My well-mannered child has suddenly been replaced by a rude, temperamental lout. Is this normal?
Unfortunately, yes. Odds are puberty turned you into a rude, temperamental lout yourself; you’ve just blocked out the memory. The main thing to keep in mind about good manners in the teenage years is that you’re not teaching them so much as fanning furiously to keep some small spark alive until your child becomes a charming human being again — which he almost certainly will. And the good thing about being temperamental is that there’s a pleasant side to the temperament. Of course, there’s no telling what moment it’ll emerge, which causes a kind of parental vertigo, as when “Good morning” is met some days by “Good morning” and other days by “God, you know I hate it when you say things like that.”
Finally, keep in mind that no matter how stubbornly your teenager resists employing good manners now, it’s likely he is absorbing them and will naturally adopt them as he matures and no longer feels continually compelled to assert his independence.
What kind of manners can I expect under these circumstances?
You have to figure out the bottom line in your own household — in some detail. Think about specific situations in advance, and let your child know what you expect of him. When the telephone rings, what’s your minimal requirement for phone etiquette? Do you want your child to say, “Johnson residence, Tom speaking,” or is a non-grouchy “Hello” okay? When you’re not available, what’s the protocol? Do you want your teenager to say, “She’s not here at the moment. May I please take a message?” or is it enough to say, “Would you mind calling back and leaving a message on the machine?”
Same goes for table etiquette. At some point you may find that your bottom line has regressed to: Show up, preferably with your shirt on. But don’t give up too easily. Without making a big fuss, you should be able to stand firm on a few other ground rules: napkin on your lap, no interrupting, no dissing the menu items, no lunging across the table, no talking with your mouth full, no nasty remarks about siblings. These are all things your child needs to be doing pretty automatically by now if he wants to avoid making a fool of himself at the home of a friend or girlfriend. And if he hasn’t figured that out yet, one embarrassing experience will teach him fast.
Keep your expectations low in the sociable conversation department. As you’ve learned by now, kids hate being quizzed about Their Day at School, and teenagers hate it so much that they’re likely to respond with silence and a look of contempt, which might compel you to launch into a lecture about common courtesy, which sets off eye-rolling and maybe an exasperated snort, and by that time the gloves are off. One self-help book on talking to your teenagers suggests that for dinnertime conversation you “learn to talk about the issues that are an important part of your teenager’s world.” That’s a fine idea as long as you remember that on the really temperamental days your teenager finds challenge aplenty in the simple act of sitting there with you.
How do I convince my teen that manners matter?
You probably can’t, since there is no more passionate or tireless debater than an intelligent teenager, and you’re likely to find yourself backed into a rhetorical corner. What you do instead is lay out your explanations and then just let them sit there, like a museum display. The essence of your position is: “This is why I care about good manners and why I think having them will help you be a more respected and liked person in the world. You don’t have to agree with my reasons; in fact, you can think whatever you like about them. But these are the rules for all of us who live in this house.”
And never underestimate the power of your example. While it may seem impossible to muster civility in the face of your teen’s unceasing loutishness, maintaining your own standards will have significant benefits in the long run. If you seem to place a high degree of importance on politeness yourself, your child will pick up that this is important. It may sound ridiculously simple, but polite parents tend to have polite kids.
What’s appropriate discipline for bad manners during the teen years?
Bad manners may seem inconsequential when you have so many more serious worries about your child, but it’s all part of the same package. Using good manners around other people is basically a form of respect, and you’re not holding up your end of the deal if you let your kid think it doesn’t matter when he’s rude. So keep your cool, as best you can, and make the penalty clear, swift, specific, and consistent with your response to incivility in the past.
In as unhysterical a voice as possible, explain both the infraction and the consequence: Here is the thing that is unacceptable, here is why it’s unacceptable, and here is what will happen if this unacceptable thing continues. This works only if you’ve thought through your response in advance. Dinner table rudeness, for example: one quiet reminder (“If you do that again I will ask you to leave”), followed by a brief warning conversation held away from the table (kids should never be chewed out in front of others), followed by the comeuppance you named. If escaping the family dinner was what your child was angling for all along, then you’ll have to think of some other enforcement measure, like grounding or loss of television privileges.
I hear that my child is fairly polite out in the world. Why can’t he extend that courtesy to his parents?
Because your job is to be the foil, the sponge, the reliable embrace, the absorber of blows, the wall off which everything is bounced, the focus for all the anguish and longing and hostility that comes from being a crazed hormonal unit with terrible skin. But you knew that already.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Teenager. 2003. Bantam Books.
Bradley, Michael J. Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind. 2003. Harbor Press.