by James Lehman, MSW
Note from Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor: Empowering Parents will continue to honor James Lehman’s teachings by helping you to use his techniques in your daily life with your children. One last gift James left us were the many interviews, articles and audio recordings he created before his death. Even in his final act, he still had much to share with all of us. James’ goal was always to empower parents. We hope this article helps you in those moments when you’re having trouble dealing with your child’s hurtful language and excuses.
“I was just kidding! Can’t you take a joke?” If your child gives you this excuse after he’s said or done something rude, it might leave you feeling frustrated and unsure of how to handle the situ ation. Later, you might question yourself when he says, “But I didn’t mean it that way.” In this article, James Lehman explains why disrespect and inappropriate behavior are really nothing to laugh at—no matter what the excuse.
“But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter to you why he does it. That’s like saying, “He lies because he’s afraid.” That doesn’t matter; it’s an excuse.”
We all know that a sense of humor is vital. Kids learn humor from their parents, their peers, their teachers, and from T.V. They absorb it and take it all in and then they experiment.
One of the things with which they experiment is how they talk to their parents. When they’re feeling hostile, lonely, depressed, or upset, one of the things they try to do is give a smart answer or sarcastic joke. There’s so much of this type of behavior on T.V. One guy says something and the other guy gives a rude response. It’s very much a part of our culture. Kids learn to mimic that kind of communication from an early age because they think it’s cool.
Kids also have peers around them using sarcastic and mean language. They pick up on that because they’re afraid that they’re going to be the next target. Often, children manage by using that humor themselves. It’s similar to a child who’s afraid of being bullied—so he becomes a bully himself. Much of this reaction and attitude is fear-based. I personally think it’s good for parents to adopt a philosophy of, “This is our home and this is the way we talk to each other. I don’t care what your friends said at school. I don’t care what your brother said in the parking lot. I’m telling you, in this home, this is how we talk to each other.” Lay that out for your kids so they understand that there’s an “inside” and an “outside.” Kids often don’t really comprehend the concept of there being an inside, which is your home, and an outside, which is the world. I think you can explain this to your child by saying, “When you’re inside, you have to follow certain rules and expectations. That’s your responsibility. If not, there will be consequences. If you’re outside, and you get yourself into trouble, then we’ll deal with that when the time comes. But at home, this is the way you need to act.”
How to Respond to: “I Was Just Kidding!”
When your child responds to your reprimand or someone being upset with “I was just kidding,” I think you should say, “What you’re saying is hurtful. I need you to stop.” If he doesn’t stop, give him a consequence. I think an effective one is to take away two hours of phone or computer time (or whatever it is your child values) and build up from there. You can set it up by saying, “If you’re able to talk in a nice way to people for the next two hours, you get your phone back.”
If your child lies and then says, “I was kidding,” you can say, “Well, you’re going to get consequences for that lie. Don’t kid about the truth.”
When your child is young, up until the age of six or so, you can just correct them when they’re joking in an inappropriate way. The kind of thing you would say to a young child is, “We don’t joke by saying hurtful things. And that was hurtful.” If your child says it again, you should go ahead and give him a consequence. If your younger child uses a curse word, I also teach parents to say, “That’s a hurtful word. Don’t say it.” That way, you’re setting those limits and training him from an early age.
When kids are in early adolescence, they may develop a much more challenging way of talking to you. At that age, they’re testing adult authority and they’re pushing limits. One of the ways they push the limits is through speech. Simply put, they want to see what they can get away with. I think parents have to be very, very responsive to that.
I think if your child says something inappropriate and then he says he’s only kidding, you have to make it clear that it’s not going to fly. You can say, “We don’t kid that way. If you say hurtful things when you’re kidding, you’re going to be held responsible for them. There’s no excuse for verbal abuse.”
If you’re not sure if what your child is saying is hurtful, I think you should ask him point blank, “What did you just say?” Speak very seriously, so your child knows you’re listening. If his comment is not way off-color or hurtful, you can say, “Oh, all right, that is funny.” But if it is, I think you should say, “Listen, that’s a hurtful thing to say and it’s not funny. You know what we said about joking in a mean way.” And then give him a consequence.
Is this kind of behavior part of adolescence? Absolutely. So is calling a parent by their first name instead of “Mom” and “Dad.” These are all ways your child tests you and challenges your authority. Personally, I think it’s important to be called “Mom” and “Dad” because that’s your role as a parent. Think of it this way: your child doesn’t know how to relate to Tommy and Betty—he knows how to relate to Mom and Dad. Your title as a parent gives you authority and status. Kids will often try to test the limits by taking away your title, but I think it’s a mistake to go along with that.
“Joking” with Siblings and Others
What if your child hurts siblings’ or other people’s feelings and uses the “I was only joking” excuse? If you overhear your child being hurtful to a sibling or friend, don’t jump in right away unless it’s abusive. Try to see what the conversation is about—find out if the other child is doing the same thing. If the other child is using the same kind of language and tone, I think you have to leave it alone. Later on, you can comment and say, “I heard you and Max playing earlier today and I don’t think the things you were saying were very nice.”
If you find the hurtful joking is a one-way street, with one child being mean or rude and the other taking it, then you should intervene. I think you can pull your child aside, correct him and then say, “What can you say differently instead of saying this?” Hopefully he’ll think of something. If he can’t, suggest something to him. This is so important because it’s exactly what we want—we want our kids to be appropriate the next time they feel that way.
“You Take Everything Too Seriously!”
When you start to crack down on the mean joking in your household, many kids will say something like, “We can’t have fun around here anymore because you take everything too seriously.” I think you should say, “You’re right, I take hurtfulness very seriously. I take disrespect very seriously—and they’re no joking matter.” I think you can continue with, “On the other hand, I’ve heard you come up with jokes that aren’t disrespectful or hurtful, too. I think they’re really funny. Those are the kind of jokes that I accept. But the other ones are hurtful and I really don’t see their place in our family.”
Talk to Your Child about the Difference between Joking and Hurtful Language
I think it’s a good idea to talk to your child about the difference between joking and being hurtful—especially if you’re going to start calling them out on their language. Call them into the room and say, “That was a hurtful way to say what you said, and I don’t like it. Can you think of a different way to say it?”
Also, catch your child when they’re being good. If they make a funny joke, say, “See, that was really funny and appropriate. I really appreciate that.” Whenever you can, catch your child being good.
If you have a child who’s gotten a lot of attention and laughs for being smart alecky and wisecracking in a hurtful way and you want to put a stop to it, I also think you need to talk to them about what they’re doing. Sit down with your child when things are going well—not when there’s a crisis or when he’s angry. If your child is sitting in the living room, sit down next to him. I would tell him that you’ve decided that you find certain things offensive and you want to talk to him about it. And then you say, “The jokes that you make, even though you say you’re only kidding, are really hurtful. And as of today, you have to stop being hurtful and sarcastic to others. If you don’t, you’re going to be held responsible for that.” Give your child room to discuss what you’ve just told him by saying, “Do you have any questions? Would you like an example? Do you understand what I mean?” Give examples. Write some things down ahead of time.
I recommend that whenever you talk with your child, write down what you want to say on an index card in simple sentences so you don’t get distracted. If he’s resistant or explosive, you can say, “All right, well you have no video game privileges until you’re ready to talk about this.” Use the “Stop the Show” technique that I explain in the Total Transformation Program. Don’t give your child an audience for his outburst—just give him a consequence and leave the room.
I know some parents have children with behavioral or social problems who have learned to use humor to deflect or compensate for their lack of social or problem-solving skills. I’ve met many kids like that, and I was that kind of child myself. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter to you why he does it. That’s like saying, “He steals because he doesn’t have anything.” Or, “He lies because he’s afraid.” That doesn’t matter; it’s an excuse. Instead, we stop the behavior. We challenge it, we teach our kids other things, and we eliminate it— with no excuses.
Rudeness and Disrespect: How Kids Try to “Defuse” It reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com
James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”