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.
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."
If the goal is to nurture considerate, cooperative problem solvers, you need to set a tone at home that shows what that means. When you're curt to a waiter or roll your eyes at your spouse's suggestions, the kids are watching and listening. Tasha Schlake Festel realized that the sarcastic tone her daughter used mirrors the way she and her friends sometimes talk to one another. "We do it to be funny, or because we're trying to make a point and we don't take it seriously," she says. "But my kids don't know that." Now she tries to curb her comments and apologize to her children when frustration causes her to slip up. Keep your own emotions in check. When your kid taunts you, it's normal to want to respond ("I can too make you!"), but engaging in a verbal power struggle just shows that lashing out is an appropriate way to speak to someone. "Instead of learning the lesson, kids tend to focus on your anger or your attack on their character and respond in kind, since they have no other model for how to communicate when they're frustrated or upset," says Dr. Charlton. "Before you know it, you're in a battle of words and everyone is trying to get in the last one." Just disengage. Look mildly bored and say, "You know how to talk to me if you want me to listen." Then turn away. No prodding and no demanding. "When you overexplain or argue, you give a child's words far more importance than they should have," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "If the behavior continues, ignore him or walk out of the room, adding, "When you're ready to speak respectfully, you can find me in the kitchen." You could also develop your own special "look"--a stern gaze that speaks louder than words.
"Respectful requests are more likely to elicit respectful responses," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. That doesn't mean you need to justify everything you ask your kid to do. But do make your request in a kind voice at the appropriate time--not when her favorite show has just started. If possible, give a reason for what you want ("Grandma's coming over. Please pick up the Legos so she doesn't trip") or a choice about how or when to do it ("The mess in the den is really bothering me. I need you to take your stuff to your room before you go out"). Don't expect blind obedience. "If she grumbles but does what you ask, let it go," advises Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
Your child can be tuned in to his favorite cartoon and before you realize the program is over, he's watching something even you would be uncomfortable viewing. Tanya Gesek, Ph.D., a psychologist in Syracuse, New York, recalls that when her son was 7 he picked up some choice morsels on the school bus as well as from TV. She started watching with him so she could point out, or turn off, shows she didn't like. "We also keep a running list of nasty words or retorts and talk about why they're disrespectful," says Dr. Gesek. Instead of going with live TV, you might want to try Netflix, which allows different queues for each family member--so kids will have their own selection of appropriate shows.
Kids don't always understand why their words wound so deeply. Explain that you empathize with your child's feelings but won't tolerate her response: "I know you're upset about [whatever], but the rule in our house is that you can be mad but you can't be mean." Try to get past the tone she used and figure out what prompted it. Saying "You sound really angry about what happened--how come?" sends the message that you care about her opinion. "When she feels listened to, she's more likely to calm down and tell you what's on her mind," explains Dr. Charlton. Later, say: "We need to talk about how to say that in a different way." If you're out in public and witness another child's blatant rudeness, ask your child what she thinks about the behavior. "When she's not on the hot seat, she'll be better able to make connections to her own actions," explains Dr. Osit.
Sometimes rude talk happens when kids don't feel heard. Reflecting your child's feelings by saying, "You don't like..." or "You wish..." or "It bothers you that..." can help keep rudeness from escalating.
Everyone likes to feel appreciated. When you say, "Thanks--that was a big help" or "Your room looks great!" without adding, "Why can't you keep it neat all the time?" you'll make it easier for your child to respond positively in the future. Fortunately, he probably won't do this at school.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.