THE BLOG

Ask the Parent Coach: Kids and Embarrassing Questions

10/11/2012 12:10 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2012

Dear Susan,

I am a 72-year-old grandmother of children who are ages 3, 6 and 8. The other day, the 8-year-old blurted out to his cousin Mary, "Why did you break up with Joseph?" embarrassing Mary in front of a table full of adults. Another grandchild asked her retired uncle "How much money do you have?" What should I do when they are so rude to people?

Signed,

Flustered Grandmother

Dear Flustered Grandmother,

Kids are passionate learners, eager to understand the world around them. If they ask where milk comes from, we launch into an impromptu lesson on cows. When they want know how the washing machine works, we do our best to explain. So why wouldn't your grandchild ask Mary why she and her boyfriend broke up? In his short life he has discovered that the best way to make sense of things is to ask!

It takes time for a child to learn which conversational topics are acceptable and which are off-limits. That doesn't mean you may not feel uncomfortable if your grandchild puts someone on the spot with an overly personal question, but it certainly doesn't mean he is trying to be rude.

It's easy to forget that once upon a time, you and I didn't know what was and was not acceptable to say in public. Like your grandchildren, we needed the patient guidance of a caring adult to help us learn the subtleties of what is and isn't appropriate to ask of others. Here are some tips for handling those awkward moments when your grand kids say the darndest things.

1.) Relax.
Most people are far more tolerant of a young child's awkward questions than you may give them credit for. While it's true that there are those who would find it embarrassing to be asked about their financial status or relationship breakup, it's possible that the person most embarrassed by your grandchildren's forthright questions is you. I would caution you not to assume you're accurately reading Mary's mind or that she is judging you somehow because your grandchild behaves without the restraint or censorship of an adult. Many people find a child's open inquisitiveness refreshing and are more than happy to answer their questions.

2.) Don't make a fuss.
Some children do know that it's inappropriate to ask certain things in public and they do it to get a reaction. If you suspect your grandchild is deliberately asking an awkward question of you or someone in your company, raise that arched eyebrow of yours without laughing or making a big deal about it. Silence -- accompanied by the look that says, "Think again..." is usually far more effective than lots of negative attention, which could fuel the behavior.

3.) Resist shaming. Foster curiosity.
Curiosity is a sign of intelligence. Punishing a child for wanting to know more about the world and its complexities may diminish her interest in engaging with those around her. While you certainly will have to help your grandchild learn that there are topics that are not to be asked of people she doesn't know or which are considered private, you can help her understand this in a way that doesn't make her feel ashamed for being interested. You could whisper something like this in your grandchild's ear:

I think it may make Mary uncomfortable to talk about something that was very personal to her, especially when other people are listening. When we get home, maybe we can talk a little bit about why people who love each other sometimes part ways. Would you like to know more about that? Are you missing the fun you had when Joseph was coming over with Mary?

4.) Offer age-appropriate explanations.
If your grandchild asks you an embarrassing question when you're out in public, answer as honestly as you can, sticking to facts and avoiding imposing your judgments. Again, you will want to speak softly, suggesting that it's best to ask questions that might make someone uncomfortable when that person isn't nearby.

Why is that man so fat?

People come in every type of shape and size. He is heavier than some people, and other people are much taller.

Allow for the possibility that a stranger may, in fact, be quite willing to address your grandchild's curiosity. It's natural for a child to be intensely interested in people who appear different. Approaching someone in a wheelchair with, Why are you in that chair? may elicit an unexpected explanation by a stranger who helps her recognize that people are people, regardless of shape, size or circumstance.

5.) Model courtesy.
Rude behavior isn't defined only by words. Rudeness is in the tone, edginess or judgment in ones voice. One of the best ways to teach your grandchildren to have good manners is to make sure they see you speaking respectfully to others. If you say unkind things about people after a gathering -- Did you see what Caroline was wearing? What was she thinking? -- you will be planting the seeds of legitimate rudeness. Be friendly and kind to those around you, both to their faces and behind their backs, and your grandchildren will model their behavior after you.

Few of us have escaped those awful moments when the youngster in our charge says to a stranger, "Why are you so fat? or "How come you're in that wheelchair?" But most children don't intentionally want to make others uncomfortable; they are just intensely curious and have no way of expanding their understanding of the world without asking questions. While we do need to teach our children the fine art of discriminating between what is and isn't appropriate, it can be done with patience and kindness.

Yours in parenting support,

Susan

Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to askparentcoach@gmail.com and you could be featured in an upcoming column!

Parent Coach Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.