Teaching Your Kids a Sense of Tact

By Deirdre Wilson


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Imagine the horror and embarrassment of your toddler shrieking – for the mere satisfaction of hearing her own voice – at a funeral.

Or perhaps you’ve had the privilege of sheepishly explaining your preschooler’s declaration, “That man has no hair!”, to a passerby.

Think a lack of tactfulness is typical of only the youngest children?

Then maybe you haven’t heard your preteen answer that phone call you’ve been waiting for with, “Yeah? … Um, I don’t know if she’s here. Call back later.” Click.

0pt">Childhood innocence and spontaneity is delightful, often even hilarious. But a child’s lack of tact is not.

Whether it’s a blunt assessment of Aunt Jane’s holiday creamed onions (“Yuck!”) or the opening of a gift followed by “I already have this!”, every parent has had to deflect a child’s well-placed – though usually not deliberate – zinger.

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Once the words are out, the damage is done, leaving the parent feeling helpless and the child, who may know he’s about to be reprimanded, feeling badly.

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Tact and manners are among the kindest things a parent can teach a young child, says Nancy Samalin, who lectures on parenting issues nationwide and has written several parenting books, including Loving Without Spoiling.

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“It has to do with learning to care for other people. Does that come naturally for children? No. Is it our job as parents to teach them? Absolutely,” Samalin says. “We’re giving them a gift that allows them to be liked, appreciated and enjoyed.”

; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">At the same time, parents need to realize that a child who has loudly commented on “that lady in the wheelchair” is just being a kid.

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“We think that kids are being rude and we want children to be honest, but we want them to be selectively honest,” Samalin says. “They are very observant; they see something different and they say so.”

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“The No. 1 thing here is, don’t punish your children for this,” adds Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in play therapy and the author of Playful Parenting, a book guiding parents on using play to help raise their children. “They’re not being deliberately malicious. They’re just being kids.”

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Cohen notes that a somber or more formal occasion, such as a funeral, doesn’t have the same meaning to young children as it does to adults. “They just cognitively don’t get the idea of death being permanent and very sad,” he says.

; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Young children also can’t distinguish well between “public” and “private,” Cohen notes. “If we say, ‘That person is so fat!’ in private, but would never say it in public, then we’re horrified when our child says it in public. But that’s because children don’t make that distinction between public and private. They have to be taught that distinction.”


Know Your Toddler’s Capabilities

When it comes to toddlers, parents need to remember these children’s limitations.

“If you think you’re going to teach tact to 2-year-olds, you’re in the wrong ballpark,” says Samalin. “Two-year-olds have no conscience, no impulsivity control. They’re irrational; they hardly have any language.

“When they’re upset, they’re going to hit and scream, and you have to be smart enough not to take them to a place like a funeral or a fancy restaurant unless you want to be embarrassed,” she says. “It’s like putting a 2-year-old in a living room that has a lot of fancy objects. I wouldn’t do it and if I did, I would expect all hell to break loose. Or I would be prepared to bring food or a toy to distract the child.”

Sometimes, however, parents can’t avoid bringing an infant or toddler to an event that isn’t particularly child-friendly. Fortunately, many people do understand the child’s limitations and are more tolerant than the parent might realize.

Prepare and Role-Play with Older Children

But when it comes to behavior in public, preschoolers and elementary-school-age children are often expected to know better. With these children, experts in parenting and in etiquette suggest preparing them in advance – by talking with them, role-playing a situation and by being an effective role model yourself.

“You have to assume that kids are going to do the wrong thing,” Samalin says “If you don’t teach them, they won’t know better. It behooves us as parents to anticipate this. Preparation is very important.”

• Let the child know in advance what is going to happen and what you expect.
“You can say, ‘Listen, honey, we’re going to Grandma’s house and she can get very hurt when she makes a nice meal and you don’t like it and say Yuck!’” Samalin advises. A parent might then suggest that the child simply not eat an item that he doesn’t like or quietly let the parent know that he doesn’t want to eat it.

Similarly, if a child is about to receive gifts, let him know that a giver might be hurt if he immediately announces that he already has a particular item. Instruct him instead to smile and say, “Thank you,” and tell him that you and he will work out what to do about the duplicate gift later on.

• If it’s quiet that you want, give your child time beforehand to let off some steam.
If you’re headed into a solemn occasion, such as a funeral or a wedding, Cohen suggests telling a preschooler or school-age child that “the rules are different where we’re going,” and that she is expected to sit quietly through this important event. Then ask whether the child would like to “get some screams out before we go in,” Cohen says. Let the child run around outside for a bit, using her loud voice and energy before going into what she now knows is a quiet, serious occasion.

• Have some fun role-playing a situation beforehand.
Cohen is a big proponent of putting children at ease about important events or social situations by making a game out of role-playing in advance.

In preparation for an upcoming wedding, for instance, you can practice with your child about how he should behave. You can certainly giggle about the seriousness of it all in practice, as long as you gently remind him that at the real event he’ll need to be more quiet and behaved.

In social situations, Cohen suggests role-playing with stuffed animals to teach life lessons in a friendlier way.

“Make a game out of it,” he says. “You can have one stuffed animal that’s really rude and impulsive and says to another stuffed animal, ‘You’re fat, you’re green, you’re so ‘hoppy’! What’s wrong with you?’ Then you can have another stuffed animal saying, ‘Oh, that’s going to hurt his feelings. Please don’t talk like that.’ And then the first animal might say, ‘Well it’s true!’”

More than likely, both you and your child will burst out laughing at the silliness of stuffed animals having this conversation. But Cohen insists this relieves the tension surrounding the lesson you’re trying to teach.

When a child does or says something inappropriate, “we get very tense because we’re embarrassed,” he says. “And what we teach when we’re tense and embarrassed doesn’t sink in very well. Then our children get scared or confused and they don’t do their best learning.”

After the giggles are out in a role-playing situation, a parent can acknowledge that, “This game is really funny, but, you know, it’s important what you say. I want you to be thoughtful, and if you see someone who looks different, it’s important that you don’t say, ‘Hey! That person is …’ We can talk about it together in private later on.”

Samalin agrees, advising parents to tell their children that if they have questions or comments about a person’s appearance, they should whisper to their parents or wait to talk about it later on.


Be Direct with Teens and ’Tweens

When it comes to adolescents, parents can and should be very direct about the behavior and tact that they expect, whether it’s on the phone, at a serious occasion or during everyday interactions with family and friends.

“We absolutely should confront bad behavior when we see it,” Cohen says. “We need to be very clear about our values and to keep it very simple. ‘No hurting other people and no putting other people down because they’re different.’”

Cohen also supports telling an adolescent if his or her behavior, or the behavior of others in that age group, makes you uncomfortable. “I think it’s good to say ‘I was embarrassed when I saw that,’” he says. “Maybe you saw some kids in the parking lot and they were teasing an old man using a walker. You can say, ‘I got this horrible feeling in my gut that this could have been you because these were otherwise really nice, good kids.’”

Then use it as a teachable moment about how others should be treated and what you expect from your child, Cohen advises.


The Importance of Role Modeling

Perhaps the most effective way to teach children about tact is good role modeling on the part of the parents.

“Kids don’t listen to us, but they watch us like hawks,” says Samalin. “If they see you being rude, they will be too. They watch how we speak to our spouses, the bank teller, everyone.”

She also advises pointing out kindness and politeness wherever you encounter it.

“If you’re in the bank and you say, ‘Good morning’ to the teller and she doesn’t answer, you can say to your child, ‘Did you notice that? She didn’t answer me. Maybe her mommy never taught her manners.’ Or if you see people searching for someone’s lost contact lens on the sidewalk, you can point out that kindness to your child. Children really feel like you’re including them when you talk to them in that way.”

Both Samalin and Cohen acknowledge that, in spite of your best efforts to teach your child tact, you will probably still have some uncomfortable moments from time to time.

Try to use the situation as a teachable moment and move on, Samalin says. “I guess part of a being a parent is being embarrassed by your kid. Understand that sometimes they’re not being deliberately rude.”




Emily Post’s The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children, by Peggy Post and Cindy Post Senning, HarperResource, 2003. Guides parents on what their children need to know about manners and interacting with both kids and adults.

Loving Without Spoiling
, by Nancy Samalin, McGraw-Hill, 2003. Includes a section on teaching children about manners and kindness.

Playful Parenting
, by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ballantine, 2001. Describes the games, role-playing and kidding around that parents can do to teach their children important life lessons.


Courtesy Isn't Complicated!
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Deirdre Wilson is a national senior editor for United Parenting Publications.

December 2004