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How to Handle Awkward Mom Moments

My neighbor had no clue. Here she sat, innocently sipping tea in my kitchen, while I prepared to lower the boom: Our 9-year-olds had been up to no good. I had a long list of their mischief, including throwing apples at a neighbor's freshly painted house. I had to tell her, but how? I hemmed. I hawed. I gulped my Earl Grey.

And I wondered: Do these things have to be so hard? In a word, no. Sure, sticky situations will crop up, from the backyard to the baseball diamond. But armed with the right advice, you can face them head-on. And you might even find that, when life hands you apples, a little applesauce isn't far behind.

Awkward Moment Moment No. 1
 

You need to tell another parent about something her kid did.

Though I didn't know it at the time, my conversation about the fruit-throwing frenzy followed the basic script that experts recommend. (Phew.) "Be friendly and stick to the first person—'I've been wanting to share something,'" says Kathleen Hall, Ph.D., CEO of The Stress Institute, in Atlanta. And if your kid is just as guilty as hers, say so up front. Done. Also on target, to my relief, was my follow-up: I said I figured she'd want to know, because I definitely wanted her to tell me anytime she found out my kid was running wild. In fact, I asked, "Is there anything he's done lately that you might like to, um, mention?" There wasn't—but we agreed to keep each other informed.

The flip side: A mom announces that she caught your kid snooping in her bedroom closet.

Go into journalist mode: Ask for details on what, when, and how. Don't be defensive—just say you really appreciate her letting you know, which helps promote future communication. And if the other parent is irate or overly critical, keep your responses minimal to calm her down. "I acted kind of dull," says a mom of two in Athens, GA, recalling a neighbor's recent accusation ("Your six-year-old forced my eleven-year-old to put on temporary tattoos!"). "I went, 'Uh-huh, uh-huh.' Eventually, she ran out of steam."

Awkward Moment Moment No. 2
 

Your kid spills a family secret: "Well, my daddy has been sleeping on the sofa?"

Talk privately to the other parent as soon as possible. If you don't do some immediate damage control, speculation can spread mighty fast these days. (Facebook, anyone?) Be honest--but without necessarily sharing every dicey detail, recommends Hall. For instance, you could say that you and your spouse are in a rough patch and seeing a counselor. With any secret that's very personal or painful, it's best to talk in person, notes Hall, but if you're too mortified for a face-to-face, a phone call will do. By being open, you'll engage the other parent's sympathies. Then you can suggest some two-way discretion: Please keep my secrets, and I'll do the same for you. (After all, if your kids see a lot of each other, this won't be the first time they air dirty laundry.) Such heart-to-hearts may even help turn a parent you know into a close friend.

The flip side: Your child's buddy happens to mention that his mom used to be a stripper.

Your pressing questions about pole dancing will have to wait. Unless you've just learned a secret that compromises someone's safety, mum's the word around Mom, says Hall. "Otherwise, bringing it up is just plain nosiness," she notes. But if you've found out, say, that a fellow mom has been drinking and driving in the carpool, then by all means, speak up--as Hall did. "I went over to her house and said, 'I heard you were driving and drinking a beer, and this just isn't going to work.'" Hall also warned the other moms in the carpool about the situation, and to everyone's relief, the drinking mom and her daughter decided to drop out.

Awkward Moment Moment No. 3
 

After hosting a sleepover, you get a ticked-off phone call from the other mom.

Maybe she's mad that you let the kids watch the latest Harry Potter or that they stayed up till the witching hour. Either way, it's time for an apology—and an assurance that you would not have allowed it if you'd realized she didn't approve. One mom I know got a call from a parent who was upset that the family had invoked the name of Christ in prayer at a meal while her child was visiting. This mom thanked the other for telling her and apologized. She said, "You know, this is an opportunity for us to learn more about each other and our different religions." The other mom replied, "I'm so glad you took this in a positive way"—and the kids remained friends.

To avoid such situations in the first place, be sensitive and ask plenty of questions before a child visits your home--even when you suspect the other parent won't mind the activity you've been planning, says Faith Boninger, Ph.D., a life coach and mom of two in Scottsdale, AZ.

The flip side: You want to inform a neighbor that it's not okay for your 7-year-old to spend afternoons gobbling pork rinds and playing Mortal Kombat: Armageddon on Xbox.

If you're royally angry, cool off for 24 hours or so. Then phone the other mom, thank her for having your kid over, and calmly complain: "I did want to mention that Jack has been a little freaked out about that video game last night." Once the problem's on the table, suggest some ground rules, like only video games rated "E" for everyone.

Awkward Moment Moment No. 4
 

You go way overboard cheering at your kid's sports event.

Michaun McComsey, a mom of two in Blacksburg, VA, recalls the shame of being shushed at a Tae Kwan Do tournament after she and her husband had been shouting "Get him! Get him!" to their son. "Everyone looked at us," she says. Later, watching themselves on video, the couple was horrified: "We were encouraging him to pummel this other kid!" In such a situation, experts say, the only thing to do is apologize profusely. "Just say to the other parent involved, 'I really lost it. I shouldn't have yelled that. I'm sorry,'" suggests Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Boston. Depending on what you yelled during the event, he says, you also may want to say you're sorry to the kids involved—theirs and yours. 

After McComsey apologized, she vowed to stick to cheers such as "You can do it!" and "Keep it up!" And from now on, she'll be rooting for all the kids, not just her own. Well played.

The flip side: A parent from Little League shouts that the pitcher (your kid) has a lousy arm.

If the other parent seems out of control or potentially violent, you're better off griping to a coach or a referee—or enlisting the support of other aggrieved parents. (Peer pressure: gotta love it.) If, on the other hand, you're dealing with an annoying-but-harmless repeat offender, a low-key remark should shame her into better behavior. Try something like "Hi, I'm Mark's mom—he's the pitcher. I know you probably don't mean it, but your saying that really hurts his feelings." In general, it's best to use "I" sentences and describe how someone's behavior affects you or your kid, rather than tell them they're wrong, emphasizes Boninger.

Awkward Moment Moment No. 5
 

Another parent disciplines your kid right in front of you.

Try not to be too thin-skinned—your kid needs to understand he's in a world full of people who are watching what he does and passing judgment, as well as trying to protect him, Kendrick notes. But if you're truly bothered by a parent who often oversteps boundaries, experts suggest quietly taking her aside. After she tells your kid to, say, stop with the arm farts, assure her that it's annoying you, too—but you think he'll respond best if you correct him yourself, at home. Kendrick recalls how he tired of hearing his son, then 6, getting yelled at by a neighbor for running during games in her backyard. "I said, 'I understand you're worried he's going to fall, but, really, he's pretty nimble, and as long as he's not bumping into people, that's just who he is.'"

If your child seems hurt by another parent's reprimands, you might murmur something to him, too—ideally, before you speak to the parent. ("It's okay, honey; you and I can talk about this later.") Chances are, though, your child will feel just fine. During his own boyhood, Kendrick says, "I got feedback about my life and who I was from other adults, and that extended the embrace of care and love that I felt as a kid."

The flip side: You tell a kid to quit chewing like a baboon—while his mom is right next to you.

Apologize and make light of it. "Sorry, that slipped out of my mouth! I'm so used to saying it to my own kids. I don't know why I bother, though—they still eat like they just escaped from the zoo." Seeing the humor almost always smooths things over beautifully until the next awkward moment.

Check out these savvy solutions to awkward mom moments from Emily Roy, a Scottsdale, AZ, image and communication consultant (and a mom of four).

The dreaded kid birthday party. You know no one...yet everyone else seems to know each other. How to deal?

You will have to initiate any conversation you want to have in this situation. Be direct and friendly. “Hi, I'm Jen, Jordan's mom. I've seen you around but never actually met you. You're Sarah's mom, right?” And from there, lead the conversation so that you can learn a little something about her, like “Did you grow up in this area?” You will eventually hit upon something you can talk about. Just don't say anything negative—not about your pediatrician, your child's teacher, even your neighbor's dog. You don't know these potential friends well enough to be sure you'll avoid misunderstandings.

You need to approach your boss about working more flextime. What's the best way to steel yourself for a productive exchange?

Every sentence that comes out of your mouth needs to be factual and not emotionally based. Focus on how you'll be meeting the goals of your present position, as well as any benefits to the company (like equipment your work-from-home days will free up, or being available earlier in the morning since you won't have to commute). Wrap up by giving control back to your boss and showing respect—let him have time to digest what you've said, while still making sure he understands you need an answer soon: “I'm sure this is something you'd like to think about. Would you be able to give me your thoughts next week, or would the following week be better for you?”

You pick up your toddler from daycare and find the teachers gabbing away while the kids are tearing apart the room. You don't want to make a huge deal out of this, but it bothers you.

Take your concerns directly to the head teacher. Who knows, maybe one of them had just found out her dad has cancer or her lease isn't being renewed. Everyone has off days. If the problem persists, make an appointment to talk to the director. Remember that your intention is to solve the problem, not just to vent. Keep it brief and your tone concerned (not angry): “Donna, you know that I love this place. But last week when I picked up Henry, the teachers were so deep in conversation that they didn't seem to be paying much attention to the kids.” Then wait for her response. Ask questions from there if you aren't getting the feedback you were hoping for: “Is there a policy in place regarding how much structured play the kids are getting?”

You're on a job interview, and it seems to be going well, when you're casually asked, "Do you have kids?"

This is really poor form, but not uncommon. So if you feel obligated to answer, simply smile and say “I do.” If it seems appropriate, finish with “And you?” The sooner that question is over, the sooner you can get back to showing them that they've found their candidate.

 

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