Portrait of boy with mouth open yelling child

Embarrassing moments

On holiday at Queensland’s Gold Coast when my son was a bright and cheery four-year-old, we decided to go for an early-morning stroll. Rounding a corner in the busy tourist mecca, Mitch stopped dead in his tracks, eyes wide with wonder and pointed at a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and very long, flowing jacket. He then said very loudly (as only a four-year-old can), “Why is that lady wearing a sheet?” and then dissolved into fits of giggles. She had the good grace to smile, while I turned 20 shades of red and offered an apology.

As parents, most of us have experienced a few, well, awkward moments with our offspring. Perhaps your child has shouted something they shouldn’t. “Daddy, why is that lady in a wheelchair dribbling?” or “Why is that man really really fat?” Maybe your child has shared stories of what they’ve seen or discovered when they shouldn’t. “I found some funny balloons in a packet in dad’s bedroom drawer but he said I can’t play with them.”

While … most childhood verbal blunders are unintended, children will also knowingly push the boundaries.

Issues such as respecting others’ privacy, exploring cultural differences and learning the art of tact and discretion are part of teaching a child to be socially savvy as they immerse themselves in a multicultural and diverse world that is constantly changing.

Keeping it real

While exposure to different ethnicity, religions and other cultural groups will expand your child’s world, kids will say and do things that can embarrass — these often-innocent faux pas are really just part of growing up. It’s how you navigate awkward situations like these without creating fear, shame or humiliation to everyone concerned that counts.

As for whether you should get your child to apologise, according to our experts, the short answer is probably not.

Warren Cann, CEO of The Parenting Research Centre at Raising Children Network, says young children are innately curious and the occasional verbal slipup is simply that. “Observing is what drives their learning. Kids can be intrigued by things that are different,” he says. “If they ask questions they’re looking for understanding, or for the adult to give them context in a situation they are unfamiliar with.”

Author and parenting expert Michael Grose acknowledges that most childhood verbal blunders are unintended, but children will also knowingly push the boundaries. Grose says a good example of that is with language. “Kids will learn to swear and they’ll knowingly test it out, ‘I’m going to drop the F Bomb.’ And they’ll do it when other people are around, often accompanied by a wicked grin,” he says. It’s up to parents to determine whether it’s an innocent social gaffe or they’re being knowingly naughty.

It’s okay to ask questions

Kids need to know they can ask you about what they have seen, but not always straight away and not always at full volume. Point out that talking about someone when they can hear you can sometimes hurt their feelings. According to Cann, you should tell your child that, if they want to say something about someone, to whisper it in your ear. “Explain that it’s a conversation for a quiet inside voice, not a loud outside voice,” he says.

Speak up

One of the best ways to foster empathy and understanding with your child about different races, religions or those with a disability is to speak up yourself if you witness something that is not appropriate. It shows your willingness to take a stand for groups or people who are treated unfairly. If someone slanders another race or tells an inappropriate joke about another religion, say your piece with quiet dignity. Chances are your child will be listening.

Cultural connections

Australia is fast becoming a cultural melting pot, a rich and vibrant fusion of beliefs, humanities and societal groups. Children are fortunate that they can experience many cultures and sample lifestyles, traditions and cuisines that may be vastly different from their own.

Globally aware kids celebrate and value diversity. They understand that discrimination of any kind can be hurtful. How your child responds to different cultures and ethnicities is reflected in the way you as a parent accept and embrace them. How much do you support cultural diversity? Be honest and put aside any of your own prejudice or bias; to live in peace and harmony, more now than ever before, we need to accept the multiplicity of the exciting brave new world we live in.

Dr Hass Dellal from The Australian Multicultural Foundation says that, when it comes to learning to accept a different reality from our own, the earlier parents start to immerse their child, the better. “Young minds truly benefit from being introduced to the diversity that exists in our world,” he says. “It dispels the fear of the unknown and gives them the opportunity to learn the very real value of different cultures.”

Here are some fun ways to expose your children to diversity and multicultural experiences:

  • Dish it up. Put foods from other countries on the menu at home. Give your taste buds a treat — grab some recipe books and start experimenting with different cuisines. Get the kids on board. They’ll love it.
  • Grab a globe. Take a world trip. Buy a globe or a large map or world atlas and spend time discussing different countries. Come up with a wish list of countries you might visit one day with the kids, just for fun.
  • Read all about it. Source some books from the library that talk about diversity. Mem Fox’s Whoever You are, Tania McCartney’s An Aussie Year and Pat Thomas’s Don’t Call Me Special all deal with differences. Gross suggests that, after you’ve read a book that Deals with diversity, talk to your child about their feelings around characters in book. How did that character in that book feel? Empowering a child’s emotional intelligence through reading is very helpful, he says.
  • Put cultural events on your to-do list. Celebrate Chinese New Year, take your child to see an Egyptian exhibit at a museum or get along to a Greek Festival and sample how other nationalities celebrate and the customs they share. Attend a multicultural music festival and also tune into cultural programs on TV or movies from time to time.
  • Make diversity normal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t make a big deal of it. It’s just about understanding and appreciating the value of things that are different in our world. Teaching kids about diversity is no different from teaching them about the colours of a rainbow or the different tactile sensations of crunchy sand or smooth cool water.

Tactfully speaking

The art of being tactful isn’t always easy, even for grownups. No doubt as an adult you have planted both feet firmly in your mouth from time to time. “When’s the baby due” to a co-worker you haven’t seen for a while, who has just put on weight, or “I didn’t realise it was fancy dress” to a friend who has just blown a week’s wages on what she thought was a gorgeous new frock.

If your child says something they shouldn’t, it’s important to monitor your own reaction. Cann says getting angry, shushing the child or telling them off will just be confusing. They probably don’t understand that their comment could hurt another’s feelings. “Look at it as a teachable moment, an opportunity for the child to not only learn something about their world but also how they can approach situations,” he says.

For example, if there is a disabled person in a wheelchair and the child points them out, first acknowledge what the child has said, in a dispassionate way. “That man is in a wheelchair because he can’t walk”, but then build on that, suggests Cann. “Isn’t that good that he has a wheelchair so he can get around just like you and me?”

It is really a three-step process: acknowledge what the child has seen, validate it with genuine understanding and empathy towards the other person, and then build on the learning with your child so they understand more about their world.

As for whether you should get your child to apologise, according to our experts, the short answer is probably not. “It’s unwise to get the child to apologise; it will leave them feeling embarrassed and the other person probably feeling more uncomfortable,” says Cann. Grose adds that if the other person looks offended you can apologise on the child’s behalf. “But it shouldn’t be necessary. Children will often struggle when they are in the social domain to say the right thing — most adults will understand that.”

No-go zones — keep out!

It’s not just verbal faux pas that can get our little cherubs into strife. Understanding personal space and respecting another’s privacy are also big learning issues. A child who grows up and understands respect for privacy and personal boundaries will be well equipped to navigate their way through social situations and loving intimate relationships throughout their life.

A good way to teach personal space is illustrated in Julia Cook’s book Personal Space Camp: she uses an example of a hula-hoop to help a young child define personal boundaries or their own personal bubble. The idea is that family members can be inside the bubble but strangers shouldn’t be. Teaching the concept of personal space can also help your child to understand and be alert to any potentially unsafe situations.

As for privacy, Cann says that children tend to be aware of their own need for privacy well before they understand the actual concept. This usually occurs during the latter part of the primary school years, when your child may start to lock the toilet door or be embarrassed if you see them in a state of undress, he says.

“You can introduce the idea of respecting privacy well before children understand the concept by developing a few rules,” says Cann. Have conversations with your kids about respecting others so they know what’s acceptable and what isn’t. According to Cann, it’s also important that you show them what you mean. “Modelling respect for privacy is important, too — knocking on closed bedroom doors, for example,” he says.

Kids should also learn that it’s not polite to listen in to others conversations and that going through another’s personal possessions isn’t OK. Practise with your child shutting the bathroom door and knocking before they enter. There might be a few false starts and giggles along the way, but lessons learnt with a bit of fun thrown into the mix are often ones well remembered.

A way to teach your child about respecting another’s things is to designate a space that’s theirs — a drawer or trinket box. “Even getting siblings on board to ask before they play with a child’s toy is showing respect for another’s belongings,” says, Cann. If your child does step over the line, remind them that taking a sneak peek at your sibling’s journal is not OK. Explain that it hurts their feelings. Ask your child how they’d feel if someone was to riffle though their possessions uninvited.

Make rules explicit: sometimes when a rule is broken it can simply be enough to point out that a child has overstepped the mark and broken the rule. Another approach could be a consequence for breaking that rule. Taking quiet time, or the loss of a favourite activity, could be a response.

Cann says it’s important to also be on the lookout when your child does respect those rules and be quick to notice that. Praise the child if they do the right thing; for example, “I think that’s great that you asked before you borrowed your brother’s toy truck.”

What’s normal anyway?

Kids are growing up in an ever-changing world that challenges gender stereotyping, embraces different cultures and religions, and respects sexual orientation and those who might be different from us in any way. Let’s face it, it would be a pretty boring old world if we were all the same.

Sometimes all it takes is just a simple explanation or answering a question — that’s all kids need to validate what they have seen or gain a deeper level of understanding.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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