Who are the people in history you admire? Likely you would include at least some names like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Harriet Tubman or Oskar Schindler — people with the moral courage to stand against authority on behalf of justice.
Now think of your own kids. How do you feel when they speak up against your authority? Not so admiring, probably. Let’s face it, compliant kids are much easier to get along with. But is that what we want for them as young adults? Or do we want them to have the confidence to speak up for their own needs and rights, the skill to negotiate effectively, and the fairness to respect other people’s rights as well?
“Having an opinion and expressing it is healthy,” says parenting speaker and Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn. “We need to make the distinction between arguing and being rude.”
Preteens are concerned with fairness, expanding their verbal skills and logic, and becoming aware that other families may have different expectations from yours. That gives them plenty to argue about and it won’t necessarily be expressed in the way we would prefer. Sarcasm, attitude and shouting are pretty common. But Lynn points out that a lot of this is part of the learning process: “When kids start walking, we don’t expect them to be perfect at it. We know they are going to fall down a lot. This is the same. And the tougher it is to say, the more likely they are going to screw it up.”
How do we help kids grow into assertive and respectful people? Here are a few ideas:
Listen to their opinions and objections That means actually listening to understand. “You don’t have to agree,” says Lynn. “But listen.” Try not to be like the father described in Peter Marshall’s book Now I Know Why Tigers Eat Their Young, who would give his son a cursory 20 seconds to express his opinion and then dismiss it with “Yes, I see what you mean, but...” followed by an explanation of why the kid was dead wrong. The result? His son felt shut down and outmanoeuvred, not listened to.
Set the rules of engagement You don’t have to listen to name-calling, sarcasm, put-downs or yelling. In fact, you shouldn’t, says Lynn — we are modelling self-respect here too. The message is “I am willing to hear you out on this, but not to be verbally abused.”
Ask them to back it up “Why do you believe that?” or “Show me some evidence” asks kids to go beyond hot protests and support their arguments with something concrete. Be prepared to do the same yourself!
Call a time out to cool down Discussion is not going to be productive if you are both angry and upset. It’s perfectly OK — in fact, a good skill for you to model — to say, “I don’t think we can get anywhere with this right now. Let’s take a break, and talk again when both you and I have calmed down.”
If the argument is reasonable, negotiate She wants to go to the birthday party. You want her to stay home and have dinner with her grandma, who is arriving from out of town. She’s trying hard to present her case politely. Can you find a compromise? “I know you’ve been looking forward to the party, and Grandma will still be here tomorrow. But she’ll be disappointed if she doesn’t see you today. How about if I bring you to the party an hour late, or pick you up early, so you can do both.”
Don’t negotiate everything Know where your lines are, and draw them. “I know you’re upset and I’m willing to listen to your feelings, but I’m not going to change my mind about this. Tonight is not a good night for a sleepover.”
Know when to stop Kids will keep going as long as they think they have the most remote, minute chance. Once the issue is settled, you don’t have to listen to the protests all night. “OK, Simon, I hear you. I’m sorry you’re unhappy, but that’s my final decision. It’s time to move on.” And then take yourself out of the conversation — to the bathroom, if necessary.
When sibs fight, there are times when you may want to intervene and impose a mediation process (without taking sides). Walk them through the problem-solving steps: What’s Amy’s point of view? What’s Luke’s? What are some possible solutions that both would be willing to accept?
But, usually, you want to set the ground rules and let them work things out themselves. Anything physical, says Lynn, is forbidden and should have an immediate consequence. Nasty name-calling is harder to regulate, but should be clearly not acceptable. And when things get too heated, call a time out. “You two need to be in different rooms right now. When you can be polite to each other, you can go back.”