Surly! Sassy! Snobby! When Good Kids Mouth Off

by Paula Spencer

Surly! Sassy! Snobby! When Good Kids Mouth Off

"You stink like a stinky stinkeroo!"

"You’re not the boss of me!"

It seemed kind of funny when my son, Henry, then just a preschooler discovering the power of words, began to hurl them at me like arrows. Two years later, his sister Eleanor followed suit. Her salty rants, most of them bathroom inspired ("You’re a poop with wee in your butt!"), sounded so improbable coming from her tiny, tutu-clad body that I had to turn away so she wouldn’t see me giggle.

I’m not laughing anymore. Tots flexing their linguistic muscles are one thing. Now that Henry and Eleanor are 8 and 6, however, they just sound disrespectful. I’d hoped mouthing off was just a phase. Instead, it’s getting worse. "Leave me alone, you big bag of beluga!" I was told only yesterday while supervising my first-grader’s homework.

Verbal defiance is hard to ignore. There’s the sarcastic "Give me a break!" The insulting "Don’t you know anything?" The challenging "Make me!" The foul "That sucks!" And let’s not forget that insolent preadolescent favorite, "Whatever." Just as annoying are the accompanying theatrics  — rolled eyes, knitted brows, crossed arms, Shakespearean sighs.

"Yes, it’s disrespectful and rude," agrees Robert Billingham, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University. "But it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach children how to disagree and express ideas in ways that are respectful." The key word here is "teach" (rather than punish), with equal doses of patience and persistence.

Paula Spencer is the author of Everything ELSE You Need to Know When You’re Expecting: The New Etiquette for the New Mom.

Ages 5 to 7: The Echo Years

("I heard it on TELEVISION, Pea-brain!")

Why kids mouth off: Kindergartners and first-graders are like sponges, absorbing words they hear on TV, at school, and on the playground  — without necessarily understanding their meaning. They don’t aim to hurt feelings with imitated insults, explains Mary Naples, director of the Family Life Counseling Center in Boca Raton, FL (no connection to this magazine). For young kids, sassy talk is more like a competitive sport in which they can test out the latest verbal moves. Or they use wicked words to express anger or resentment that they can’t otherwise articulate. ("Time for bed," you say. "Idiot-head!" is the reply.) It’s the equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum.

What you can do: First, make your expectations for respectful language clear in advance. Respect can be a hard concept to grasp, so instead, try "We don’t say or do things that hurt other people’s feelings," which shows kids that words have consequences.

Then remember not to overreact. Getting mad or leaping to punish is a common mistake, one that only fuels anger, says Naples. Matter-of-factly label the rudeness with "That’s hurtful" or "Please don’t talk to me in that mean tone." Instead of responding as anticipated, with anger, you can use the moment as an opportunity to connect with your child. If the sass was said in a silly way, for example, you might respond with "That’s a new word. Where did you learn it?" If it was shouted angrily, empathize: Saying "You seem pretty upset right now" can lead to a helpful discussion. Remember, too, that a little humor can go a long way ("This idiot-head is not going to leave you alone until you go to bed!").

If the bad attitude continues (and given the persistence of most 5- and 6-year-olds, it just may), repeat your message and add a clear warning about a consequence, suggests Lynda Madison, Ph.D., director of psychological services at Children’s Hospital in Omaha and author of Keep Talking: A Mother-Daughter Guide to the Preteen Years: "I said that kind of talk isn’t allowed. If you use it again, you’ll go to time-out." Or state that you’ll withdraw a privilege. The crucial point: Follow through. And don’t get upset if your child keeps muttering "Stupid-head! Stupid-head!" during the time-out phase. Paying her any kind of attention at that point, including correcting her, only keeps the bad behavior in the spotlight. Just ignore her until she’s civil, or redirect her to some other activity.

To minimize your child’s mouthing off, consider going unplugged. Jenny Hansen of Powell, TN, banned certain TV shows for Josh, 7, and Amy, 5. "You’d think children’s TV would be okay, or that you’d just have to watch out for the violence," she muses. "But the things that come out of the character Angelica’s mouth on Rugrats are terribly disrespectful." If your children, like Hansen’s, pick up phrases like "dumb baby," "idiot galoot," and more from the tube, turn it off and cut kids’ nasty language off at the source. If you have cable TV, many companies allow you to block out specific channels to shield little ears from negative influences. Remember, you’re in charge; TVs can be disconnected.

Ages 7 to 9: Inching Toward Independence

("Duh! Have I got your goat yet?")

Why kids mouth off: Acting surly, challenging authority, and even declaring parents stupid are all ways children attempt to assert their independence during the mid-grade-school years. And yet  — think about it  — stretching their wings on the home front is a safe way to go. Kids know you’ll still love them even when they act unlovable.

Children this age are better able to understand others’ feelings, so they know how to work words for maximum insulting impact, perfecting the irritating tone and attitude. That’s why their retorts can be so exasperatingly biting. "They might know it’s hurtful, but they do it anyway, especially when they feel something is unjust," Madison explains. These outbursts accelerate when kids are bored, tired, or defensive.

What you can do: First, choose your battles so your disciplinary tactics will still carry weight. Margo Sequeira, a mother of three boys ages 12, 9, and 7 in Newport Beach, CA, doesn’t jump in every time an objectionable phrase pops out of her sons’ mouths. "I don’t let things like ‘As if’ bug me," she says. "Some expressions come and go. I worry more about them saying disrespectful things like ‘Shut up.’"

That’s a wise strategy, says Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D., founder of the Ozark Center for Language Studies in Huntsville, AR, and author of The Gentle Art of Communicating With Kids. The less a parent pays attention to such expressions, the less a child will use them.

If you do get nasty back talk, keep your cool. The first time you hear it, shift into calm, automatic "computer mode," advises Elgin: Say "People don’t like to hear ‘Duh!’" Then rigorously ignore subsequent outbursts. Don’t even furrow your brow in annoyance. "Though the situation is infuriating, this is an effective way to stop it," she says.

If a child lobs a truly disrespectful snipe at you (something way worse than "Duh!") or refuses to do something asked, avoid getting into a battle of wills. For example, let’s say you casually tell your child, "Please wash the dinner dishes tonight," and in response, he roars: "No way! Do it yourself!" Getting on your own high horse ("Don’t you dare talk to me that way!") will only escalate the situation. Rather, try to peek at the roots beneath the incivility. Perhaps he is peeved, say, that a sibling never has to lend a hand. Acknowledge the underlying feelings, and then help show him a better way to speak up: "You seem angry, but the way you’re expressing it makes it hard for me to respond. Do you want to talk?" Or model the words: "A better way to say it is, ‘Can my brother help me with the dishes?’"

If your child remains surly, warn him about the consequences he’ll face. Ideally at this age, link them to an upcoming privilege: "If you can’t calm down, you won’t be able to play ball after the dishes are done." Last, don’t try to squeeze an "I’m sorry" out of your salty-mouthed child. Forced apologies tend to be meaningless, notes Madison. And they can trigger a power struggle that diverts the focus from your main goal: teaching a better way to communicate. Ask him to rephrase his snipe nicely or explain why it was wrong.

Ages 9 to 12: Emotion Explosion

("You can’t control me! I can’t even control myself!")

Why kids mouth off: Children who have learned that back talk is unacceptable usually begin to outgrow the habit as they approach adolescence, or they use it only around peers, says Madison. At this age, seriously bratty behavior can be a warning signal that a kid is upset about some larger issue.

Still, parents can expect outbursts. While preteens understand that mouthing off is wrong, they’re not yet emotionally mature enough to always check the impulse. What’s more, they may develop an irritatingly sarcastic or supercilious tone ("M-o-o-o-m, get a clue!") just because their friends talk that way. A desire to seem grown up can lead to even more defiant, defensive snarls ("Who died and made you God?!"). Add to this the fact that the hormonal changes and moodiness of puberty (which can begin as early as age 9 these days) are at work, and your little darling’s language can become shockingly strong.

What you can do: Take a mutual time-out. It’s natural to get mad when being dissed by someone who is nearly your height and may almost seem like your equal. The fact that this is your baby only adds salt to the wound. Since it can be hard, if not impossible, to make your point in the heat of the moment, don’t even try.

When her 9-year-old daughter, Kristen, uses "that snotty tone" and an argument erupts, Lorie Smock of Guilford, IN, delays further discussion. "I’ll say: ‘Look, we’re not getting anywhere. We both need to cool off. So let’s go our separate ways, and we’ll try again a little later,’" she explains. "That helps her calm down and gives me some time to decide if I’m approaching the situation in the right way or need to take it from a different angle."

Then, when all seems calm, say something like "I’m glad that blowup is out of the way. It made me feel bad, and I think you felt bad, too. What can we do so it doesn’t happen again?" The child then owns a piece of the solution instead of feeling dumped on. Preadolescents especially appreciate sincerity, so you could also say: "Look, you hurt my feelings, but I didn’t do anything to hurt you. What’s up?" In general, a child who feels she is listened to is more apt to accept the times when you simply have to lay down a "because I said so" rule, points out Billingham.

Another key to dealing with a surly preteen: When a child sneers "You’re so clueless!" or "Get a life!" it’s irrelevant whether she really considers you dumb or dull, Billingham says. Parents who take rude behavior to heart risk treading too gently out of fear the child won’t like them, he warns. "Remember, it’s not personal; it’s developmental."

If your child is mouthing off left, right, and center, talk to his teacher, coach, or other adults in his life for insight as to where his anger or frustration is coming from. And consider a few sessions with a child therapist if his verbal rebelliousness is too out of line.

Finally, tune out those grandparents and other interested observers who insist that a child who’s 9 or 12 should "know better." Control is not yet second nature for children, even during these years, notes Billingham. "It’s best to take the approach that a child  — any child between 5 and 12, in fact  — is learning how to know better," he says.

It’s a long haul, but if you keep at it, you might just be rewarded with a teenager who not only knows better, but sounds like it, too.