Q: My 6-year-old son has recently started back-talking to us, most notably when he doesn’t immediately get his way and when he feels disappointed about something. This happens only with family. (At school, he is an angel.) The latest example is when he was mad about eating outside vs. inside. When I offered a compromise and said we could eat the next meal inside, he said something sassy about how I better believe we would be eating inside. I am a stay-at-home mom, he has a 3-year-old brother and one on the way, and I feel as if he’s getting plenty of attention, cuddles and appropriate choices in his life. We are very close. He is similar to me in both physical build and temperament, so he can really push my buttons. He also talks back to his father. What should we ignore, and what should we nip in the bud — and how do we do that?
A: I must admit that I laughed out loud when your son responded to you with a “You better believe . . .” I am not laughing at you, of course, but at how this statement perfectly demonstrates your relationship. You are trying to be kind, flexible and loving, and he is giving you the business.
This question is also perfect because of how you end it: “What should we ignore, and what should we nip in the bud?” Like so many other parents, you feel as if you are either going to ignore this drama and starve the behavior (a solid choice some of the time), or you are going to nip it in the bud, an oft-used euphemism for punishment. I am not going to trash you for either idea; when children are young, ignoring their little misbehaviors is highly effective (because they are frequent), and when parents begin to feel insecure, worried and frustrated, experts and family members alike suggest nipping the behavior in the bud.
But when it comes to your son, some flags went up, and I would rather point to some dynamics than give you explicit instructions about what to do in specific scenarios.
Gordon Neufeld, the developmental psychologist, talks about a normal dynamic between parents and children called the “alpha complex.” It sounds a little intimidating, but all it means is that your child feels as if there is a power vacuum and that he is going to fill it. When he orders you around, sasses you and is offered too many choices, he is testing the system and finding it lacking. Are you lacking? No. This means that parents are meant to call the shots, offer only choices that they feel comfortable with and lovingly let their children know that this is the way things are going to be. I get the feeling (I could be wrong) that you are being pushed around.
Being a strong leader in your family is not bossy or mean; it is relaxing to a child. Think about it: How can a 6-year-old, who is only on the verge of mature thinking, be able to consider all of the available options? How can a 6-year-old make good decisions based on prudence, experience and foresight? Most cannot. The parent must lead. This is the parenting gig.
My spidey sense is telling me that your son is pushing to find your boundary and that you keep moving it. Sometimes you move it with choices, sometimes with discussion, sometimes with rational thought and sometimes with overidentification. (“He is similar to me in both physical build and temperament, so he can really push my buttons.”)
And although this is tiring, you are going to have to do a couple of things: offer fewer choices and hold your boundaries. Boundary-holding will lead to frequent tears in your son, and this is good. Yes, good. The tears are a sign that he is adapting to your rules. But this is not nipping anything in the bud, and this is not ignoring. This is stating the rule and not saying another word about it. This is allowing the rule to speak for itself.
I am going to give you this next piece of advice with a caveat. The tip: Call him out on his rudeness. When he says, “You better believe . . . ,” give him a raised eyebrow, get down on his level (but not aggressively in his face) and say, “Pardon me, sir. No. Let’s restate what you are trying to say. I think you are saying that you are thrilled Mommy is coming outside with you.” Then you stand up and go along. Do not wait for him to mimic you, sass you or challenge you. You are calling out the rude tone, checking him lovingly and moving the situation along. When it’s over, it’s over. Don’t revisit his rudeness or sass. Be a leader and leave the past in the past.
The caveat: If he responds with a huge fit, violence or outsize anger, this is not the strategy you want to use. This is when compassionate silence is your safest bet.
It sounds easy to offer fewer choices and hold a boundary, but it requires you to be mature and in control of yourself. You are not punishing (inflicting harm or shame), and you are not ignoring (empowering him to keep pushing you around). You are not labeling your son as “bad” or “good.” You are calling him to order, as a parent ought to. You don’t need to do this perfectly. Just stay the course and do your best to not allow it to feel personal.
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