First, if the comment was audible, offer apologies immediately. “I would like to apologize for the comment that was made,” is one way to express your regret. This clearly serves as an example of sensitivity, provides an atmosphere of understanding and models a social skill. Softly assure the child everything will be explained in a more appropriate place. Then address the issue immediately. Using a concrete example helps children conceptualize information with greater ease. Find a quiet place where the child can sit and ask a few questions. More often than not, a simple explanation is all that is required. Don’t worry the beet red color disappears quickly!
Second, open the discussion by asking about feelings. “What would it feel if a person said something unkind or hurt your feelings?” Offer the child an opportunity to whisper something softly if they need to ask a question. This way feelings won’t be hurt. Sheryl Eberly, author of 365 Manners Kids Should Know, explains that “people with disabilities don’t want to create a scene wherever they go and shouldn’t have to explain their situation to strangers.” Throughout the EtiKids program, focus is placed on similarities people share and identifying the way differences enhance our environment and our world.
Many school programs now offer sensitivity training by using wheelchairs, earplugs to simulate situations facing people with disabilities. Ask the child to use one hand or keep eyes closed while picking up their toys to experience a little of the physical challenges that exist.
Third, examine personal perspectives. Many times we are unaware of nonverbal information transmitted to others. Any actions (eye rolling, head shaking, frown or scowl) or comments which highlight negative perceptions are easily and rapidly adapted by children. Dr. Haim Ginott compares children to wet cement. “Whatever falls on them makes an impression.” Why are bad habits learned so much quicker than good ones? Opening the door for someone in a wheelchair, helping someone who can’t reach an item on a top shelf in the grocery store, or complimenting someone’s new outfit can help a child see what positive social norms dictate.
Children aren’t the only ones making mistakes. Adults sometimes share inappropriate comments and may benefit from a manners makeover too. “You are really that old?” “Why did you get fired from your job?” “Sally is so fat!” Taking the time to consider how a comment will impact someone else can prevent hurt feelings and serve as a model to children. When we err, the quickest, most effective and easiest way to remedy a situation is just to say, “I’m sorry”.
Share your harrowing story with us at Dear Julie or firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember Mark Twain’s quote, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”