Nothing gets my temper flaring like a smartmouth kid. But I'll hold off on my rant so Denise has a chance to ask for our advice:
My son recently turned 8. Wow. I have seen some disrespect come and go lately with him and it makes me sad and angry. He's very flippant, won't listen and is rude.
After things settled down, I spoke to him and told him how disrespecting ANYONE is not the right thing to do. I have no clue where this came from (because we had such a good day and then BOOM!). Ugh. Help. Please. Thanks.
I have a lot of experience with this issue. And while I don't think my experience is everyone's experience (that's a central point at Parent Hacks), I think it might help to tell our story…which begins with my story.
My kid and I have very different communication styles.
I was a rule-follower. Deferent to grownups and authority figures. A "well-behaved kid." My parents assumed (as did I) that this was the direct result of their firm parenting and my "goodness."
As I grew up, communication and diplomacy were my best skills. I love to talk, listen, interpret…I basically love understanding people and making myself understood. I'm happiest in a harmonious group of connected people (can you tell why I love blogging?).
Then I grew up and had a kid of my own. As soon as he could express himself, he was saying "no." As a baby it was crying in protest, as a toddler it was NOOOOOO! and, as his vocabulary grew, his pushback got more sophisticated and, to onlookers, more disprespectful. He didn't seem concerned with adult or peer approval; if he had a strong opinion or preference, he'd let everyone know. Loudly.
At first, I felt it was the result of my lax parenting. (Sad to say others assumed that too.) But as he got older, I began to judge him. What kind of kid talks to his parents like that? Doesn't he care about the feelings of those around him?
These questions, which I was ashamed even to admit to myself, were deeply painful. I loved my son so dearly and I couldn't reconcile this behavior with my values of group harmony and parental authority…values I was doing my best to instill in him.
Kids learn communication skills at different rates.
I'll skip to the end of a long story and share what I've observed as he has gotten older: verbal communication, like any other skill, is a multi-level learned behavior, and it goes at different rates for different kids.
Some kids understand the facts of a situation long before they understand the feelings. At a very young age my son could logic his way through choices. He's also bold, so arguing that logic was no problem. But it took several more years before his emotional perception and control caught up with his logical and verbal ability. He simply couldn't process the grey areas of verbal (and non-verbal) communication until much later on. And he couldn't control his temper well enough to handle the frustration.
In other words, I don't believe my son was trying to be disrespectful when he pushed back. He didn't even understand that aspect of his communication.
Frame communication in terms of learning, not who a kid is.
I'm not saying he was a faultless little angel. I'm also not saying verbal disrespect is acceptable. My point is simply that we made the best headway with his backtalk when we treated it more like a learning delay than a reflection of his "goodness" or lack of caring.
(For more on this, I recommend reading The Explosive Child.)
As much as we could, we'd respond to backtalk and arguing with a firm-but-evenhanded tone. We'd try to walk the line between explaining the situation in neutral terms without overtalking.
We'd point out how his words made others feel while trying our best not to throw them back at him in judgement. We'd offer alternative ways to phrase things.
Later on, we graduated to tone of voice, explaining that the same words said in different tones communicated different things.
None of this stuff was obvious to our son (as it was to me at a very early age). He needed consistent teaching. Sometimes we'd push "pause" on the conversation so we could all calm down before proceeding. This all took a long time.
It was a bumpy road, but I can't tell you how different things are now. My son (now 13) has wonderful manners, is an incredible communicator, and can handle disagreements and disappointments with grace (or, at least, resignation). He still needs coaching on the finer conversational details, but I can now see he was absorbing our teaching for all those years.
There's so much more I could say, but I've already gone on for quite a while. Let me hand over the floor to you, Parenthackers:
How do you handle verbal disrespect in your child? In other children?
Please leave a comment — let's give Denise some support. (Folks are also commenting on the Parent Hacks Facebook page.)
Photo credit: David Salafia via Creative Commons