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Loose Lips: When Kids are Impolite

Standing in line at the supermarket, your 4-year-old points at the customer in front of you and says loudly, "That lady is fat." Or perhaps, "Why doesn't that man have any hair?"

"Out of curiosity or ignorance, young kids often blurt embarrassing things," says Judith Wagner, Ph.D., professor of child development and education at Whittier College. "But by age three, a child can understand that how she acts can affect people's feelings." Ways to teach her tact:

Set an example. Each time you demonstrate polite behavior, explain why you acted as you did. For instance, after thanking a relative for a gift, you might say, "Telling Mary how much I like the sweater made her feel good."

If you've just been thoughtless  -- maybe you spoke rudely to a slow-moving clerk  -- tell the person you're sorry, then later explain to your child why you apologized: "I hurt his feelings."

Accentuate the positive. "Teach your child to look for good things in people," says Daniel Dugan, Ph.D., an adjunct clinical professor of psychology at the University of Nevada. "A preschooler can learn to make 'I like' comments, such as 'I like the cake you baked' or 'I like the way you play with me.' Praise her whenever she volunteers one."

Plan ahead. During the weeks before Sage Jackson's fourth birthday, his mother, Kimberly, reminded him several times not to ask people if they were going to give him a present and not to complain at the party if he didn't like a gift. "I told him that it's okay to think it, but not to say it," says Jackson, of Citrus Heights, CA. "He graciously thanked everyone."

Correct behavior. Even if they've been coached, kids may forget their manners. So what should you do when your child comments on the size of a relative's nose? "If you think she's been intentionally mean, give an immediate time-out," says Dugan. If she's simply making an observation, take her aside and explain that she could hurt someone's feelings. Help her think of something positive about the person, then have her apologize and offer a compliment.

If your child loudly points out a disability ("Why is that man using a stick when he walks?"), offer a brief explanation to the person ("She's never met someone who's blind before"). Then tell your child that some people use canes because they can't see. The more she knows, the less she'll ask the next time.