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Dealing with Disrespect

When I was in private practice as a psychologist, I encountered a common complaint from parents about their children, particularly those that were passing or had passed through puberty. “He talks so disrespectfully to me. I can’t believe the way he talks to me. If I had talked that way to my parents, they would have beat me half to death.”

Without getting into the matter of corporal punishment, I hope we can agree that if you have a 16-year-old who is speaking disrespectfully to you, and your only solution is to hit them, you have lost the war. I think people sometimes hit their children because they don’t know what else to do.

At some point along the way of hearing this complaint of disrespect, it occurred to me that these young people who talk ugly to their parents usually have pretty good lives just the same. They have smartphones and other gadgets. They have a range of nice clothes, perhaps freshly laundered by a parent. They get to go on nice vacations. If they are old enough, they likely have their own car or truck to drive. The quality of their lives is not diminished by their disrespectful behavior.

Over the years, I developed this challenge for parents. Ask yourself what you must provide for your children. What is non-negotiable? It seems to me that we must provide our children with food, shelter, education, and medical care. We must provide them with clothing. Not necessarily the clothing they want, but certainly something to cover their nakedness.

Unless I’m leaving something out, I believe that is the complete list: Food, shelter, education, clothing, and medical care. You may have others—but do ask yourself if those things are truly mandatory.

What if everything else we give them, cars to drive, money to spend, nice vacations, smartphones, etc., were contractual? The contract, roughly, could be: You get these things only when you behave like a good citizen, treat us (and others) with respect, and take care of your basic responsibilities.

When I was in practice at a hospital long ago, there was a fellow doctor who was rude to me. A lot. A day came when she asked me to cover her emergency call for her. I said “no.” “Why not?” she asked. I said, “I’m not in the habit of doing nice things for people who are rude to me.” (I’m not sure that attitude of mine is completely consistent with the Gospels, but we all fall short!)

Let’s try a concrete parenting example. Your 15-year-old is really rude to you on a Tuesday evening. Instead of fussing at them or threatening them with punishment, suppose you say no more than, “you may not speak to me that way.” Make a mental note of this event.

The following Friday afternoon, your 15-year-old says, “I’m going to meet a couple of friends and see a movie. Can you give me a ride?”  You answer, calmly, is “no.” Your shocked 15-year-old asks why you won’t give them a ride and you answer, “I’m not in the habit of doing nice things for people who are rude to me, as you were last Tuesday.”

A 16-year-old can lose her driving privileges for a week. A 14-year-old can do his own laundry. And so on. Over time, the young person may well learn that speaking disrespectfully has real consequences.

Here is a prayer.

Father, help us be firm with our children,
but with our hearts filled with compassion
for the struggles in their lives:
Their anxiety, their desperate longing to belong,
Their struggles to find love and acceptance,
Their war with their own feelings,
Their search for you in a confusing world.

Help us pour our love out to them,
And to be a channel of your love for them.
Help us know when our firmness is best for them,
Just as your firmness is often best for us.






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