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Rudeness and Disrespect: How Kids Try to "Defuse" It

by James Lehman, MSW
Rudeness and Disrespect: How Kids Try  to Defuse It

“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 situation. 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.”

Young Kids:
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. If you let your child get away with a hurtful remark once, even if they’re “joking,” watch out—it’s much harder to deal with once they turn it into a habit.

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.


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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."


very helpful, I feel like he wrote this article just for me!

Comment By : mildred

Great advise, I will try it out in my home starting now.

Comment By : lolmom

I loved the whole article, but when in the end he said, we don't accept excuses, we change behavior.. wow, that nailed it for me! Thanks James, you are still helping us even from heaven!

Comment By : lksgrace

thanks a lots. that was wonderful!

Comment By : maggi

This came at the perfect time! I've been dealing with this exact thing with my son lately. He has spread from saying hurtful things to his sister and Dad to friends of the family. He thinks he's being funny and "just kidding" but they are hurtful. I recently found out that one of our friends doesn't want to come around if he is at home because of it. I SO hope that he will respond to my corrections and stop this behavior.

Comment By : CDG

Thanks for this article. It could'nt have come at a better time. I wish God's presence and comfort to Mr. Lehman's wife and son. May he rest in peace.

Comment By : NIA

James, even now, you are still being a bright light to those of us stumbling around in this crazy world of parenting. Thank you for all that you did in your amazing life.

Comment By : HH

This type of things happen often in our household. I do tell him that he is not funny, when he says he is only joking. This gives me additional ways to deal with this problem. Especially in the way that he and his friends joke with each other. I have to remind him over and over that I am not a guy and not one of his buddies. Thanks.

Comment By : Alice

Thank you for the above article and all that came before- this is my situation now, and i am tired. but even more so sad and I send condolences to his family- James will be missed by many- especially his son and wife! Many thanks for all of his useful advice!

Comment By : EAD

Wow! very appropiate and such the right time for me to hear! going through this with my 14 year old, and my 5 and half year old is mimicking!needed this advice because i was not sure how to address this! Thank you and so sorry for your loss!( OUR loss)

Comment By : nunes4

Excellent article. My daughter who is now 20, lives at home, works part-time and goes to community college parttime, is still pulling this attitude. I feel the only thing I can take away from her is "living priveleges at my house". These issues won't go away as the become older so we all need to start taking charge now. Thanks for your continued great advice and wisdom

Comment By : Lori

This article was truly what I needed, in the last paragraph when he stated children with behavior or social issues need to be stop the behavior not make an excuse, WOW so powerful. You will truly be missed. Heaven just received a wonderful angel.

Comment By : TT

I extend my sincere appreciation and thanks to the family and staff of James who are doing a wonderful job during this difficult time. You powerfully make a difference for parents and teens by continuing this legacy. I have read many books on parenting, but none come close to the advise I have received from your program.

Comment By : KLF

This article describes my son to a "t"! I will try the techniques in it with him.

Comment By : Dad

Very informative. I hope I can get the support from my husband and I put this "No Excuses" into effect. It is never too late. Thanks!

Comment By : Christie

This is very helpful, but while reading this article I realized that my husband does the same thing. He makes a hurtful comment and then when he realizes he has hurt someone he is "just kidding" and "you are being too sensitive and can't take a joke." I have my work cut out for me not only with my kids but also with my husband. Thank you to James Lehman's family and staff for continuing to help families and get out James' message and help.

Comment By : mom of 3 (make that 4)

timely for me too. I have an issue where the kids use substitutes like "friggin, she's a "b" word or the "a" word. I guess, I just handle it the same way and say it's unacceptable...right?

Comment By : phogan

Thanks so much for the advice, I'm at that stage with two children at the moment. I will certainly try it out and I am very sorry to hear of James going to Eternal life my prayers are with his wife and son.

Comment By : Cass

It's been a year since I discovered James Lehman's whole approach to parenting. It is so validating. It allows us as parents to stop excusing ourselves when we need to discipline our children and it puts the "do it just because I say so" back into the equation. I only wish I had read the book when all my children were small. During their formative years the whole approach seemed to have put the ball in the wrong court. Love them, accept them and try very hard not to reprimand them. It takes so much courage to assert ourselves in the G-d given role we were handed - parents. It takes courage to stop the walking on eggshells in fear of upsetting our children. My children are all grown - and yet there is still so much to learn and improve and implement. I look forward to the very practical "old fashioned" advise in these columns and I share them with anyone who will listen. Even my adult children seem to blossom when I share with them some of the things I have learned here. The information shared in this program needs to be read and reread regularly.

Comment By : sheba

* Dear phogan: You ask a very good question here. In this article James suggests that kids don’t get to call people names or say mean things and then use the excuse “I was just kidding!” The same could be said for name-calling, couldn’t it? Calling someone “the b word” instead of using the actual swear word is still hurtful and if that is against house rules, then it is ok to hold your kids accountable for that. Instead of “I was just kidding!” you might hear “But at least I didn’t swear!” It will be important to set some limits again about what kind of language and behavior is expected in your home. You can have a standard rule that no one calls anyone any names at all, no matter if it is a swear or a substitute. You might problem solve with your kids about how else they can handle their frustration that doesn’t turn into name-calling, verbal abuse, or cursing. Good luck to you and thank you for your question! I am sure that other readers can relate to this issue. By the way, for more on cursing itself, read: How to stop your child from cursing.

Comment By : Becky, Parental Support Line Advisor

This article gave me a wake-up call. No excuses, for anybody including parents! We've gotten soft and too lazy, thanks so much for the eye-opener!! Blessings to all involved with this timely ministry, my prayers are with you all.

Comment By : Kathy

hey i need to know what to do with my 4.5 yr old boy constantly physically hurting his 2 yr old little brother and hating him and not liking him and calling us dummies and saying i dont love you and i dont love your family just on and on and the way i have your program but have not listened or used yet because i felt the children were not old enought yet.

Comment By : kimberly

* Dear kimberly: We do hear about this situation from time to time—a sibling who is physically hurting another. It’s important to protect the younger child from being hit by his older brother. It may require that you closely supervise their play time for awhile. Help your four year old to learn to recognize what’s happening in his body by learning to name his feelings. “You look like you’re starting to get upset” or “You look frustrated.” The long term goal is for him to recognize his feelings and taken action to calm himself before he’s out of control. Some parents find it effective to have their young child actually picture a big red ‘stop sign’ in their head while saying the word “stop” to themselves. This becomes a cue to STOP what you’re doing—now THINK. At his age, you will likely need to coach him many times until he learns to do this. When he gets close to getting really angry, coach him by saying “STOP.” Then direct him--“What else can you do?” or “Take some deep breaths.” When he does act out and hurts someone, make a limit setting statement that includes his emotional state: “We don’t hit when we’re angry.” After he’s calmed down, talk about what else could have done instead of hitting. We’re glad to hear you have the Total Transformation Program. We would recommend that you start to study it. James Lehman has used all the techniques on kids as young as five years old and the Support Line can help you modify the techniques for use with younger kids. Give us a call.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Here's an idea- tell your kids this kind of behavior is unacceptable and inexcusable. They need to treat their elders and peers with respect. Furthermore, they need to cut the kidding and watch what they say to others. Tell them what they perceive as a joke is a disrespectful and rude put down to others, and this kind of behavior does have serious consequences. Let them know fights get started over kidding and it doesn't matter how well they mean, if the other person doesn't like the way they're being treated, no rebuttals, no excuses, THEY NEED TO STOP

Comment By : Michael

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disrespectful, backtalk, child behavior, rude attitude, kidding, joking, joke, teen behavior,

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