Tact — it’s a surprisingly slippery concept, especially if you’re a kid. Take young Evan. The seven-year-old was confused when his mother, Colleen Davidson, told him she didn’t appreciate being called “Big Mama.”
“I said, ‘Evan, you shouldn’t call anybody big,’ but it wasn’t easy to explain why. Evan has learned that he should eat healthy food so he will grow up ‘big and strong,’ so in his mind, it’s a good thing.”
“There are all sorts of skills that are needed for tact,” agrees Sherri Mullen, coordinator at Okotoks Healthy Family Resource Centre in Okotoks, Alta.
“First, you have to have the ability to see things from another person’s point of view.” At six to eight, this ability is beginning to emerge but is at an early stage. “At six they are still self-centred and really do see things one-sided,” says Mullen.
You also need to understand what might bother a person and, as Evan discovered, that is a subtle, confusing and culture-specific body of knowledge. Why is it OK to tell your friend her hair looks nice, but not talk about a stranger’s hair in an elevator? Why is “big” a good thing for a kid to be, but not a woman?
Then there are the degrees of truth involved. We teach our kids that they should be honest, and then wince when they blurt out, “I hate parsnips!” at Grandma’s dinner table. Among adults, tact may range from simply not mentioning a sensitive topic to the so-called white lie (“Your haircut looks great”). For kids, Mullen likes a definition of tact in the book The Family Virtues Guide: “Tact is telling the truth in such a way that no one is disturbed or offended.”
It’s a good starting place. We’re not, for example, asking our child to lie and say, “I love this present,” but to find something nice to say about it so the giver feels good and is not offended: “Thanks for this puzzle. I’m really interested in dinosaurs.” Yet that too requires considerable verbal skill and quick thinking.
So the first step to teaching your child how to be tactful is: Be patient. More suggestions:
Walk the talk “I think it’s important, when teaching tact, to do it with tact,” says Julie Leceno-Panza, mom to six-year-old Matthew. “We try to take him aside and let him know privately that what he said was inappropriate and why, instead of embarrassing him in front of other people.” Mullen agrees: “Most of what children learn about tact is from modelling.”
Teach Thumper’s rule The movie Bambi had it right, says Mullen. A good first simple lesson is: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
One step at a time Ali Harrison* notes that her seven-year-old son, Jonah, has learned not to make personal comments about other people; for example, “We have friends who he doesn’t like to visit because he thinks their house smells funny, but he knows this is not something he should say out loud where they might hear it.”
But it bothers Harrison that Jonah doesn’t hesitate to brag and show off to his friends, even at their expense. “He launches loud comments like ‘Too bad Jinan didn’t get all his stripes before the tae kwon do test, so I’ll get my yellow belt before him!’”
Remember how young children are just starting to understand and relate to other people’s feelings? A kid may be able to see why a direct insult is hurtful while not yet understanding how tooting your own horn can belittle others. And it’s harder to imagine another person’s point of view when your own feelings are strong. Chances are if Jonah’s parents keep explaining why his comments could be hurtful, he’ll eventually tone down the bragging.
Plan ahead Christmas dinner at Grandma’s house is coming up — and she’s sure to serve those dreaded parsnips again. Prepare your child ahead of time by suggesting some strategies, says Mullen. It’s not polite to say someone’s food is bad, but perhaps your child can simply say no, thank you when he’s offered parsnips, or just leave them on his plate if they’re already served. And if he’s questioned? Read on.
Teach the I-message and other useful phrases Bev Valliquette, a professor of early childhood education at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont., says this is a handy phrase for both children and adults. It’s the difference between “Parsnips are gross” and “I don’t like parsnips.” The next step is to show your child how softening her words makes a statement less jarring: “You don’t need to say, ‘I hate them!’ Just ‘No thanks, I don’t eat parsnips’ is enough.”
As for Davidson’s Big Mama dilemma? Evan took his mom’s words to heart — and promptly began calling her “Little Mama.”
“I don’t have the heart to tell him not to,” says Davidson. “Every time he calls me that, it just makes me laugh, and we both end up laughing.”
*Names changed by request.