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

Take a moment and stop assuming that your kids have adult motivations when they misbehave.

Originally Published: 
A young boy lays on the floor looking at a cellphone.

My oldest son, now 10-years-old, has developed a personality that I can only describe as sassy. Having just entered his pre-tweens, he’s trying on a new maturity in the form of quips, barbs and verbal boundary testing.

Recently an extra-familial uncle sent my son a book for his birthday. It remained un-cracked, which I found irksome. “Hey, have you started that new book?” I asked him. “I want to know what it’s about.”

“Maybe you should ask the author what it’s about,” he retorted.


My younger child, at 8-years-old, is dealing with his own unique cognitive growth. But he’s far more angsty than his brother. His occasional meltdowns might end with an “I hate you!” as he stomps off to his bedroom.

If I took these outbursts and boundary testing personally, I’d probably be miserable and resentful father: “After all I’ve done for them, this is what I get? Damn ingrates!” And that resentment could harden my heart, cause me to double down on control: become more strict, yelling and giving time outs. Because sass should equal punishment and punishment should result in respect, right? Nope. There’s a problem with that equation. Respect can’t be forced — not from adults and certainly not from children who are certifiably not adults.

So what’s the answer? I give myself a time out and I give my kids the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, “giving the benefit of the doubt” is just a colloquial way of saying “having some empathy.” The benefit in question here is the leeway that I offer my kids when I doubt my initial assessment of their intentions. Instead of being certain that a child saying “I hate you” comes from a place of hate, doubt allows me to consider maybe there’s a different motivation behind the outburst. And instead of believing my child is trying to make me feel like an idiot when he quips at me, doubt allows me to consider that he might not be aware of how his barbs might sting.

A little doubt in my gut reactions is a catalyst for the benefit of empathy. But why is empathy so important?

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Staying Rational When Kids are Irrational

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On the Road to Find Doubt

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