Some behaviors are annoying or irritating but bearable when coming from a 6-year-old. But when the child in question is just about your height and has a body odor all his own, it's harder to excuse that same conduct. It's also hard to understand exactly who this child thinks he is, and what gives him the right to talk to me like that? Where does he get off acting that way?
What the heck happened?
Here's the sad truth. Kids act the way they do for two basic reasons: We let them act that way, and we enable them to act that way. Don't believe it? Try this on for size.
[SCENE: A tastefully decorated DINING ROOM. MOTHER serves dinner. ELDER SON looks up from CELL PHONE, visibly IRRITATED.]
ELDER SON: That looks gross.
MOTHER: Watch your tone.
ELDER SON: Whatever. (Scrapes CHAIR along floor, leaves house, slamming DOOR loudly.)
MOTHER: SIGHS LOUDLY.
-Fade to black-
[SCENE: A beautifully organized FAMILY ROOM. YOUNGER SON is PLAYING VIDEO GAMES with FRIEND. MOTHER enters.]
MOTHER: Have you guys finished your homework?
YOUNGER SON: Yep.
MOTHER: Are you sure?
YOUNGER SON: Tell her, dude.
-Fade to black-
How much of that looked familiar? Forget the tasteful decorations and the organization scheme. Concentrate on the kids. How many times have you allowed your children to speak rudely to you without any real consequences? How many times have you accepted an answer you just knew was a lie, because it was easier not to force the issue?
Maybe, right now, as you read this, your children are in the next room bickering. Maybe one just told the other to shut up, and maybe you gritted your teeth and didn't get up from your chair because you're tired.
Parenting is exhausting, but it's also important. And every time you let your kids behave in a way you find unacceptable, you're responsible for reinforcing that behavior. You're enabling that behavior.
So now what?
Pick one thing you hate about your child. Yes, that's right. Admit that there's something that bothers you so much that it interferes with the way you feel about your child. It could be the swearing, the rude remarks, the messy room – anything, but only one thing. That one thing is your limit, and you're going to enforce it as if your child's life depended on it, because it might as well.
So how do you stick to your limits? In theory, it's simple. Let's take the messy room. You tell your child, "This room is unacceptable. I can't allow you to live like this anymore. You need to get rid of all the trash, return all plates to the kitchen, put your clothes away neatly, change the sheets on your bed, and bring all your laundry to the laundry room. If that doesn't happen by dinner, I'll take care of it for you, but you won't like it."
If you've never enforced consequences in the past, your child will likely do nothing. That's fine. Now it's dinnertime, and instead of serving your child, you head upstairs with a toolbox and some trash bags. Start by taking the door off the hinges, then simply bag up everything that's unacceptable, and take it away. Don't bother to separate trash from other items – that's not your job.
Your child will be horrified. That's okay. Don't discuss anything. Put on headphones if you need to, and get the job done. In a day or two, you can offer your child one trash bag to sort and put away properly. If it's not done, repeat the consequence. The door goes back on when the room has been clean for a week.
Even when it's hard, you have to be the parent. When you ask about homework and your son says he's done, make him show you that he's done. Yes, he'll think you're annoying. So what? Despite what he says, you're not actually ruining his life.
No parent believes her child will one day be a delinquent. And certainly not all teenage sullenness foretells a life of crime. But there's no reason to keep allowing and enabling the behaviors you resent, the behaviors that could be the first step to something much worse.
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