When Kids Are Truthful, Not Tactful

by Rita Templeton
Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock

Little kids, much like your extremely drunk friends, have brutal honesty down to a science. They’ll tell you if your breath stinks, or if you’re annoying them, or if they think that random guy walking down the street is “too fat for those pants.”

Case in point: My then-3-year-old son was playing on the floor one day as I changed clothes, when suddenly I was hit with one hell of a truth bomb. “Mommy! Your butt is so big and jiggly!” he said as he laughed in his innocent, gleeful, well-meaning toddler way. His tone was full of delight, like somebody who has just discovered $20 in the pocket of last year’s jacket.

My jaw dropped, and my pants went up so fast that I nearly hit myself in the chin. It was a swift kick to my self-esteem because I knew it was true.

I wanted to yell defensively, “I have multiple children and a sweet tooth, okay?!” But I realized that he didn’t intend to be mean. He was simply making an observation and sharing it with me because he thought it was funny. I’m sure he thought I would agree, and he wanted me to laugh, too. Toddlers (and Sir Mix-a-lot) apparently like big butts, unaware of the danger of telling a woman that her anything is “jiggly.”

Still, I couldn’t help being a little miffed. “Cameron!” I admonished with a frown. “That’s not nice. You shouldn’t say that to people.”

I could tell he was confused, poor guy. It was like I had reprimanded him for saying “The sun is shining.” In his eyes, he had just been stating a fact. I felt bad, but what could I do? He needed to learn at some point that he couldn’t just go around remarking on people’s physical appearance.

We tell our kids that honesty is always the best policy, but then we tack on all sorts of amendments to that statement. Honesty is the best policy, unless you’re disappointed with the hand-knit orange socks Aunt Tillie made you for your birthday. Honesty is the best policy, unless someone asks you what you think of their odd new hairstyle. Honesty is the best policy, unless you’re thinking of telling someone that your mommy doesn’t wear a bra to school drop-off or that you had candy for dinner last night.

We can explain that they should be honest unless they risk hurting someone’s feelings. The problem this poses is that toddlers — although they insist they know everything — have a very limited scope of experience in that department. When they’re at such a dangerously loose-lipped age, low self-esteem is not a problem they’ve had to deal with. The majority of them have (thankfully) never felt the sting of being called fat, for example, so they don’t even realize it can be a hurtful experience.

Until they grasp the concept of handling situations tactfully, it’s pretty much guaranteed that our kids are going to embarrass the crap out of us at some point. It’s just an inevitability of parenthood, an “occupational hazard.” (Although, if I’m being optimistic, at least we can repay them for it when they’re teenagers.)

All we can do is use each teachable moment to our advantage, letting them know that some people may be sensitive about certain things. We can tell them that if they have a question or a comment about the way someone looks or acts, and they’re not sure if it will be hurtful or not, they can wait and ask us later in private.

And we can lead by example: When they come downstairs dressed in a neon green Ninja Turtles shirt and purple plaid shorts, we can say, “You did an awesome job picking out your clothes, but let’s see if we can find a shirt that has purple in it like your shorts.” (Or you just let them rock that outfit, because who cares really?)

A couple of weeks after my son’s initial comment about the Jell-O-like appearance of my rear end, I was struggling to tug my yoga pants up when he walked in. Inwardly cringing, I mentally prepared myself for another comment. He looked at me for a minute with those big, inquisitive, blue-gray eyes and opened his (big, usually uncensored) mouth. I braced for impact.

“That’s a small butt you’ve got there,” he said sweetly.

I couldn’t help but laugh and hug him, praising him for his effort to say nice things. I wasn’t sure I had taken the right approach in teaching him to be tactful, but at least he seemed to have retained the lesson.

And I had taught him one of the most fundamental skills of manhood: When talking about age or weight, the more tactful you can be, the better.

He’ll thank me someday.