at times. Once, a rather large lady in the swimming pool changing area got undressed in front of my eldest and her mother, to which my girl said, "mummy, how come that ladies pants are so large?" In the small confines of a changing room, my wife tried distracting, all to no avail.

In short, I think kids of a certain age will not understand the social niceties of not saying things, and the more open and talkative we encourage our kids to be, the more this will happen.

I think the long and the short of it is that we simply have to grin and bear it, until you can get them to understand not to do it. My worst on, was when she kept saying, louder and louder, that the bald man with a hair lip changing next to us "looked very odd". What genuinely can you do to a 2/3 year old who doesn't understand it isn't a nice thing to do.

As a kid we'd be beaten if we said this, but, thankfully, times have changed.

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When my son was a toddler, I was spared these situations -- he could only sign until he was almost 5, and not that many random strangers do, so I just didn't translate anything inappropriate. :)

Perhaps that can be replicated by teaching them that if they want to talk about a person, they should whisper quietly to you so you can help them avoid hurting anyone's feelings?

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hmm, I'd be hesitant to advise saying things secretly about others as a normal conversation pattern.. more like, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all? (once they can distinguish between the two, of course) –  Jeff Atwood Apr 30 '11 at 4:21
    
@Jeff When they are age 2-3 they don't know what is nice/appropriate -- my suggestion was to use the parent as a filter. Most kids don't really grok those social distinctions until age 4-ish, and even then there are moments... –  HedgeMage Apr 30 '11 at 12:54
    
if it is "say it to me, the parent, first" that is better, I mildly object to "whisper it to me, the parent, first" just on the basis of encouraging (even accidentally) talking behind people's backs, etc. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 30 '11 at 20:27
    
@Jeff If you don't tell a toddler to whisper, do you not generally get something everyone nearby will hear? –  HedgeMage May 1 '11 at 6:09
    
This argument is so funny to me because mine had a whisper almost as loud as her regular voice. I told her it was best to ask later when it was just the two of us. I had her signal to me by pulling her ear if she saw something she wanted to talk about so I could remember the surroundings (and people in it) when we were in a better space for talking. Sometimes, when she signaled I could see what she was signaling about and was even able to gauge that it would be okay to ask said person about (for example, lost limb) when it was someone I knew and knew would be comfortable answering her quest –  balanced mama Nov 13 '12 at 6:37
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Good job not over-reacting! At this age, redirection (distraction) is very effective. Perhaps saying something more like, "Hey! Look at this cool dragon!" might have worked better.

As they get older, explaining the impact of their words will help keep the verbal reactions to a minimum.

When my guys were smaller, we crossed paths with a short person in the grocery store. The older one said to the younger, "That guy didn't eat his vegetables! He didn't grow!" To which I said, "So what should we have for dinner before swimming lessons? What's your teacher's name again?" And that was the end of it.

More recently, they noticed someone with a horrible rash on their face and arms, who they pointed at and of course drew my attention. I explained to them what it might be and asked how they would feel if the same thing happened to them. These kinds of outbursts happen much more quietly now, but they haven't stopped.

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