Kids can be embarrassing, especially when horrible things come from their sweet little mouths. It’s not always intentional; kids are curious and ask questions. They think about it, then they say it. They don’t have what you could call a “filter.” And there isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t looked on in horror when their kid says something embarrassing, and they must jump in and do damage control.
My husband was with our sons once, and one of them pointed at a man with a prosthetic leg and loudly asked, “Yikes! What happened to you?” My husband was at a loss for words. He scrambled and profusely apologized for the comment that embarrassed him tremendously and could have been hurtful. Thankfully, the man had a pretty spunky personality and made a joke out of the whole thing. He told them it was no big deal and it wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that a kid commented on his leg. While the situation turned out okay, not everyone reacts the same way when kids say something about appearance, neurodiversity, or abilities.
What to Do When Your Kid Says Something Embarrassing
It’s a bit taboo to talk about differences, and it’s common for parents to hush their children and avoid awkward questions when they notice (loudly and publicly) differences in others. However, it is normal for kids to see differences. When we ignore them, we can accidentally tell them being different is something to ignore or, more distressingly, be ashamed of. And when we hush them, we stop them from asking questions, but we aren’t stopping them from noticing or using their imagination to make sense of the world.5 So, we need to teach our kids strategies for asking about or exploring differences in a socially appropriate and compassionate way:
Know That It’s Normal
Before we get into how to address this issue, it’s important to remind yourself that what your child is doing is normal (take the pressure off them and you).5 As humans, we are designed to notice who is similar to us and, by default, who is different. This is because we are built to seek out groups for protection, and we try to find groups where a large number of people will welcome and protect us.1 So, though your child is being “naughty” or mean when they notice a difference, it’s natural and instinctive for them to do so.
Research shows that even babies prefer to look at faces similar to themselves and their primary caregivers.1,5 Our children, particularly toddlers, are also learning about the world, so they are built to catalog things to help make sense of them. They take in new pieces of information and compare them against their existing knowledge; size, shape, color, and sound are all ways they make sense of the world around them.4 When it comes to people, it’s natural for them to look at others and try to make sense of what they are seeing by noticing what is “different” about the other person.
Don’t Ignore It . . . Make It a Learning Opportunity
Instead of running away or wishing the ground would open up and swallow you whole, turn the experience into a learning opportunity. You might say, “You have noticed something about that person’s [body, abilities, etc.], and you are curious. Even though it’s perfectly normal to be curious, some people don’t like to have other people talk about them, so if you have a question, maybe you can save it to ask me later?” This can ensure your child learns that it’s okay to ask, but they also understand that questions might not be appropriate or kind to ask publically.
Or, you might suggest something like, “Ah, I can see you are curious about [skin, clothing, body shape, etc.]. I don’t know much about that, so perhaps we could research it at home together?” That way, you can find appropriate ways to explore sensitive topics. It also reduces the stigma of talking about differences; rather than pretending they don’t exist, we can address any judgment or misunderstandings they might have. If our kids don’t get a chance to process what they observe, they can create their ideas about differences. This is not always good, as their ideas can be incorrect or biased.2
Speak to Your Child Kindly
Parents shouldn’t pretend it didn’t happen when a kid says something embarrassing. A child won’t know they’ve said something they shouldn’t have if you don’t address it immediately. Gently pulling a child aside and explaining why their comment is inappropriate is better than scolding and potentially embarrassing the child.
In my house, we have a rule. My children can ask any question they want about differences they have noticed . . . they just can’t do it in front of the person. I reiterate that it’s not because the difference is anything to be embarrassed about, but we don’t know how that other person feels, and it’s unkind to talk about anyone when they could hear us. I ask my children to flag me that they have a question, and we table it for later — usually in the car ride home.
Build Their Empathy
This isn’t a tip for young kids who don’t know what they are doing, but if a child is older and says something intentionally hurtful or embarrassing, you must address it. Being mean-spirited deliberately should be addressed. This will vary from family to family, but try to ensure the punishment “fits the crime.” Kids learn their lesson when consequences are natural; in other words, they can make a clear link between their actions and consequences.3,6 It’s also necessary to have many discussions about kindness and compassion at home.
A good reminder can be getting them to ask themselves, “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?” This can help them determine if asking the question or making a statement will be compassionate or potentially hurtful. Tap into times when they have felt hurt, and use this to remind them what it feels like when they make harmful comments.
Love Your Kids, Even When They Say Something Embarrassing
Above all, let your kids know that even when they say things they probably shouldn’t, you still love them. That’s what is most important. Yes, kids need to learn to make better choices, but making them feel guilty and embarrassed is not the way to do it. If a child makes a sincere apology and promises not to repeat it, the offended party will probably feel better about it and most likely accept an apology.
Kids will be kids. But as parents, it’s our job to turn them into good humans. No one said it was easy, but it’s essential. If you have a child, be prepared for some flushed cheeks because your kid will say something that embarrasses you. There is no avoiding it. But if you do your best to help them make better choices and think before they speak, you may prevent some uncomfortable situations.