Education Blog
Parenting

How to Make Sure Your Child Isn’t Being a Jerk

September 23, 2021

My 10-year-old child has a unique personality. He’s just entering his pre-tweens and is trying to show maturity through quips, barbs, and verbal boundary testing.

My son received a book from an uncle for his birthday. I found it annoying that the book was not racked. “Hello, have you started that book?” I asked. “I would like to find out what it is about.”

He replied, “Maybe you should question the author about it.”

Oof.

My 8-year-old son is undergoing his own cognitive growth. He is far more anxious than his brother. He might cry out “I hate You!” and then run to his bedroom.

I would be miserable and resentful if I did not take these outbursts or boundary testing personally. I hate you, inmates! This could cause me to resent my children and make it harder for them to control me.

You might think punishment as an option for sass. Punishment should lead to respect? It’s not true. That equation is flawed. Force on children cannot guarantee respect.. It is applicable especially to those who are not adults.

What’s the solution? I take a break and give my children the benefit of the doubt.

Although “giving the benefit to the doubt” is a common way to say “having some empathy,” the benefit I am referring too is the flexibility I give my children when I question my initial assessment of their motives.

Doubt allows me to doubt whether a child’s outburst of “I hate you” is based on hate. Instead of thinking my child is making me feel stupid by his quips, doubt allows me the possibility that he may not be aware of the sting in his barbs.

A little doubt in my gut reactions can trigger due to empathy? Why is empathy so important?

Making an Ass Out of U and Me

Adults expect that people with whom we spend time have a set number of social norms. Adults are viewed as jerks easily when they don’t follow these norms. They’re mature enough to understand better.

Children are not adults but they often have adult motivations. We assume that children who are having difficulties are lazy, mean, or spiteful just like adult jerks. If we look at our assumptions, we will see that each child has their own motivations and perspectives.

A child’s unique perspective is informed by a few crucial factors: A developing brain, without “executive-functioning” guardrails, that makes them both hyper-emotional and hyper-reactive. Their limited experience on the planet means they lack experience. They are constantly reminded that they are too young and too small to exercise any control over their lives.

It is easier to see difficult behavior through the eyes of a child’s eyes. My ten year old suggested that I ask the author about the book. It seems less snotty to me if I see it through his eyes. Who would want to be told about which book to read for pleasure? If you lack the emotional vocabulary to explain that you don’t want be forced to read a book, you may resort to snark. SpongeBob loves snark.

It makes a lot more sense to me that my 8-year old son’s hatred claims make sense. If they don’t like you, why would they deny you something they want? What do you do if your brain feels hot and emotional? What is the best way to express your deepest feelings of anger, sadness, and betrayal. It seems that saying “I hate” sums it all.

Staying Rational When Child Is Irrational

It’s simple to understand how it all works in calm and untroubled situations. It is more difficult to see the connection present after you see emotions are high or voices are raised. There is temptation for parents to jump at conclusions due to presence of anger and stress. Parents and children can benefit from giving the benefit of doubt by recognizing the child’s autonomy. It matters.

Dr. Genevieve Mageau spoke to me recently about the psychological concept of Self-Determination Theory, or SDT. This theory, which was created in the 1970s to help understand motivation, posits that people will behave in the best way when they feel connected, autonomous and competent.

SDT research shows that empowering children’s autonomy is particularly helpful when it comes to dealing with behavioral issues. Researchers from the University of Texas Austin published a meta-analysis in 2015 that examined 36 studies on children and self-determination theory.

Positive outcomes in autonomy motivation, psychological health and perceived competence were found associated to autonomy support according to conclusion of researchers. They also found improved engagement and effort, attitudes towards school, self-regulation and executive functioning.

Mageau explained to me, “Supporting autonomy starts with empathy.” Children who are subject to punishments or ultimatums from angry parents are not learning how to behave differently. Parents can’t give an explanation without understanding their child’s perspective.

It shows that a parent cares enough to listen to their child, even if they are trying to control them with anger, punishment, or coercion, it is showing their belief in their autonomy and their ability to see the bigger picture. This shows that the parent is trying to communicate with their child rather than just command them and that they believe that they are competent enough to explain why they behave in a certain manner.

On the Road to Find Doubt

It is difficult to give kids the benefit of doubt. It is against our instincts to react to people who do things that are difficult or uncomfortable. It’s important to remember that we are dealing directly with children. In that situation, we need to be a little more patient.

How do you overcome doubts in case you are hot? It must become a routine. It must become a habit through practise.

Disengaging yourself from power struggles is the main skill. It is highly unlikely that conflict with your child will lead to anything positive. To avoid this conflict it is better to stop.

If you just stop and take a few deep breaths, the sky will not fall. You can come back with a clearer head. This is not feasible in emergency situations. You and your child should be able to disengage if there are safety concerns. In most cases, the risk of harm is very low.

It’s time for perspective taking once you are calm. Is there anything your child believes or doesn’t believe that could influence their behavior? If you are unsure, it is time to ask.

This is a common occurrence in our house. “Did that tone (phrase/action), to hurt my feelings?

The answer is often “no”, and sometimes the simple act of asking the question can help to start the conversation. This teaching of the art of conversation is essential.

My boys look so much like little boys, but I know they are still children. They have a child’s view of the world. They are still learning. They’re learning because I give them the benefit of doubt and allow us to communicate. What is the result? You will experience a little less stress and less yelling. Everyone.