Expect to Be Embarrassed

At two, my son pronounced the “tr” sound as “f.” He also had a fondness for broadcasting every time he saw a passing truck. So pause to consider what this meant for my life. When I strolled him around our Brooklyn neighborhood, every time he’d see a truck he’d yell that he saw a big you-know-what, spreading his arms out to show how very big it was. Part of me really wanted him to be quiet—but admonishing him would have confused him and maybe hurt his feelings. And since I was pretending to care as much about backhoes as he did…I just did a lot of very loud enunciating, “Wow, that is a big TRuck!”

If you embarrass easily, parenthood can be excruciating. The only advice I can give is not to make matters worse by letting your offspring see your reaction. A young child doesn’t know from embarrassment, but is still likely to keep doing whatever is mortifying you just to hear your nervous giggle again-and again. So instead of trying to hush her up, try distraction or a quick, simple explanation. Say you’re on the checkout line at the supermarket and your two-year-old daughter suddenly asks, like my friend Georgia’s did, if you or various other members of the family have penises. The best strategy may be a quick, quiet explanation followed by a distraction (for once , you get to be grateful for the candy displays!). Sometimes, there’s no way out but to politely decline to answer and then explain the word “private” in full earshot of strangers. This may be greeted with great magnanimity by your offspring, or may result in her wailing at the top of her lungs. What can you do? Grin (or don’t grin) but bear it. She’s not intentionally trying to embarrass you. She’s just too young to realize that some things are not for public discussion and that, usually, conversations about private body parts fall into that category.

Also at the top of the list of life’s most embarrassing moments with little kids are those triggered by their guileless indiscretion when it comes to another person’s differences or unflattering appearance. A four-year-old may innocently ask Aunt Joan, “Why are you so fat?” or be fascinated by the tufts of hair growing out of Uncle Joe’s ears. Walking down the street he may point at a dwarf, laugh and say loudly, “Mommy, that man looks like a baby!” At a funeral, a three-year-old may walk up to the new widow and ask pointed questions about why her husband died and whether and when she’s going to get a new one. At four, my daughter was contemplating out loud whether she would want to marry her Daddy when she grew up. “What about marrying me?” her grandfather joked. She gave him a withering look and said, “No. You’ll be dead.”

Most adults make allowances for the utterings of children-they may chuckle and make reference to “out of the mouth of babes,” and all that. But some people  get offended. In such cases, you may need to remove a child who is unwittingly tormenting someone. Remind yourself that your child is not being intentionally hurtful. Explain to him or her why that man looks like a ”baby,” and emphasize that it’s not a good idea to talk in public about things you think are strange or ugly or funny about other people because that could hurt their feelings. But don’t expect to make much headway. Hurting somebody is too abstract a concept for most children in this age range to grasp. In the meantime, just be grateful for your children’s innocence and take solace in the knowledge that a decade or so from now, when adolescence hits, your mere existence will be excruciatingly embarrassing to them.