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I've been on a tear lately about rudeness. I've got a bunch of kids, and if there's one thing that ticks me off, it's a rude tone of voice. You know the one: demanding, impolite and too good for common courtesy. They feel entitled to speak sharply and without the usual niceties, like "please," "thank you" and all that. Oh wait, you probably think I'm talking about the kids. Noooo, I'm talking about the way adults talk to kids. They can be so rude!
My son went to a middle school dance recently. As we were buying his ticket, a teacher stomped out of the gymnasium, looked at the gathered crowd of parents and excited pre-teens and demanded, "Any kid who's coming to this dance better get in there right now!" I didn't know what she was so angry about, but whatever it was, clearly it was so urgent that she didn't feel compelled to use anything other than a madder-than-heck tone. Geez. I thought someone had lit off a stink-bomb or something. Turns out, she just wanted to make announcements about the evening's events. She wasn't even angry; that was just the standard tone of voice she used when talking to kids. I looked at my son and raised my eyebrows. He said, "Don't worry about it, Mom. They always talk like that. You get used to it."
At the market the other day, a cute little boy was trailing behind his mother. He was showing remarkable self-control for a bored 6-year-old. He wasn't pulling stuff off the shelves, wandering away, whining, talking nonstop or tripping old people. As his mother pitched groceries into her cart, he asked, "Hey, Mom, have you ever had this cereal with the gnomes on it?" She snapped at him, "Those are leprechauns, and there's no way I'm buying that junk for you, so you can just forget it." His next question: "What's the difference between a gnome and a leprechaun?" was answered in just as hostile a tone. "How should I know?" she said. "Do I look like an expert on stupid gnomes and leprechauns? I'm not buying that damn cereal, so quit talking about it." That's when the whining started--hers, not his. He zoned out and quit chatting. Personally, I was curious. What are the specific differences between gnomes and leprechauns, and why on earth was she talking to him like that?
I may not know about gnomes, but I can spot an ogre from a mile away. I can also make some intelligent guesses as to why this particular ogre was so rude. She was cranky, and he's just a kid, so she figured he deserved to be treated like a jerk. She's tired and doesn't want to be bothered. She was probably spoken to that way while she was growing up, so she doesn't know any better.
Many adults use "cranky" as their default voice with children. It sends a clear message: They expect their kids not to listen. They are pissed off that they have to talk to their kids about things they don't feel like talking about. They don't believe that their kids deserve common courtesy. And they figure kids will respond to anger more than to kindness. Is it any wonder why kids tune out adults? Or why they're so rude themselves sometimes? It's a survival mechanism, and it's learned behavior.
There's another way to do it, you know. It's called politeness. My mom translated the golden rule like this: "If you're nice to other boys and girls, they'll be nice to you." Well, guess what? It works with everyone. If you speak respectfully to children, they generally speak that way back. If you snipe at them rudely, you'll probably get that returned as well. Even the most respectful, polite parent can get rudeness from their kids. But you can turn this around too. Want a quick fix for a whining child? Whine back. When your 4-year-old hears how awful whining sounds, she'll quit doing it. Kids are really responsive to the ways adults act, and generally they model your behavior.
What if that teacher had tried another tactic: "Hey, kids, we're starting soon and I want to say a few words first. Can everyone please head into the gym?" I'll bet the kids would have gathered quicker than when they thought they were going into the gym for a good scolding.
What if the mother had said: "Yeah, I've tried that cereal. It's called Lucky Charms and that guy's a leprechaun. They're supposed to be lucky. It's not healthy food, though, so we don't buy it." They may have finished shopping while chatting about mythical woodland creatures or brand marketing. Or maybe they would have discussed what she ate when she was a kid. Or she could have done her best Clint Eastwood impression. "You feeling lucky, kid?" It could have been fun. Instead, the kid felt like a pest and the mother probably felt like a monster.
It's time for adults to shine up that golden rule and watch how they speak to kids. If you expect to be treated and spoken to politely, why should kids expect any less? If we want children to listen to us, we need to give them something worth listening to. Even better, quit talking and start listening. You'd be amazed what kids have to say. (And, come on, aren't you curious? What is the difference between gnomes and leprechauns, anyway? )
About the Author
Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other publications.