A mother throws her arm in front of her daughter, who is about to dash into a busy parking lot. "Do you want to get hit by a car?" the mother asks.
"Yes, I do want to get hit by a car," the girl sasses back.
As the parent of a pre-adolescent, you've no doubt had a similar experience with your child.
One of the toughest challenges parents face is helping their children moderate their mouths. In his book Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours, psychologist Kevin Leman writes, "Unless you are running your home with the authoritarian precision of a dictator, your children probably feel free to talk back to you on occasion."
Children 8 to 11 years old are just beginning to master abstract thoughts, and with that, discovering the power of language. Disrespectful talk stems from a number of sources, including misplaced aggression and attempts to assert their own authority.
Who's the boss? "When your child becomes powerful with you, you should not become powerful in return," says Leman. "All [that does] is lay the foundation for a good knock-down, drag-out battle." Remember, as a parent, you are in authority and should quietly assert it. Sometimes the best thing you can do to handle a sassy child is to leave the room for a minute, conveying to the child, "I'm not going to fight with you."
Another approach is to calmly state that you are not going to accept that kind of talk, remove the child from the scene and temporarily isolate him. After a few minutes, offer to bring him back if he's ready to communicate in a more civil way. Explain how you feel when you are spoken to disrespectfully.
Tame the fighting words! In the book Why Did You Do That? Dr. William Lee Carter writes, "Argumentativeness in the home is frequently a result of misplaced anger." Maybe your child had a rough day at school: a friend made fun of him or ignored him during lunch. Instead of showing his hurt at school, your son snaps at you as soon as he walks in the door.
As upsetting as it is when this occurs, Carter suggests first handling your own emotions by keeping the situation in perspective, staying in control of yourself and sticking to the subject at hand. Then address your child's language by listening to the message behind his words. Sarcasm, threats and verbal explosions often mask other, tougher emotions such as hurt or resentment.
Let's say your daughter wants to attend a party you know won't be well-supervised. She reacts with: "Your rules are stupid and I hate you." What should your response be?
Instead of reacting to the words, acknowledge the real problem: "It sounds like you feel bad that you'll be left out of a good time. I understand. Let's think of something else for you to do with your friends that week."
First resolve the hurt, then address the sassy language. After a solution is found and emotions cooled, talk to your child about better ways to express her feelings. Offer several positive, polite and appropriate suggestions.
Do as I say, not as I do. One day in the car, my son called out to the driver in front of us, "Get going, mister, the light's not getting any greener." It was an embarrassing echo of my own drive-time talk. My children listen to the way I speak. Tackling mouthy behavior takes perseverance, but it can be done, and it's important to persist until the behavior changes.
Author, chaplain's wife, mother of two
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1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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