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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.

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.

Oof.

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?

Making an Ass Out of U and Me

As adults we expect the people we spend time with to adhere to a set of social norms. And when adults don’t adhere to those norms — when they cut in line, swear profusely and loudly with kids around, or throw trash on the sidewalk — it’s easy to assume they’re simply jerks. After all, they’re old enough to know better.

Even though kids aren’t adults, they’re often ascribed adult motivations. So, when children are difficult, we assume they are being lazy, or mean, or spiteful, just like the adult jerks we occasionally run into. But if we take a step back and look past our assumptions we can see that children have unique 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. A lack of experience due to their limited time on the planet. And finally, constant reminders that they are too small and too young to have any real control over their lives.

Looking at difficult behavior from a child’s point of view offers some clarity. My ten-year old suggesting I ask the author about the book seems a bit less snotty if I look at it through his eyes. Who wants to be told what to read recreationally? And if you lack the emotional vocabulary to explain you don’t want to be forced to read a book you’re not interested in, you might default to snark. After all, snark works for SpongeBob.

My 8-year-olds claims of hatred make a bit more sense too. Why would someone who claims they love you deny you something you want unless they didn’t like you? And if you feel like you’re not-liked, perhaps even unloved, what do you say when your brain is hot and emotional? What’s the easiest way to express your utter sense of distress, anger and betrayal? Saying “I hate you” seems to sum it up nicely.

Staying Rational When Kids are Irrational

In calm, untroubled moments, it’s easy to see how this all makes sense. It’s harder when emotions are high and voices are raised. Stress and anger can easily lead parents to jump to conclusions. But offering the benefit of the doubt helps both parents and children by recognizing the kid’s autonomy. There’s a reason that matters.

Recently, I spoke to Dr. Genevieve Mageau about a psychological concept called Self-Determination Theory or SDT. The theory was developed in the 1970s as a way to understand motivation and posits that people will act in the most optimum way when they feel a sense of connection, autonomy and competence.

Research into SDT shows that supporting a child’s autonomy appears particularly beneficial when it comes to addressing behavioral issues. A meta-analysis published in 2015 by researchers from the University of Texas Austin looked at 36 studies related to children and self-determination theory. The researchers wrote in their conclusion that there was a distinct correlation between autonomy support and positive outcomes in “autonomous motivation, psychological health, perceived competence, perceived control, engagement and effort, attitudes toward school, self-regulation, and executive functioning.” In other words, children who felt their autonomy was supported were better able to manage their behavior.

Talking to Mageau, she explained to me that supporting autonomy begins with empathy. Children who are given punishments and ultimatums by fed up parents dead set on control aren’t necessarily learning why they should behave in a different way. And parents can’t provide that explanation unless they have a clear sense of their child’s perspective.

When a parent takes the time to understand, even as their mind is grasping for the tools of parental control — anger, punishment, coercion — it shows a kid that their parent believes in their autonomy and wants to understand their perspective. It also shows a child that a parent wants to connect rather than command and that they believe a child is competent enough to understand the reason they should behave a certain way.

On the Road to Find Doubt

Giving kids the benefit of the doubt is not easy. In fact, it goes against our natural inclinations to react when people do things we find uncomfortable or challenging. But it’s important to remind ourselves that we are dealing with children. And in that context we should have a bit more slack.

So how do you find that doubt when you’re hot? It has to become a habit. And that habit must be formed by practice.

The main skill is disengaging from power struggles. It’s highly unlikely that the conflict you’re having with your kid is going to be fruitful, so why keep it up. The sky will not fall if you simply stop, walk away for a few breaths and then return with a cooler head. Yes, this isn’t particularly feasible in emergency situations. If there are real and present safety concerns in disengaging, then get yourself and your kid to safety. But the likelihood of harm is relatively small in most circumstances.

Once you’re able to be calm, it’s time to practice perspective taking. Are there things you kid believes, or doesn’t know that might make them behave in a certain way? If you’re unsure, then it’s time to ask.

This is a fairly common occurrence in my house: “Did you mean for that tone (phrase/action) to hurt my feelings and make me angry?”

The answer is usually “no” and often the simple act of asking the question helps the conversation begin. And that conversation is necessary.

As much as they look like little men, I know my boys remain children. And they have a children’s understanding of the world. But they are learning. They are learning because I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt and giving us a chance to communicate. The result? A little less stress and a lot less yelling. From everyone.