Tasha Schlake Festel, of Wakefield, Massachusetts, knew she was losing it. After yet another draining debate about what her then 6-year-old daughter, Addison, was wearing to school, Festel announced that she needed to give herself a time-out to calm down. Addison shot her a piercing look, cocked her hip to one side, and chirped, "I don't THINK so. How 'bout ME being the judge of that?" "I was stunned," Festel recalls. "It wasn't what she said that made me feel so bad, it was her attitude. I couldn't believe she was talking to me that way." Everyone's threshold for back talk is different, but bratty behavior from a child who used to rush to greet you with a hug can be both infuriating and hurtful. You may expect a sassy attitude--along with eye rolls, sarcastic comments, and a general sense of entitlement--when kids are 16, not 6. Yet parents and experts think it's starting earlier than ever. "In the four decades I've been practicing, the rudeness factor has shot way up," says clinical psychologist Michael Osit, Ed.D., author of Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in a World of Instant Everything. He puts much of the blame on the media and our current cultural vibe. Whether it's from the name-calling and obnoxious tone on popular kids' programs, the catty comments of American Idol judges, or the trash talk on other reality TV shows, children learn that this behavior is not only acceptable but also funny. Luckily, there's still plenty you can do to raise the bar in your own home.
Rudeness may be a child's way of dealing with the stress of a new situation or issues at home, but it's usually simply a developmental stage in her ongoing declaration of independence. The same kid who barks, "Are you serious? I'm not even tired!" when you tell her that it's time to get ready for bed may sweetly say "I love you" 20 minutes later when you kiss her good night. "Children strive for autonomy from a very young age," explains Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential. "Babies spit out food they don't want. Two-year-olds are masters at saying 'No.' School-age kids struggle to figure out who they are and how to fit in with their peers. In every phase, they're testing to see how hard they can push to get what they want, and when they've crossed the line." This emotional tug-of-war--between wanting to grow up and yet still stay a baby--can trigger irritable, angry feelings that kids don't quite know how to handle. Even though it's "normal" for children to act this way sometimes, overlooking it can encourage even more disrespectful behavior. When you're frazzled or rushed, you don't want the time you have with your kids to be spent fighting. You know you shouldn't tolerate snarky retorts when you ask your kid to help out, but sometimes it's just easier to ignore the cries of "You can't make me" and set the table yourself so you can sit down to dinner. However, you've got to take a stand or the rudeness is going to get out of hand.
Remember it's not about you.
A few years ago, Dallas Louis, a mother of three in Houston, was having her worst parenting day ever. "Ethan, my oldest, was 7, and I'd asked him a thousand times to get out of our pool. He kept ignoring me, flashing this I-dare-you smirk before ducking under the water," recalls Louis, author of The Mommy Diaries: How I'm Surviving Parenthood Without Killing Anyone. "When I finally dragged him out he screamed, 'I hate you!' I could feel my eyes welling up. That offended me as much as any four-letter word. What had I done wrong that would make my son feel that way?" While it's hard not to take your child's jabs personally, they certainly don't mean you're a horrible parent. "Kids love their parents," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "They just don't always feel like putting their toys away, turning off the Wii, or getting out of the pool. Back talk is an expression of their frustration and a tactic they hope will get them what they want." After a day filled with grown-up rules and expectations, school-age kids often feel cranky and powerless. "Expressing their opinions harshly helps them feel as if they have some control over their life," explains developmental psychologist Bronwyn B. Charlton, Ph.D., cofounder of Seedlings Group, a parent-resource organization in New York City. An insulting comment picked up from TV, an older sibling, or even someone at the supermarket intrigues them. They think: "Hmm, that sounds cool. I wonder what would happen if I try it out?" And who better to do that with than the people who love them no matter what? The trouble is, kids' social skills haven't caught up to their verbal skills. "Tact is not part of their repertoire," adds Dr. Charlton. "They don't understand how to express their 'big' feelings calmly without hurting others--until you teach them."