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Reality Check: Insensitive Toddler

Q. My 3-year-old blurts out every thing she notices -- how much hair is on a man's head, whether someone talks "funny." She's truthful and innocent, but it hurts people's feelings. How can I get her to stop?

A. There's really no stopping a 3-year-old, but you can start teaching her that even telling the truth can cause hurt feelings. One day, when Ellie was 2½, she and Madeline (then 5) and I were having lunch at a neighborhood pizzeria. As a very short man passed our table, Ellie began to sing, "Mary had a little man, little man, little man...." Madeline and I stifled our laughs, and I quietly scolded Ellie to stop singing, while trying not to make eye contact with the fellow, who was staring angrily at us.

Clearly, I need advice as much as you do, so I called Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, author of the classic Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children. Her answer: "While it may seem obvious to everyone that the child was singing about the diminutive gentleman in question, acknowledging that would likely just make matters worse. Instead, a firm 'Stop making fun of your brother, even if he's not here,' accompanied by a look that heads off a protesting explanation, or by a quick arm to whisk her away, would cut things short without doing further damage. A lecture could be privately administered later about why we don't say such things."

Of course, this tactic requires one to be as quick-witted as Miss Manners, which isn't easy when you're embarrassed, and it isn't exactly honest. But I like the overall message: Hurting someone's feelings is worse than telling a little white lie. So say whatever you can to spare the insulted party's feelings, and hold the etiquette lessons until you get home.
Contributing editor Trisha Thompson, a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine, writes often on health and family.