My 9-year-old daughter is very sassy. Her words aren't exactly disrespectful, but her attitude sure is. If I ask her to pick up her shoes, her reply is "Allllrrriight" instead of "All right!" I get so many compliments from outsiders about how my daughter has great manners and is so respectful and helpful. What can I do?
Signed, Sassy's Mom
Dear Sassy's Mom,
Isn't it strange how children seem to operate from two different rule books? One tells them how to behave when they're out in public, and the other lets them know what they can get away with at home.
Your question will resonate with millions of parents who often find themselves listening in disbelief as their teacher goes on and on about how cooperative their child is, and what a pleasure he or she is to have around. "Are you sure you're talking about my child?" they ask, convinced that the little darling being described bears no resemblance to the one who lives under their roof.
When children are at home their behavior can be dramatically different than it is when they are elsewhere. The region of the brain that manages inhibitions and impulse control (the pre-frontal cortex) is "on duty" when a child is out and about; mild anxiety about upsetting other adults makes them more vigilant about what they do or say.
But when that same child feels safe and secure at home, you might say that the instinct to carefully govern what they do or say is "off duty."
This is not to say that children should be permitted to speak rudely or behave inappropriately with their parents. It's just a way of helping you understand why your daughter may be sloppier with her manners when she is with you.
Another element to consider is the way you react to her sassiness. I often say that I'm a big fan of the "arched eyebrow." Rather than engaging in lectures about why she shouldn't speak to you a certain way, simply look at her with an eyebrow raised, and don't say a word. Let her know by the look on your face that she's crossed a line, and don't encourage her pre-adolescent "attitude" by responding with drama and fanfare.
Finally, look at the quality of connection between the two of you. While it's true that children do test the waters and experiment with being edgier as they move toward adolescence, when they feel seen, cherished and enjoyed by their caregivers, they feels less comfortable being disrespectful toward them.
Avoid taking your daughter's behavior too seriously -- or too personally. All children test their parents to see where the line is. Keep your connection strong, don't react in a way that fuels her sassy attitude, and things will get better. (For personal support, click here for information about my upcoming Parenting Without Power Struggles class. It starts this week!)
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.