Dear Crucial Skills,
How can your materials help a mother of a ten-year-old respond appropriately when her child speaks disrespectfully? I know this is usually not your focus, but maybe you can offer some direction.
You’re right that our research and consulting work has not involved children. As social scientists we prefer to work with rats, pigeons, and sophomores. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that our most taxing, passionate, and rewarding applications of Crucial Skills have been in our own homes. All told, my coauthors and I have helped rear twenty-three children. And many of these have long since gotten over what we did in rearing them! So I’d be happy to share some reflections on your question.
First, I believe that the most important life skill we can teach our children is, without question, the capacity to hold crucial conversations. If they leave our homes equipped to deal in a healthy way with the inevitable interpersonal challenges of life, they will be physically, financially, and emotionally better off than with any other single skill set we could bless them with.
So, Tip #1: When dealing with a child who speaks disrespectfully, remember that the most important outcome of this conversation is not just extinguishing unacceptable behavior, but teaching the child how to influence behavior in a healthy way. You’ll teach this by modeling how to have a good crucial conversation. So, Start with Heart. Be clear coming in that the quality of the conversation is as important to you as the quality of the result.
Tip #2: Hold the right conversation. Most parents make the mistake of dealing with disrespectful behavior at the same time they’re solving some other problem. Say, for example, your ten-year-old wants to have a slumber party at a friend’s house where you believe there will be insufficient supervision. You say no and explain your reasons. She calls you an “overprotective witch.” And you holler back, “Okay smart-mouth, now in addition to missing the party you can miss out on playing with friends for the next week!”
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, the obvious problem is that you lost your temper and made this a power issue by imposing consequences. Your daughter will likely conclude from this that the problem was not her disrespectful behavior; it was that she disagreed with you. Wrong lesson. But the less obvious and equally important problem is that you failed to hold the right conversation. When her disrespectful behavior became the issue, you should have set aside the discussion about the slumber party and opened up this “relationship” discussion. For example, “Honey, I can see you aren’t happy about my decision for the slumber party. And I’m willing to talk to you about that. But something more important just happened. You called me a name. I want to talk about that for a minute because it’s very important that when we disagree we do so in a way that doesn’t create a bigger problem . . .” Do you see the difference? In this example we’re clearly changing topics.
What parents (myself included) often do when a new problem emerges is to “act out” rather than “talk out” the new problem. We get ticked off because of the misbehavior and rather than talking about it we let our upset emotions drive how we respond to the original topic (the sleepover in this case). So, if you choose to deal with disrespectful behavior, don’t do it while solving another problem—be sure to distinguish that conversation from the conversation about the issue at hand. Even better, if you already know your child has a pattern of disrespectful behavior toward you, don’t wait for another incident to occur. Set aside a specific time to talk about this pattern of behavior—that helps you remove the emotion of the moment and do a better job of it.
Tip #3 tells you how to describe the problem you want to discuss. Start with the facts. Try to remember three or four specific examples of the behavior you’re trying to describe. Avoid the temptation to lump them all together in an insulting description like, “I’m tired of you treating me like trash.” Instead begin with, “The last three times you didn’t like a decision I made, you threw something down, ran to your room, and slammed the door. Then you didn’t speak to me for a few hours.” Stick with the facts and strip out any judgmental language you might be tempted to add.
Step #4: Finally, the biggest challenge in dealing with disrespectful behavior is helping children care about it in the first place. Don’t try to make them care by threatening them. Instead, think carefully about the natural consequences of disrespectful behavior. In a respectful tone, teach your children what happens in the real world when they speak disrespectfully to others. Help them see how the world will work better for them if they avoid this behavior. Then—and this is tricky—try to make your home operate this same way.
For example, you may ask your child what happens when she is rude to a friend. Help her see how disrespectful behavior hurts relationships and even makes people less willing to help her when she needs it. Explain that in order to prepare her to have a successful life, you won’t allow disrespectful behavior to slide by either. When she is disrespectful to you, you will not be as supportive of some of her special requests. Now let’s say the next day she is rude again. Then later that evening she wheedles and begs you to give her a ride to the movie with a friend—you must not rob her of the chance to experience the natural consequences of her actions. You must follow through. Otherwise she learns that the real world does not work as you said it does. The “real world” to her is one where her mother makes up consequences then can be manipulated into compromising on them.
Now I know that this is an awfully short response for a complex question, but I have great confidence that if you keep in mind that the quality of your crucial confrontations with your child is the most important gift you will give him or her, you will continue to improve in the most important conversations of your life.