col Correct at once when a child says hurtful things

Q: Recently, I was at the doctor's office with my 3-year-old when a very heavy man and his children walked by. My daughter said very loudly, "That man's fat!" I was mortified and immediately pulled her into an examining room and explained that it was not OK to say that kind of thing in front of someone. How should I have handled this, and how can I prevent her from doing something like that again?

A: There probably isn't a parent alive who hasn't been embarrassed by something their young child blurted out. (I'll never forget a trip to the grocery store when my son said, "Mommy, that man's going to have a baby!" I wanted to sink through the floor.)

You did the right thing by pulling your daughter aside right away and letting her know her comment was inappropriate. With young children, an immediate correction is the only way they connect your teaching to their behavior.

But you probably also know that it will take time for your daughter to learn this lesson. Young children are by nature impulsive. Without the internal censor that develops as they mature, they say whatever pops into their heads. At 3, a child is only beginning to learn the effect her words have on others. She doesn't yet think naturally or easily about how others perceive her actions. It takes maturity and parental guidance for perspective-taking to develop.

Still, there are several things you can do now:


Gently and clearly correct your child when she says something that is likely to hurt or embarrass. As you did in this situation, take your child aside right away and explain in simple language that the other person might feel sad or hurt by what she said.

To help your child better understand the link between her words and others' feelings, ask her to think about how she feels when someone says something bad about her. Teach her the concept "words can hurt." And help her learn to use her words in a kind way.

Help your daughter develop an appreciation of individual differences among people, recognizing the beauty and worth of all people, however they look. For example, choose books and videos that recognize diversity and avoid harmful stereotypes based on physical appearance.

Be conscious of the messages you and other family members convey through your own words and actions. Over time, your daughter will see how you value people of all sizes and shapes and she will learn to do the same.

Dr. Martha Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing. E-mail them to or send them to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.

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