Say the right thing, at the right time

Say the right thing, at the right time
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First Published: Fri, May 16 2008. 11 12 PM IST

Open up: Teach your little one how to be sensitive to social customs and the feelings of other people.
Open up: Teach your little one how to be sensitive to social customs and the feelings of other people.
Updated: Fri, May 16 2008. 11 12 PM IST
We had some friends and their child over for dinner recently. Our three-and-a-half year old daughter and their two-year-old girl were playing in another room while we were in the living room. Somewhere along the line, my daughter put out the lights, came out of the room, shut the door and went to play in another room. We discovered 15-20 minutes later that the other child was alone in the room, with the lights off. She was very frightened. However, what shocked us was her parents’ attitude. They were furious with our daughter and felt we should punish her for “misbehaving”. Sure, what our child did was not a nice thing but she is also a child, she did not do it intentionally. The other couple left in a huff when we refused to scold our daughter. What should we have done?
Well, yes, that was not a nice thing to do. And you need to let your daughter know that this is not done. But rather than “scolding” her, as your guests seem to have wanted you to do, it’s best to try and make her get a sense of how what she did was churlish and inconsiderate. I know these are huge words to use in the context of a little girl, but you have to find a way to communicate this. And express it right there, when she has just done it.
Open up: Teach your little one how to be sensitive to social customs and the feelings of other people.
However, that’s not the same thing as coming down hard on her, just to please the “aggrieved party”. I don’t know if you did it in some form, but a good idea in such a case is also for you to find a way of saying sorry directly to the other child, telling her, perhaps, that you understand she was frightened. Both children involved are really little, so there’s no point in using big words. You could have (and must have) also tried to soothe the parents and say your sorrys there. If that was not enough for them, what can you do, really.
But I’m wondering, from their reaction, whether you simply did not give the situation its due place, but tried to just brush it aside, saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay, now go play like good girls”?
When your child does something socially embarrassing or potentially harmful in its own way, it’s best not to get into either court martial or cover-up mode. The other parents expected you to court-martial your kid right then and there: haul her up, lecture her, make her apologize. That’s really inappropriate and no lessons are really learnt this way, except a lesson of humiliation.
However, a cover-up isn’t a good idea either. Just bypassing the episode with a “She didn’t mean it”, or “She’s so little, what does she understand” or “Let’s not make a big thing out of this” is not the right road to take. It leaves everyone around feeling “incomplete” in a way. After all, their two-year-old did get a bad fright, and they do need to feel that you have taken it seriously.
It’s best in such situations for both sets of parents to pull both children aside after the initial ruckus has settled down, and talk to both of them together, rather than the two sets of parents rushing off in two different directions.
Children sometimes do inconsiderate things, and can harm another child—the way your daughter did. Watch out for further (milder) signs of this, and find a way to gently discourage your child from doing it. This is no big crime and can be easily remedied; most times, it remedies itself as your child interacts with more kids.
My six-year-old daughter is a little too vocal about her feelings. If she doesn’t like the food at a relative’s place or finds someone’s toilet cramped or dirty, she says so in as many words, sometimes even in front of the hosts. We are embarrassed but don’t know how to tell her to tone down her reactions or teach her to express these thoughts privately to us. She is equally vocal when she likes something. How do we deal with her?
Your letter makes me smile. It reiterates that children are so innocently frank and forthright, without any malicious intent. I wish we didn’t have to teach them to couch things, tell little white lies, and generally learn “diplomacy” and “managing relationships” at such a young age.
If your child does this around people who are at ease with her forthrightness, let her be. However, when you think it creates specifically embarrassing situations, you could work, as you say, to “tone down” her reactions by forewarning her. For instance, before heading to a relative’s place, tell her, “Aunty has gone through a lot of trouble to cook, so tell her only if you like something. If you don’t like something, tell just us, but later, when we get home.”
In such situations, your child could, as many children do, get a bit confused over the issue and tell you: “But, you say I must be honest.”
This is where you can, and will need to, teach her two things:
# One, being honest does not mean speaking out every thought in your mind. This is an important learning, a social skill that makes you sensitive to other people and what they need to and don’t need to hear. It’s a skill missing in many adults, which they then proudly tout as being “honest” or “straightforward”.
# Two, while you teach her that she needs to tone down her comments and reactions, your child also needs to learn that you don’t expect fake behaviour on her part. A lot of parents themselves pay insincere compliments to people. This is not what you’re looking for when you want a child to be less blunt. At 6, she will be able to grasp the distinction you are making — between filtering her opinions and turning into a false compliment-giver.
In teaching such nuanced behaviour, you are sometimes able to help children put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Overall, this is a good thing to be able to do, and an important social and emotional skill: It helps them feel what the other person may feel. So, when you’re explaining this to her —that she needs to tell a person what she does like, but not necessarily spell out what she doesn’t like—you could demonstrate your point by asking (gently, not in a sarcastic or challenging tone) her, “How would you feel if…” For instance, you can ask her: “How would you feel if someone came to our house and said, ‘Your curtains are pretty, but your sofa is so ugly?’ or, ‘I liked your food except for the dal’?”
From this, first she can learn that it doesn’t feel good to be told these things. Second, she gets the first inkling of another important life-lesson: to each his own. Which means, like her, people have distinct tastes and opinions, and may or may not like something, and that’s okay.
Be careful to take this up with your child without turning it into a big issue. Try to transfer these lessons in a natural and agreeable atmosphere, so she doesn’t feel awkward and restricted in her social interactions.
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First Published: Fri, May 16 2008. 11 12 PM IST
More Topics: Child | Daughter | Parenting |