There are few things more frustrating to a parent than an outward sign of disrespect coming from their children. You’ve probably seen it. Kids will fire off blatant sass, but will also use eye-rolling, door-slamming or long sighs of disdain to get their point across nonverbally. If we attempt to regain control over disrespectful children what often jumps out of our mouths is, “That kind of disrespect is NOT OK!” (or some variation). We may demand our child’s respect. But does that help us understand what is going on in her heart?
We may demand our child’s respect. But does that help us understand what is going on in her heart?
A Biblical Perspective
Jesus consistently held people accountable and asked them each to examine their heart. Interestingly, his chief opponents, the Pharisees, looked pious on the outside while having conniving, evil intentions. They appeared to revere God, but internally they were corrupt. Jesus called them white-washed tombs and quoted the prophet Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Mark 7:6) Jesus pointed out time and again that the condition of the heart was the essential issue, not correct outward behavior. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8) That makes it pretty hard to picture Jesus shaking His finger at a sassy kid and proclaiming through clenched teeth, “You can’t talk to me that way!!!”
Where a Parent’s Thinking Goes Wrong
Despite this, parents often believe, “If I can eliminate my child’s outward expression of disrespect, I’ve gotten my child to be respectful.” Nothing could be further from the truth! It’s like saying, “If I slap some paint on the outside of this run-down house, the dead stuff that continues to rot inside won’t stink.”
When parents “successfully” shut down a child’s disrespect, what often festers and “rots” inside is silent contempt and a loss of respect for the parent. The more a child knows he has power to push his parent’s buttons, the more insecure and small the parent seems in his eyes.
The child may respond to the demand for respect with a tight-lipped, “sure”, heading for his room where he’ll text his friends, “My parents are so annoying!” When the focus is on managing the outward display of disrespect, not only does heart-level disrespect grow but, especially with strong-willed kids, so does the resistance… often through craftier means.
Managing disrespect simply becomes a game of power, like playing the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. Wham, and another sassy response pops up, faster and faster. The older kids get, the more powerful they feel in this game.Change Starts With Looking Inward
If you’re looking to grow a culture of heart-felt respect in your home, it starts with asking yourself the following questions:
- What is really going on here?
- What’s going on in me about this?
- Have I taken the easy road of intimidation, instead of the longer, harder road of mutually respectful conflict resolution?
- Am I preoccupied with how I feel when my buttons get pushed, and don’t really care why my child might be pushing buttons?
- Do I know (and care about) what else might be discouraging my child that is coming out sideways?
What does this look like in day-to-day interactions with our kids?
The heat of the moment is the best time for parents to build true respect in their relationship with their child. Let’s make that practical for two typical “button-pushing” behaviors – door-slamming and eye-rolling.
I heard one dad to another, “I nipped my daughter’s door-slamming in the bud… I simply took the door off its hinges for a while. That sure taught her a lesson!”
“Ha, what a great idea!” responded the other dad.
There was a condescending, “winner-loser” attitude in the conversation that made me cringe. It might seem like quite an effective consequence to remove a slammed door from the hinges. Clever, yes. Constructive, no.
The message this man sent to his daughter was: “What I care about is stopping your outward display of disrespect so I feel back in control. I don’t give a rip about what you were upset about.” As the gaping doorway denied her privacy in a vulnerable moment, I wonder if she closed the door of her heart instead. If so, there were no “winners” in this confrontation.
Here’s an example that might work in your family, stated gently without sarcasm:
“I’d like to understand the real message beneath the door-slamming. We are too upset to talk about it now, but before the end of the day I’d like you to either tell me or write out a few clear, respectful sentences so I can understand. I think that will help both of us.”
Shelly initially panicked at her twelve-year-old daughter Jenna’s first bout with eye-rolling. She texted me, “What should I do?! This is new territory for me. Is this what the teen years will be like?” I suggested she gently ask, “If those eyes could talk, what would they be saying to me right now? I really do care and want to know.”
When Shelly responded this way to the next eye-roll, Jenna (prone to silence) simply walked off. But the behavior never gained power and soon disappeared. Looking back, Shelly realized that Jenna had been going through a hard time after a big disappointment, and just needed to feel truly cared about. Shelly earned her daughter’s true respect by her understanding response.
Empowering True Respect
The good news about a disrespectful child is that the more blatant and aggravating your child’s expression of disrespect, the more you have to gain. This will only happen if you respond with grace and persevere to work through the issue beneath the disrespect, with your child.
If you’re concerned about growing heartfelt respect instead of trying to squash disrespect, how do you want your kids to respectfully express their upset feelings? And how can you help them begin to learn those skills?
When your child breaks out in their next round of disrespectful words or actions, don’t miss your opportunity to begin to grow a culture of true, heartfelt respect and reconciliation in your home!
Next steps for exploring this idea:
- Download the ebook Consequences That Actually Work.
- Listen to this podcast where we discuss in depth this idea of teaching kids to be responsible for their actions.
- Register for Discipline That Connect With Your Child’s Heart online course!