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This morning, I dropped my son off at pre-school, and he introduced me to one of his new friends. He then, loudly, and right in front of this friend, proceeded to explain how this child "gets upset all the time about everything" and "constantly complains". While I don't know if this is true or not (my son has a tendency to fixate onto negative behavior in others to a sometimes obsessive degree), I don't believe it matters. I simply want my son to understand that saying things like that are rude, and potentially hurtful.

I tried telling him, on the spot, to stop saying those things, because they weren't nice, and he kept interrupting me to explain that it was true ("but he does!").

I understand that "tact" is a subject some people never fully master, so I don't expect my 4 year old to fully understand it immediately, but I would like to see what can be done to improve his basic understanding of the concept.

How normal is this behavior? Is there anything I can do to curtail it, or, better yet, avoid it altogether?

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When your child rebuts you that his statement is true, you simply need to point out that's not all that's required. The usual guideline for adults is:

Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

Gossip about a classmate fails the second two tests. Tattling can be considered ok under certain circumstances (are you telling me to get someone into trouble, or out of trouble?) which you can look at as the second and third tests again, since it's kind to save someone from doing something truly awful by getting an adult involved, even if the someone in question may get in a little trouble as part of getting saved.

Your child may be a little too young to know all the cases where "necessary" comes in to play, but can certainly understand some cases where idle gossip is completely unnecessary.

As well as addressing the immediate concern (why what is being said is rude, and how to know when to refrain from saying rude things) you might want to tell your child he is welcome to still tell you those sorts of things later, in private. You can learn a lot about your child's worries and concerns by what they report about other children. But I agree with you that the announcement in front of the child in question was rude, and your child can learn not to do that.

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  • You are probably aware that most things adults say wouldn't pass this test. "Is it necessary?" is remarkably restrictive, and a child, esp. a 5 y.o., is not a good judge of "necessity" in speech. Many things are puzzling to him, including why people behave the way they do. All these are teachable moments. I guess parenting philosophy comes into some play here. – anongoodnurse Sep 25 '14 at 5:56
  • Most things adults say in private wouldn't pass the test, I agree. But most adults have learned not to say such things in front of the person in question which is what the OP is trying to teach. And yes, the child won't learn this instantly. Knowing this guideline can help a parent whose child is rebutting "but he does!" as though truth was the only guideline for speaking. Tact specifically refers to taking something other than the truth into account when choosing what to say. – Chrys Sep 25 '14 at 13:06
  • I think you miss my point to some degree. I would drop it completely. Is it kind? will cover whether to say it in front of another. – anongoodnurse Sep 25 '14 at 16:52
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It sounds like fairly normal behavior to me, but I think you're doing the right thing.

At an early age, children might not yet understand when certain things aren't okay to say (That age is anywhere between 1 and 100, incidentally). The best way to address this is on a case-by-case basis, letting them know why it's rude to say what they've said, and to remind them to be considerate of how others feel.

It might take awhile, but it is important to be patient and remind him each time this happens. The best way to teach a child good behavior is with consistency. It may take years before these lessons sink in.

Oh, and I almost forgot - when explaining this, use simple words and ideas.

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I think expecting tact from a 4 year old is kind of futile. Children that age only have the most limited ability to take another person's perspective. For example, most kids can't tell the difference between irony and literal statements until around 7-8 years old. Your son probably doesn't have the capacity yet to understand the difference between lying and being tactful.

On the good side, it's unlikely that another 4 year old would be upset by being told he gets upset all the time and complains a lot, either. So he probably didn't hurt his friend's feelings. Most 4 year olds aren't very concerned with what impression they're making.

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