Some very nice parents have some very rude children. In fact, parents may be busy taking parenting courses and reading parenting books and doing everything in their power to learn how to be respectful and loving toward their kids. Their children, however, are not busy taking courses; they're just being "natural." When they feel upset or frustrated, they show it – by stamping their feet, yelling, crying, whining or employing any method of communication that gets the message across. In moments of intense frustration, some kids insult their parents: "You're so mean!" "I hate you!" "You don't know anything!" Some kids slam doors or phones.

Natural or Suppressed?

"I want my child to be able to express herself. I don't care if it's not polite and controlled. My parents never let me be natural and I hated feeling suppressed all the time. I want my kids to feel that they can say anything."

This sentiment is often expressed by adults whose parents never gave them a voice. It is important to let kids talk, to tell their end of the story, to express their thoughts and feelings. However, allowing someone to communicate isn't the same as allowing them to be abusive. Those who communicate with harsh language, hurtful words or ugly gestures will lose more than they will ever gain by their "honesty." They will lose love. Those who speak this way to their spouses or children will inevitably discover that they are rejected by the people who are most important to them.

The opposite of abusive communication is not, however, no communication. If a child isn't happy with a parent's rule, he should be allowed to share his thoughts and feelings on the subject. However, he should not be allowed to browbeat the parent with endless complaints and arguments, because browbeating is a destructive communication tool. Anything a child is allowed to do becomes wired into his or her brain as a pattern to be retrieved in adulthood. Thus, children who are allowed to argue with their parents can grow up to be argumentative adults. While the parents may find the behavior acceptable, spouses and bosses may not. Similarly, children who are allowed to call their parents names or otherwise speak in an insulting, disrespectful way, may very well grow up to use this same style with spouses, in-laws, children and others. They will generally find that it doesn't work nearly as well in adulthood as it seemed to in childhood.

Teaching Respectful Communication

Teaching children to express their upset respectfully involves showing them how to do it (modeling), and teaching them to do it. Here are some guidelines for both strategies:

  • Never say or do anything when you are upset that you don't want your kids to say or do to you. For instance, if you don't want to be yelled at, hit, hung up on or insulted, don't ever do those things to your children. If you find it hard to refrain from disrespectful communication, enlist the help of a relationship specialist and/or mental health professional.
  • Do not make exceptions for yourself ("I was tired/overwhelmed/hormonal"). Live by the motto that abusing others is never acceptable.
  • Follow the Relationship Rule: I only give and I only accept respectful communication. I do not give, nor do I accept, disrespectful (abusive) communication. When a child speaks or acts disrespectfully in anger or upset, use age-appropriate techniques to put the child back on track. Do not just accept the communication because it was an authentic expression of feelings or because the child had a good point. Feelings and good points can always be communicated in respectful ways. Show the child how to do it.
  • Use positive reinforcement and rewards to encourage self-control in communication. Let your kids see that respect is a fundamental value in your home. ("I like the way you told me that you didn't like dinner in such a nice voice. You were very respectful. I'm so impressed that I'm going to help you find something else that you can eat tonight.")
  • Use discipline when necessary to discourage inappropriate communication. ("From now on, when you shout at me, you will lose computer privileges for the night." Pick any age-appropriate negative consequence that will motivate the child to think before she speaks. Be sure to discipline in a respectful manner – no yelling, insulting, etc.
  • Be consistent. If you never accept disrespectful communication, your children will grow up to be respectful in all of their relationships. This will help them to enjoy healthy, loving relationships throughout their lives.

Although pre-schoolers tend to experiment with disrespectful behavior, they can quickly learn that you will not accept it. They will also learn – if you are careful to teach them – that there are acceptable ways of saying what they want to say. If your children are older and have already developed ingrained speech habits, don't worry – it is never too late to teach them a new way. Just be patient, because it will take the older child time to undo the habits of the past before he or she can consistently use new skills that you impart. However, if you persevere and do not waiver, everyone in your house will soon possess the tools they need to communicate all of their thoughts and feelings in a productive way. The Torah teaches us, "Do not hurt others with your words" (Vayikra 25:17). Living by this commandment helps us to have peaceful homes and healthy, loving relationships.