By Lisa FieldsNov 21, 2018
When my daughter was four, I took her with me to see a proctologist. She had visited doctors with me before but had never seen me examined from such an unusual angle, so I decided to tell her ahead of time what to expect. She accepted my explanation easily, so I didn’t expect any awkward issues. But when we arrived at the office, my daughter announced loudly to a friendly looking woman in the waiting room: “Mommy is going to see the tushy doctor so that he can look at her tushy and make sure that Mommy is healthy.” I don’t know which was harder to endure: going through the actual examination or looking that person in the eye.
Three- and four-year-olds haven’t yet developed filters to avoid sharing too much information with others. For the most part, it’s delightful—their candor might even make us chuckle. But occasionally, it goes too far. Some preschoolers emulate Little Red Riding Hood, telling strangers what their names are, where they live and where they’re going next. (As long as preschoolers are having these conversations in front of their parents—which they typically are—it’s fairly harmless to share information with strangers, but it can feel inappropriate.) Others share graphic descriptions of what they’ve done in the bathroom. And others still, including my daughter, are prone to telling anyone and everyone sensitive details from private conversations.
Although some of what your preschooler says might make you blush, she doesn’t realize that she’s saying anything out of line. “Kids at this age don’t get what is socially appropriate and what isn’t,” says Kiley Hamlin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “If they feel it, they’re probably going to say it.”
Preschoolers who leak too many details about themselves or their families when they chat with strangers at the supermarket may do so because they’re proud to have information to contribute to conversations with adults. “They want to share because sharing is a means of communicating and a way of socializing,” says Ester Cole, a psychologist and former chair of The Psychology Foundation of Canada and Parenting for Life. “This is a way of engaging with adults. In a way, that makes them feel like they also have something to offer.”
When your child tells everyone within earshot how old you are—or, worse, that you think the birthday cake your neighbour baked is too dry—don’t get angry or upset with your child, especially if she has repeated something that she heard you say first.
Your reaction to your child’s TMI outburst can help them develop other ways to share information. “If you start to argue with the child that you didn’t say it, that confuses the child,” says Cole. “As a very important person in your child’s life, you have to be aware of your own behaviour and speech.”
Let your child know calmly that she shouldn’t have said what she said. “It’s not an area for harsh words or shaming,” says Jennifer Theule, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “It’s not about consequences; it’s about teaching.”
Explain to your child the difference between conversation topics that can be shared in public and those that should only be discussed in private. But you still want to teach them that secrets aren't OK in case someone ever tries to keep them from telling their parent about something bad that happened to them.
“They know the word ‘private’ from when they use the washroom—it’s private, so you close the door,” says Cole. “There are some things we talk about at home that are private—between us—and some things that we share with others.” Although not all topics of discussion are suitable for strangers, it’s crucial for your child to know that they can talk to you about anything, including their bodies and their safety.
Your child might enjoy playing a game with you, determining which topics should be discussed in private and which can be shared with others. “It’s a nice activity,” says Cole. “It’s almost like being a detective: What stays in this house because it’s just for us to talk about?” Playing this private-or-not game can help your preschooler understand why some frequently discussed topics, such as bathroom habits, are private.
“The average parent of a preschooler does talk a lot about peeing, pooping and tooting,” says Theule. “We’re sending these mixed messages: We’re going to talk about this lots, but there are times when we don’t. They just need a rule: ‘We only use bathroom words in the bathroom. It’s kind of weird, but that’s what people agree on—that’s what people think is polite.’”
No matter how much you practise at home, your preschooler will still occasionally share too much information with strangers and other adults. When this happens, it’s helpful if you have a more appropriate topic of conversation at the ready: You can help your child change the subject easily with minimal awkwardness.
“In the moment, you can just say ‘Remember what we talked about, that sometimes some things are really private and we want to talk about them at home?’” says Cole. “You divert attention by saying to your child ‘But you know what Mrs. Smith is really going to like hearing about? Remember, you got a star at school yesterday for helping to clean up!’”
After we returned home from the proctologist’s office, I asked my daughter whether or not the lady in the waiting room needed to hear the details that she’d shared. She quickly realized that it was something that should only be discussed in private, and my daughter hasn’t brought up my tushy in public again since.