Q: Our eight-year-old has suddenly developed a very sassy mouth. She picked this up from a new neighborhood friend who speaks to her mother in a very disrespectful tone, like the mother is her daughter’s servant. There are no other girls this age in the neighborhood, so I hesitate to put a stop to the relationship, but at the same time I want to nip this new skill in the bud before it becomes habit. Do you have any suggestions?”
A: First, there are reasons to forbid a child a certain association, but this is not one of them. Assuming you make it perfectly clear that you will not tolerate similar behavior from her, there is great potential benefit in allowing your daughter to witness this other child disrespecting and disobeying her mother.
Second, understand that while part of this can be explained as “monkey see, monkey do,” your daughter also is conducting an experiment. She has seen the mother’s passive reaction to her daughter’s back talk and wants to find out what your reaction is going to be. In effect, she’s asking, “Do all adults just ‘take it’ when children disrespect them?”
When my daughter Amy was around your daughter’s age, she developed a friendship with a girl who talked to her mother, a single parent, like she was an underling. Thinking that her daughter was angry about the divorce or some such nonsense (following a divorce, it is not uncommon for parents to unwittingly extend some form of behavioral entitlement to children), the mother did nothing but occasionally complain. One day, Amy returned from playing with this friend and began acting like she was possessed by her friend’s demons. Determined to nip her sass in the bud, I took her to her room and told her she was staying there for at least an hour, during which time she was to “find the real Amy inside of you and let her come back out because So-and-so is not allowed to live here.”
The next few times she came home from playing with this friend, either her mother or I asked her, “Are you Amy, or are you sassy So-and-so?” She would say, “I’m Amy,” upon which we would say, “Then you may stay here.” It was a somewhat playful but completely serious way of sending her the intended message, namely, that you can play all you want with the sass-bucket who lives down the street, but you will not carry home any sass from her bucket.
That rather libertarian approach allowed Amy the freedom to see her friend’s relationship with her mother with new eyes. Incredulously, she even began reporting to us incidents she witnessed while at So-and-so’s house. That simply confirmed that we had acted rightly by not prohibiting the relationship, which could have increased the likelihood of some form of rebellion. Eventually, Amy came to realize that she and this other child had little in common, and she moved on.
One of the more popular parenting adages of bygone days was, “Give a child enough rope and he will hang himself.” That is sometimes the case, for sure. But it is also the case that giving a child a liberal amount of rope sometimes results in invaluable learning that might not have taken place otherwise.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.