I was at the grocery store recently waiting in line at the pharmacy. The lady in front of me was at the counter waiting for her prescriptions. She had a toddler, who looked to be about three years old seated in her shopping cart. Of course, this kid was pretty restless during the wait even though she was working on a huge lollipop. ‘Mommy, I need to get down.’ She kept saying impatiently. Mommy dearest seemed determined to ignore her but baby girl was not having it. ‘MOMMY! Get me down now!’ She shouted, each time her voice growing louder and her words elongating. Her mother looked at her with exasperation while sighing heavily. ‘You can’t get down because you’re going to run all over the place and then I will have to chase you.’ This clearly was not a satisfying answer for this little girl. ‘That’s not nice Mommy! You shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!’ The mother looked mortified. Her lightly pigmented face turned scarlet as she tried shushing her daughter to no avail. One of the pharmacy techs, who was amply pigmented, apparently saw most of this and was providing a steady stream of unhelpful commentary like, “Is she talking to her mama like that? What is wrong with these kids?! She needs to tap that behind!” Meanwhile, Ellie was tugging at me frantically because for some reason she thought that I wasn’t aware that this little girl was saying “not nice” words.
Here is the part of the story where you’re likely to shake your head at me in disapproval. I’m not at all offended if you do. My tolerance for bad behavior seems to be decreasing in proportion to my age. While everyone else was either blatantly staring or doing their best to appear as if they were engrossed in something else like their shoes or their cellphone, I spoke to the little girl. “What’s your name, honey?” Let’s call her Devon because she had a boy-sounding name and also because I don’t actually remember her name. “Devon, you are not being very nice to your Mommy. I think you should apologize. If my daughter spoke to me that way, I would snatch that lollipop right out of her mouth and not give it back.” Devon gaped at me in horror. Then she hid her lollipop behind her back and began to pout. “Sorry Mommy,” she said softly after several moments. Of course, my daughter just had to give her two cents about the situation. “Mommy, you made that girl sad!” The people in line behind me chuckled. “Well, she made her Mommy sad by shouting and saying rude things. She needs to be sad about it.” This answer seemed to satisfy Ellie. Meanwhile, Devon’s Mommy was clearly done with being mortified. She hurried to pay for her prescriptions and then hurried her daughter out of the store like she had a bus to catch, managing to avoid making eye contact with any of us on her way out.
I’m no parenting expert or child behavior analyst but I’m pretty sure that rude kids who aren’t consistently corrected become defiant teens and adults. My usual disclaimers regarding not being a subject matter expert on at least 75% of the things I talk about apply here. These are my observations and opinions. The fact that these opinions happen to be stated strongly and with sincere conviction doesn’t make me a subject matter expert. Moving on.
There are certain things I take issue with about the way I was raised but being taught to be polite and respectful isn’t one of them. In many ways, I am somewhat of an old-school parent. I won’t let my kids call adults by their first name; it’s ma’am, sir, and Mr. or Ms. ‘so and so.’ I get a lot of strange looks when I insist on it and have gotten into some polite fights with other parents over it (I tend to win these by the way). I’m not on board with kids treating adults like peers. I recognize this is a fine line, particularly when some adults conduct themselves like children (in some cases because it’s actually their job to relate to kids and in other cases because they are incredibly juvenile). Without some sort of verbal distinction, the only thing that separates an adult from a child in most children’s eyes is size and age. I also believe in treating children as people with valid feelings, opinions, and desires. I agree with leaving room for them to express themselves uniquely and creatively. But unchecked freedom of expression easily becomes problematic. All you have to do is watch the news or spend a few minutes on social media if you need to be reminded that this is true. I can’t say and do whatever I want without consequences. I don’t think we should shield or exempt our children from this fact, particularly since they won’t stay children for very long anyway.
I have created somewhat of a classification system for rude children. The categories are not strict delineations; children can certainly have features of more than one or even all categories. You won’t find it in a textbook or hear it in a child psychology class because I made it up. If that gives you pause, then you can just pretend you are watching a Youtube video about why vaccines are evil that was made by a person who didn’t even graduate from high school.
1) Argumentative kids: If you have read any of my prior pieces where I discuss my children, then you will know that my daughter is argumentative to a fault. It’s more than just a desire to win or to be right (although there are certainly components of both at play) but she mainly does it because she gets enjoyment out of it. This isn’t really the kind of argumentativeness that I am referring to. I’m talking about those kids you walk by in Target or Kohls as they are scolding their parents the way you would an unruly pet. Before you know it, they are having an all-out shouting match with this parent as if there is no age or role difference between them. NOT CUTE.
2) Cussing kids: movies like Big Daddy and Jerry Maguire play this up for laughs. I have heard the argument that curse words only exist because they were arbitrarily labeled as such. The idea is that calling them taboo in the first place is what makes them curse words. If we remove the label, then they won’t be curse words anymore. I’m calling BS on this argument (joke intended). All words have arbitrary origins and can have various meanings that vary by location and/or culture. All people exist in the context of a particular time and culture. Even if you remove the label for yourself, you’re still going to have to deal with the fact that the vast majority of people whom you interact with will be offended and/or angered by your speech. The sentiment behind it (usually to insult a person or to convey some other inappropriate feeling) is generally negative. A child cussing out their parent is the height of inappropriateness. I can’t see many people applauding that situation apart from extreme circumstances such as abuse. Therefore, this also qualifies as NOT CUTE.
3) Physically abusive kids: my son introduced me to this one. Thankfully he doesn’t do this often. Just like any two-year-old, he wants what he wants and never wants to be told ‘no.’ There have been some occasions when he resorts to violence. Usually, it’s a hit or a punch. But he has occasionally grabbed a pointy or heavy toy and whacked me with it or chucked it at me. My daughter is no walk in the park either but she doesn’t have a mean streak like he does. When I do see this in public, it’s usually a kid having an out-of-control tantrum rather than a calculated strike like what Ezra does. Either way, I think the lack of cuteness here goes without saying.
4) Ungrateful/Entitled kids: I have touched on this in Monsters of Our Own Making ( ). The other day I offered my children a dinner of baked stuffed shells right out of the oven. What kid doesn’t like pasta, cheese, and pizza sauce, right? My kids took one look at it and refused to even try it. My daughter looked at me as if I had offered her an entrée of baked car tires with a side of arsenic. “Ew. That looks yucky! I don’t want that dinner, Mommy!” She wailed tearfully. My son, of course, followed suit because whatever my daughter says or does is golden in his eyes. I decided to take one of many pages out of our best friends’ parenting guide since they have been at this far longer and with many more kids than we have. I call this one, ‘Lecture them to the point of tearful remorse.’ I laid into them about ingratitude. I painted a graphic picture of starving and homeless orphans right here in the US, not to mention in other countries. I described children digging through smelly trash cans and dumpsters for rotting food every night and sleeping next to rats. Heaven forbid my children don’t get Chick-fil-A, pizza, and pancakes served to them on a silver platter three times a day! Needless to say, the tears that followed were copious. I’m sure they probably only understood about 25-50% of what I said but the desired effect was achieved regardless. The point is that almost no one wants to raise a Veruca Salt. That’s beyond not cute, it’s downright UGLY.
5) Smart mouth/Sarcastic kids: More than any of the others, this is very much a learned and reinforced behavior. Most of the time the kids are mimicking phrases that have been said to them or around them frequently. Sometimes it’s from a show or movie that they’ve watched. It can certainly catch you off guard and even come off as funny depending on the age of the child and/or their delivery. If not corrected, sooner or later they are going to say it to the wrong person or in its full intended context and get themselves into trouble. My daughter said, “I hate you!” after I told her to change into more appropriate attire for an outing. I was ready to tear her a new one until she followed up with, “Apologize for ruining my life!” That’s when it hit me that she was playing Isabella from Encanto. And boy was she selling that role! I had to walk away for a minute to laugh behind a closed door. Then I came back and had a long talk with her about why Isabella was saying those things and why it wasn’t appropriate for her to say them.
In a culture that has shifted to validating the feelings and opinions of children as well as championing things like self-confidence, individuality, and self-expression, some of us wind up feeling like we are enslaved to every ridiculous whim of our children. It’s a classic overcorrection for the once widely held mantra that children should be seen and not heard. It’s a big part of why people can get to adulthood and still lack the ability to delay gratification or consider the feelings, desires, and needs of others above their own. My kids regularly need reminders that I am not their personal servant and that they are not entitled to have whatever they want, whenever they want. Sometimes the answer just needs to be, “you already have more than enough.” Now that I have children, I don’t judge young parents whose kids appear to be running the show. Instead, I want to wrap my arms around them and tell them, “I get it. Parenting is so much harder than anyone cares to admit. But you have to start pushing back against this before it becomes a problem that no one is equipped to handle.”
One of the best things I think we can do for our kids is to parent them authentically. It’s tricky to balance open and honest communication with them without sacrificing necessary parental authority. I just don’t think that portraying yourself to them as flawless and untouchable is helpful or sustainable. Inevitably, they are going to find out that you make mistakes and experience the same overpowering emotions that they do. You will sustain more injuries falling off of your pedestal than if you remain consistently grounded throughout your parenting. I’m convinced that most are kids born are with some kind of authenticity radar that starts to malfunction once they become pre-teens. They know a hollow threat when they hear one. They can see through your efforts to shield them from your emotions. They can sniff out things like anger, fear, sadness, and confusion in your tone. Being honest with them about the way their words and actions affect you doesn’t have to be viewed as surrendering power in the relationship. These moments can become impactful illustrations of cause and effect, personal responsibility, empathy, and atonement in relationships. You can model for them how to appropriately channel and then dissipate negative emotions rather than allowing them to overwhelm or dictate what we do. How much better would the world be if more children were taught to be considerate, compassionate, kind, and generous in their primary relationships?