Does your preschooler say embarrassing things in public?

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Our kids were in gymnastics class when my friend got a call from the instructor telling her that her son was in big trouble. “We were playing Simon Says, and he instructed the class to touch their penis,” the teacher told her, horrified.

In my house, penis is a proper word. And try as I might to have my preschoolers reserve this topic for the bathroom, the truth is, my boys talk about their penises all the time. It’s become so normal that I don’t even flinch or roll my eyes . . . until they say it in public! I’ve gone to great lengths to explain to them what is and isn’t appropriate, but sometimes, as with my friend’s son, the message can easily be forgotten in the excitement of, well, being a kid.

This is all normal and easily explained, says Toronto psychotherapist Liza Finlay. “Preschoolers are ‘practising’ for being school-aged, so they mimic what they perceive to be school-aged, or older, behaviour,” says Liza. “Sometimes, they have learned that such ‘inappropriate’ behaviour garners some sort of response-added attention or even a pitched battle, which wins them power points.”

If parents perceive that their preschoolers are using inappropriate language and gestures to get attention or to provoke a fight, Liza says parents need these attempts to fail. “You need to be unimpressed. In other words, ignore it,” she says. “You can tell your child, once, ‘I don’t like that kind of language/gesture,’ and then remove yourself. Leave.” Parents who believe that their child is simply experimenting, and not deliberately baiting them, could try holding a family meeting to discuss values around things like language, body parts, and humour.

“We had a set of rules for within our house, and a set of rules for ‘grandma’s house,’ by which we meant in more formal situations. My kids quickly learned when to tell fart jokes and when not to,” says Liza. “There were a couple of red-faced moments, but that’s when the real learning happened!”

If you’re out and about and your child inadvertently offends someone else (by asking why someone is bald, for instance), try talking to the offended person. “I would take them aside in private and ask for their cooperation in helping your child’s attempt to gain attention or provoke a reaction fail,” suggests Liza. If you suspect that this is merely experimentation, try saying, “Pardon us while we are mastering social cues. We’re getting there!”

As kids become increasingly centred around peers, and less centred around parents, then fitting in with friends outweighs provoking a reaction from you. That means the risk of you being embarrassed by your child’s inappropriate tendencies will start to wane.

“That happens around Grade one, and by Grade two you should be in the clear,” says Liza. “Sure, there’s still nothing like a penis joke, but those are more readily shared on the playground than the dinner table.”

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June/July 2014.

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