Parenting

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How To React When Your Kid Accidentally Says Something Inappropriate, According To Experts

At some point or another, your kid *will* say something to make you cringe.

It happens to all of us. You’re out and about with your child when suddenly they see someone who might be a bit different from them in some way. Maybe they’re bald, or the person is acting in an unusual way. But your child’s curiosity has probably been piqued, and they might start peppering you with questions at the most inopportune time (like, right in front of the person). If you’re embarrassed and feeling awkward, here’s what to do when your child unknowingly says something potentially inappropriate or offensive to someone.

Kids are inquisitive by nature, and the last thing you want to do is squash their natural curiosity by making them feel like their questions are inappropriate, albeit ill-timed. Still, it’s important to answer your child honestly without making the other person feel offended, Denise Daniels, PhD, a child development expert, tells Romper. “It’s vital to teach our children to appreciate differences, beginning in early childhood,” says Daniels. “That’s why teaching kids to respect other people’s opinions and that everyone is unique is so important.”

Still, that might not help when your kiddo is demanding to know why another child is in a wheelchair — and that child’s parent is looking at you to explain it all. Here’s how to handle these sticky situations without making your child (or the other person) feel self-conscious.

Make It Matter-Of-Fact

Your child is used to the people in your immediate social circle. They know that Aunt Marie might walk with a cane because of her disability, and that Grandpa has a birthmark on his arm. So when your kiddo comes across others who might look different, don’t be afraid to have a conversation about it, says Daniels. “Make it a casual conversation with a matter-of-fact tone of voice,” she says. “It’s not uncommon for children to have questions; they’re just trying to figure out the world.” What you definitely don’t want to do is make it seem like there’s something wrong with the other person, or that they deserve pity for being different. Help your child understand that differences are what make us unique — and amazing. “Teach them not to be judgmental and be accepting when they see someone in public who is different from them, and that being different is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Don’t Punish Your Child

Even if your child says something that makes you want the earth to open up and swallow you right there on the spot, try not to take your embarrassment out on your kiddo. “Do not punish, scold, embarrass or shame your curious child,” Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells Romper in an email. “In addition to possibly causing emotional harm, this sends the message that asking questions and being curious is bad behavior.” So even if you’re squirming in your seat, try to react calmly to your kiddo’s question. A short answer might suffice until later when you’re home, and you can have time to collect your thoughts and give a more thoughtful response.

Set Realistic Expectations

If your young child sees a lady with a large belly and innocently asks, “How did the baby get in your belly?” (and welp, the woman isn’t expecting), it’s enough to make you want to cringe and duck for cover. But keep in mind that your child is still sorting the world out, and shouldn’t be expected to understand everything at this stage. “You can’t expect your child to act like a miniature adult,” says Dr. Thiessen. “Don’t overreact to the situation; approach it calmly and thoughtfully.” You can take your child aside and let them know that the lady isn’t expecting, and that everyone’s bodies are different — but all are beautiful.

Make It A Teachable Moment

Depending on the age of your child, you might want to explain to your kid that there are times to ask questions — and other instances when it’s best to wait until later. “Use the moment as an opportunity to instruct your child on how to ask certain questions privately, rather than blurting them out impulsively,” says Dr. Thiessen. “Teach your child to speak and act in a manner that reflects respect for others and to respect and love for themselves.” You can simply tell them that you’ll explain later, and if that doesn’t suffice, shoot them a warning look that should serve as a sufficient sign to shush up for now.

Give A Short Answer

For the most part, your child will probably be satisfied with a short response to their question or comment. But if you know that your kiddo is quite inquisitive, you might want to have a ready-made answer that will work on the spot, advises Dr. Thiessen. “Offer an abbreviated, whispered, or privately communicated response,” he says. “Elaborate at a more convenient time and place, like later when you get home.” You might say something like, “I’ll explain it to you later tonight,” if you don’t want to get into specifics right then or there.

Correct The Bad Behavior

Asking questions and being curious is acceptable, but giggling, mocking, or making fun of someone definitely isn’t. If you see your child engaging in such behavior, be sure to correct them, says Daniels. “Anything like laughing, pointing, and degrading could be construed as offensive and inappropriate,” she says. “But it's important for parents to understand that kids are constantly learning and we need to be open and honest with them about what how to be respectable and understand other people’s differences.”

Offer An Apology

If your child says something that obviously upsets the other person, you should definitely make every effort to apologize, even if your kiddo doesn’t exactly understand that what they said was offensive. Then, later on, you can have an open and honest conversation about your child’s comment (if it was about someone’s appearance or actions), and how that could have hurt the other person’s feelings. Helping your child to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is a great teaching tool and allows them to learn empathy for someone else’s emotions, too.

No matter how hard you try, your child is going to say something inappropriate to someone else at some point. It might be cringe-inducing, but you can still take control of the situation and use it as a teaching moment. That way, your child not only learns how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, but they learn how to have empathy for another person’s emotions, too.

Experts:

Denise Daniels, PhD, a child development expert

Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, a licensed clinical psychologist