The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 31, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Observations go against tactfulness

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — A while back, we enjoyed a relatively calm meal at a restaurant. Granted, our perceptions of “calm” are somewhat skewed to envelop normal toddler and preschooler behavior, but still, it was a good outing.

Right until the very last minute.

We were just scooting out of our booth, full and satisfied, when my 4-year-old noticed something worth noticing. Another group of restaurant patrons were passing nearby, and my daughter voiced an observation: “Mama, look! That lady has a big, huge belly! She must have had a lot of dinner!”

My heart stopped, and I froze, mortified. It goes without saying that my daughter did not use a small voice. Her words carried across rows and tables like dandelion fluff on a hot summer breeze.

By the time my pulse returned Ñ with enough strength to flood my cheeks with color Ñ the lady in question had gone. I hoped her feelings weren’t hurt by an innocent observation, but I had no way of knowing. Was she a person to laugh at childish outbursts? Or one who would be cursing the parents of such a rude child?

And this isn’t the only incident of embarrassing observation we’ve endured. Everything from skin color (“Daddy, he’s brown!”) to hair style (“Mama, that girl is bald!”) to clothing choices (“Boys aren’t supposed to wear skirts!”) are up for grabs in a child’s mind. Their little brains are hardwired to soak up information and sock it away in nooks and crannies that will help form their experiences into knowledge. They’re built to observe.

Still, those observations can leave us parents awash in the wake of some very awkward situations. It sometimes feels like fate throws visually interesting humans into the paths of families with small children simply to watch the hilarity unfold. But very often, we’re not laughing until months later.

While we don’t need or want to stop our children from noticing the individuality of others, there comes a time when they can handle their interest tactfully. I honestly don’t know at what exact age that may be, as I suspect it depends upon the maturity of the child in question, but I do know that the teaching of tact and discretion are vital lessons at any age.

We were never so ready to undertake that task as we were after the “big, huge” statement. We talked about keeping thoughts on other people’s appearances to ourselves.

We told her that it’s OK to notice things about others, but that we never know what personal traits might be sensitive subjects. We said that if she notices something fascinating, to hold that thought quietly until she gets a chance to mention it in private to mom or dad.

If an especially interesting character approaches us and I know the temptation to blurt will be overpowering, I try to half-engage my child’s attention. I don’t steer her away Ñ the interesting person is not leprous Ñ but I remind her with raised eyebrows or a squeeze of the hand that she should be careful with her words. I remind her that words are powerful, people are valuable and the world is endlessly diverse.

Sometimes kids just want to know why somebody looks different, and expressing that interest is not bad. It feeds their never-ending curiosity while teaching them about society and personalities. With a little bit of practice at discretion, they can satisfy their inquisitiveness without turning their parents into blubbering, red-faced fools.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.