Recently, a mother asked how she and her husband could make their 16-year-old son stop talking disrespectfully to them. So far, she said, they'd complained, threatened and occasionally taken his phone away for a day or two. In short, they'd done nothing.
"You've been foolin' around," I said. "You've got to let him know, in no uncertain terms, you will no longer tolerate his verbal abuse by taking away his freedom, the thing he values most. If you do this with calm consistency, he'll eventually realize there's nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by continuing in this vein."
She thought this over for a second, then said, "But sometimes there's nothing going on in his life right then and there that's of great importance to him. What should we do then?"
"You should wait for a strategic opportunity," I said, and told this story about our daughter, Amy.
When Amy was 16 and full of her bad self, she began letting us know she thought we were worse than irrelevant. When she spoke to us, it was often with this tone that said, "You are the lowest of life forms in my scheme of things."
One otherwise fine day, I asked Amy to demean herself by vacuuming, and she responded with some especially choice wisecrack. I was not amused.
As it happened, however, I was leaving the house and was in no position to either come up with a consequence or enforce one. So, I just said, "I won't forget this, Amy, and neither will you."
The following Friday, I came home to find Amy and her friend, Angie, making plans.
"Yo, ladies," I said, in my homeboy accent, "What it is?"
"Dad," Amy said, disgust dripping off her tongue like spilled milk, "did anyone ever tell you that when you try to act cool, you only come off sounding like a complete Bozo?"
I turned to Angie. "So, Angie, who are you going out with this evening?"
She caught my drift and glanced at Amy, whose eyes widened. "Uh, Amy and I are going to a teen club in Charlotte."
"No, Angie," I said. "You may be going to a teen club, but Amy isn't going anywhere."
"Dad!" Amy protested, "You can't do that!"
"Miss Amos," I said, looking her in the eye, "do you remember my telling you that neither you nor I would forget what you said the other day when I asked you to vacuum? Well, it's time, as they say, to pay the band."
That was the last time, as I recall, Amy ever used her acid tongue on her daddy. No foolin'.
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