How to respond to a rude child (even one that's not yours)
March 23, 2015
Question: I have a nine-year-old who is so rude to people when they come over that they are completely taken aback. I, of course am embarrassed and angry that after 9 years this child still refuses to say hello when we have guests and goes out of her way to spew as much snark as she can.
We've talked about this over and over again and she doesn’t see that she's doing anything wrong. Even people who ignore the snarky attitude and try to be polite, or ask her questions about school or show an interest in her are shot down. What's going on with her?
Adler’s teaching suggests that you meet a child’s kick with a kick and a smile with a smile, since that is how the child is saying "hello." Initially, it was difficult for me to do this. However, after many failed attempts at winning children over who were so clearly uninterested in me, I gave up and tried his approach. Here's a story to illustrate.
Recently I visited a friend I hadn’t seen in years. I was visiting and we were so excited to spend time together. Her children are 13, 9 and 4. When I arrived I was greeted at the door by her 9 year old.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Vicki. I am a friend of your moms. She is expecting me. May I come in?”
She looked at me and said “No, wait here and I will see if you really are a friend and if my mom wants to see you.”
So there I stood till my friend opened the door and started apologizing. I gave her a hug and told her to relax. Everything would be fine. Nine-year-olds don’t scare me. She cautioned me that it would be like this for our entire visit and I assured her it would not.
Here's the thing. When a child says hello by kicking you, the only respectful thing to do is to meet her where she is and kick back (metaphorically speaking of course, not literally.) Not hard, but enough for the child to know you understand the rules of the game and you are willing to play.
The bantering began. Back and forth we went with snarky comments that just missed being downright rude and qualifying as disrespectful behavior. I didn’t try and win her over. I didn’t show any real interest in making conversation. I answered her questions with disinterested shortness and waited.
Here's what I know about kids: if you give them what they think they want, they will generally change their minds - and in changing their minds, they will change the way they interact with you.
At one point she looked at me and said, “you are sort of mean.” I said, “I'm not the least bit mean. You started the game so I'm playing along. If you don’t like it, then change the game.”
She looked at me. I said it again. “Listen, this is how you like to get to know people and that’s fine with me. But it’s not my game, it’s yours. If you want to play a new game, start a new one.”
She thought about this for quite some time and then asked me, from the other room, if I wanted to come in and look at her….whatever it was. Contact. A new connection. Start the game over.
I said, “sure, I’d love to. I’ll be there as soon as I finish this conversation with your mom. About five minutes. Can you wait that long?” She said, “sure.”
And so, we said hello again.
As parents, we tend to jump on our kids if they say “hello” in anything other than Emily Post politeness. I have lived by the following motto for the last 25 years and it has served me well. Try it and see if making contact with kids of any age doesn’t become more interesting and rewarding.
I don't care if a child greets me with "hello." I care that they consider me a friend and give me a hug goodbye when I leave. It is not the child’s job to reach out and make contact. It's my job to ensure that it's safe to connect with me - and that I might just be a fun person to hang out with. The job is mine. Not the child’s.
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