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It's Saturday morning, and my five-year-old and I are in line at Target. I've let her rummage through my purse as I check my email. "Mommy, what is this?" Sabrina says. I look up to see her holding a tampon. "Its for mommies," I mutter and toss it back into my bag. But shes not done: "Mommy! I see you in the bathroom using that!"
I shove a People magazine into her hands to distract her and stare fixedly ahead, making eye contact with no one.
As any parent knows, kids specialize in moments of parental mortification. Not that they mean to. According to Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist and author of Just Tell Me What too Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents, "Young children have little impulse control and are only starting to cultivate empathy and a sense of other peoples feelings." So how's a mortified parent supposed to handle her child and save face? Take this advice from top experts for 8 very common sticky situations.
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1. Your child announces, "Mommy! Look! That lady has such a big tummy!" and the woman is not pregnant.
For starters, get down on the childs eye level and quietly say, "You are right, and I will tell you about it after we leave," Brown Braun says. If said big-bellied woman is glaring at you, you could try tossing off a remark like, "Kids really do say the darndest things!" then move away, fast. Later, you can explain to your child that bellies come in all shapes and sizes, and since she didnt know how that lady at the store feels about her belly — maybe she likes it, maybe she doesn't — its better to not say anything about it. Then pray she never notices how jiggly your thighs are.
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2. Your child hits another kid at the playground.
Young kids are highly territorial, and those under three also sometimes struggle to express feelings with words, and may resort to using their hands. You want to get down on your childs eye level and say, in a firm voice (don't yell), "We do not hit." Ask the other child if he is okay, then tell the mom, "Were sorry, were just learning about using our words, not our hands." It doesnt pay to force your child to say sorry, Brown Braun says, because young kids are not sorry and they'll only get distracted from the point of learning to not hit.
Then take your child away to a bench, wait for him to calm down and acknowledge what happened: "You wanted to use the boy's bucket and he didnt let you. Next time, please use your words and say 'I want a turn.'" Give your child another chance to play nicely, letting him know that if it happens again you will take him home. Then reinforce any good behavior: "Look at how well youre playing! Youre sharing and using your words!"
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3. Your child said a bad curse word in front of another adult.
A friend of mine has the mother of all stories: Her daughter's kindergarten class has a letter of the day, and on "F" day (you can guess where this is headed), the teacher stopped by her childs chair and asked what word she had written out. "F---!" little Lucy replied. Taken aback, the teacher asked what picture Lucy had drawn. "Thats my Mommy," Lucy said. "She says that word all the time." When the teacher called home, my friend wisely blamed her potty-mouthed husband, apologized profusely, and asked the teacher for advice. The teacher recommended (in the most polite of ways) that they watch their mouths and reinforce the "no-nasty-word rule" if Lucy ever says the word again.
"Its best not to harp on a curse word unless a child repeats it regularly" says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say it — And Mean It. Kids often use foul language because they're giving it a test run — to see how a word sounds and gauge the reaction theyll get. If you make a big deal about it, they may delight in repeating it to get your attention.
If your little love-y drops the f-bomb in front of another parent, you can say, "I cant imagine where she heard that!" (go on, play dumb). Then tell your child, "You know, those are words we dont use in our family." And try not to recount this story to your friends within kids' earshot — if they know you think its amusing, theyll keep at it.
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4. Your kid has just pooped/vomited/spewed snot/deposited some other bodily fluid on someone else's couch or rug.
Comedian-actress Amy Wilson, author of a book on motherhood called When Did I Get Like This, once had to deal with a major throw-up fiasco. "One Sunday afternoon, we went to visit friends who had recently moved," she recalls. "As I held my 13-month-old and admired their new hallway Oriental rug, the baby suddenly projectile vomited all over it. We stood there, horrified, until my husband said, 'Tell you one thing, that was one hell of a housewarming gift!' That broke up the tension, and everyone laughed, helped clean the rug and went on to have a great afternoon."
At times like this, the best you can do is make sure your child is okay and show remorse to the other person ("OH MY GOD, IM SO SORRY!"). If you can, says Newman, call up your sense of humor. Then pitch in with the mess, enlisting your child if possible and offering dry-cleaning money. Try to take it in stride; vomit/poop/icky stuff happens.
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5. Your kid has a meltdown in the supermarket and everyone is staring.
You might want the floor to open up and swallow you whole, so if itll make you feel better, remark to people nearby, "Do you remember what its like to have a three-year-old?" Newman adds, "Keep in mind that you will never see any of these people again!" As for your inconsolable child, inform her, "We do not have tantrums like this," pick her up and walk out of the store (inconvenient, but necessary). Acknowledge what the issue may be — "I know you are tired/hungry/wanted that toy." Then lay out what will happen next: "When you calm down were going to go back in, buy milk, cottage cheese, and burgers, and will you help find the buns? I need a helper. Then we'll go home."
In general, try to hit stores only when kids are well-fed and rested up so theyre less likely to explode. Distraction can also do the trick. Brown Braun, who brought up triplets, says, "When Id take them to the supermarket as kids, Id weigh three giant apples and give them to them — reminding them, of course, wed have to pay for them. They kept them busy the whole time. You can also do it with a roll."
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6. Your child opens up a birthday present, looks at the giver and remarks, "I already have that!" or "I dont like it!"
Until that day comes when your kid learns there are some thoughts you keep on the inside, you will need to do damage control. If its a duplicate toy, tell your child, "Yes, you have that, and now youll have two! Uncle Harry looked all over for that present, so lets thank him for finding something so great." Next tell Uncle Harry, "You knew just what he would like!" Then mention that when a friend comes over, hell have one to share or that its great to have a copy to keep at grandmas house. Later on, remind your child that Uncle Harry wasnt trying to give him a bad present; he tried his best, so its important to just say thank you.
If your little one has, however, slammed whatever present Uncle Harry gave him, lighten up the situation by saying, "You know, Uncle Harry, this is not my child. My child would never say something so rude. Give me a minute while I go find my child." Then trot your kid out of the room and say, "I get that you dont like puzzles, but Uncle Harry didnt know that. He tried hard to get you something you would like and telling him you didnt hurt Uncle Harrys feelings. Next time, just say 'Thank you' and then later you can tell me or Daddy in private that you do not like it."
To avoid gift awkwardness in the future, Newman suggests that you "have a little refresher course before birthdays or holidays about what to say in these situations." Of course, you could just wait till everyone goes home to open the prezzies — the safest bet of all.
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7. Youre breastfeeding in public and accidentally flash a room full of people.
Most nursing women have exposed themselves at some point or another — its inevitable when youre dealing with a squirming baby. If someone makes a snippy comment such as, "Cover yourself up, will you?" Newmans advice is to simply say, "I apologize if Ive made you uncomfortable" even as you think "He/she needs to get a life!" Youre doing something wonderful for your child, so whats a little flashed nip?
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8. Out of the blue your child proudly announces to someone, "I have a vagina!" or "I have a penis!"
"This happens frequently when kids are two and three," notes Brown Braun. "Often, theyll say 'I have peanuts!' or 'I have a bagina!'" So if your child has actually used the right word, try to be proud even as you turn a lovely shade of red. Meanwhile, all you have to tell your "Ive got a vagina!" child is, "Yes, you do!" You dont want to put the kibosh on her willingness to talk about her anatomy by asking her not to discuss it.
As for how to handle adults who may or may not be amused, toss off a remark like, "Wow, my child is really learning her anatomy!" And remember, says Newman, that this situation and other mortifying ones are excellent fodder for the future: "Think about what fun you will have at your childs wedding rehearsal recounting them!"
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