by James Lehman,MSW
We all know that a sense of humor is vital. Kids learn humor from their parents, their peers, their teachers, and from T.V. They absorb it and take it all in and then they experiment. One of the things with which they experiment is how they talk to their parents. When they’re feeling hostile, lonely, depressed, or upset, one of the things they try to do is give a smart answer or sarcastic joke. There’s so much of this type of behavior on T.V. One guy says something and the other guy gives a rude response. It’s very much a part of our culture. Kids learn to mimic that kind of communication from an early age because they think it’s cool.
Kids also have peers around them using sarcastic and mean language. They pick up on that because they’re afraid that they’re going to be the next target. Often, children manage by using that humor themselves. It’s similar to a child who’s afraid of being bullied—so he becomes a bully himself. Much of this reaction and attitude is fear-based. I personally think it’s good for parents to adopt a philosophy of, “This is our home and this is the way we talk to each other. I don’t care what your friends said at school. I don’t care what your brother said in the parking lot. I’m telling you, in this home, this is how we talk to each other.” Lay that out for your kids so they understand that there’s an “inside” and an “outside.” Kids often don’t really comprehend the concept of there being an inside, which is your home, and an outside, which is the world. I think you can explain this to your child by saying, “When you’re inside, you have to follow certain rules and expectations. That’s your responsibility. If not, there will be consequences. If you’re outside, and you get yourself into trouble, then we’ll deal with that when the time comes. But at home, this is the way you need to act.”
How to Respond to: “I Was Just Kidding!”
When your child responds to your reprimand or someone being upset with “I was just kidding,” I think you should say, “What you’re saying is hurtful. I need you to stop.” If he doesn’t stop, give him a consequence. I think an effective one is to take away two hours of phone or computer time (or whatever it is your child values) and build up from there. You can set it up by saying, “If you’re able to talk in a nice way to people for the next two hours, you get your phone back.”
If your child lies and then says, “I was kidding,” you can say, “Well, you’re going to get consequences for that lie. Don’t kid about the truth.”
When your child is young, up until the age of six or so, you can just correct them when they’re joking in an inappropriate way. The kind of thing you would say to a young child is, “We don’t joke by saying hurtful things. And that was hurtful.” If your child says it again, you should go ahead and give him a consequence. If your younger child uses a curse word, I also teach parents to say, “That’s a hurtful word. Don’t say it.” That way, you’re setting those limits and training him from an early age.
When kids are in early adolescence, they may develop a much more challenging way of talking to you. At that age, they’re testing adult authority and they’re pushing limits. One of the ways they push the limits is through speech. Simply put, they want to see what they can get away with. I think parents have to be very, very responsive to that. If you let your child get away with a hurtful remark once, even if they’re “joking,” watch out—it’s much harder to deal with once they turn it into a habit.
I think if your child says something inappropriate and then he says he’s only kidding, you have to make it clear that it’s not going to fly. You can say, “We don’t kid that way. If you say hurtful things when you’re kidding, you’re going to be held responsible for them. There’s no excuse for verbal abuse.”
If you’re not sure if what your child is saying is hurtful, I think you should ask him point blank, “What did you just say?” Speak very seriously, so your child knows you’re listening. If his comment is not way off-color or hurtful, you can say, “Oh, all right, that is funny.” But if it is, I think you should say, “Listen, that’s a hurtful thing to say and it’s not funny. You know what we said about joking in a mean way.” And then give him a consequence.
Is this kind of behavior part of adolescence? Absolutely. So is calling a parent by their first name instead of “Mom” and “Dad.” These are all ways your child tests you and challenges your authority. Personally, I think it’s important to be called “Mom” and “Dad” because that’s your role as a parent. Think of it this way: your child doesn’t know how to relate to Tommy and Betty—he knows how to relate to Mom and Dad. Your title as a parent gives you authority and status. Kids will often try to test the limits by taking away your title, but I think it’s a mistake to go along with that.
Talk to Your Child about the Difference between Joking and Hurtful Language
I think it’s a good idea to talk to your child about the difference between joking and being hurtful—especially if you’re going to start calling them out on their language. Call them into the room and say, “That was a hurtful way to say what you said, and I don’t like it. Can you think of a different way to say it?”
Also, catch your child when they’re being good. If they make a funny joke, say, “See, that was really funny and appropriate. I really appreciate that.” Whenever you can, catch your child being good.
If you have a child who’s gotten a lot of attention and laughs for being smart alecky and wisecracking in a hurtful way and you want to put a stop to it, I also think you need to talk to them about what they’re doing. Sit down with your child when things are going well—not when there’s a crisis or when he’s angry. If your child is sitting in the living room, sit down next to him. I would tell him that you’ve decided that you find certain things offensive and you want to talk to him about it. And then you say, “The jokes that you make, even though you say you’re only kidding, are really hurtful. And as of today, you have to stop being hurtful and sarcastic to others. If you don’t, you’re going to be held responsible for that.” Give your child room to discuss what you’ve just told him by saying, “Do you have any questions? Would you like an example? Do you understand what I mean?” Give examples. Write some things down ahead of time.
I recommend that whenever you talk with your child, write down what you want to say on an index card in simple sentences so you don’t get distracted. If he’s resistant or explosive, you can say, “All right, well you have no video game privileges until you’re ready to talk about this.”
I know some parents have children with behavioral or social problems who have learned to use humor to deflect or compensate for their lack of social or problem-solving skills. I’ve met many kids like that, and I was that kind of child myself. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter to you why he does it. That’s like saying, “He steals because he doesn’t have anything.” Or, “He lies because he’s afraid.” That doesn’t matter; it’s an excuse. Instead, we stop the behavior. We challenge it, we teach our kids other things, and we eliminate it— with no excuses.
Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance. He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”