As Children Get Older — How to Prune and Pull Weeds

As Children Get Older—How to Prune and Pull Weeds

I was recently asked by a few moms of older children how I address bad attitude and argumentative behavior in older children and tweens.  I have pulled some of the key discipline tools for these ages into this collection that I hope you find helpful.


“You Hit, You Sit” Remade:  “You Sass, You Sit”

This tool has been used by me with each of my children as they hit the age of 8 years old.  I do it consistently and it hasn’t lasted more than 2 weeks with anyone so far (I’ve had three go through this age).  There have been the occasional times that I use it after the initial introduction, but it’s very, very rare that it’s needed.  Mostly it’s used for sassing–rudeness, backtalk, arguing.  It’s also used for attitude that would cause me to stop my flow of activity to engage with them–and I refuse to do that. I’ll answer questions. I’ll answer confusion. I’ll offer ideas for how to do things, etc. But I am not going to waste my time dealing with bad attitude.

Now, I do make sure that I have equipped them to have good attitude. I offer the scripting of “Yes, Mama” first, or ask them if they understand what they are choosing if they continue to argue. Also, outside of one of these moments, we talk about the value of my time–and the need to teach them how to be successful in life, etc. None of this is reactionary.

{If you haven’t worked on this already please visit other articles on my site about these issues and put the effort and time into building these skills with your child. It’s not fair to correct a child for something they have not yet learned.}

When I introduce the tool, at a neutral time, I tell them I don’t have time to argue with them, so if they start arguing with me they will have to find a place to sit down (or I will help them) until they are ready to make amends to me for trying to steal my time.  They can get up when they are ready to make amends to me and apologize/speak respectfully.

Depending on the child, I’ve also charged them something for wasting my time and then they can earn it back when they speak respectfully.  They get it back right away so there is no actual loss. But it seems important to me that they learn to treat authorities with respect, because they’re getting closer to the teen years and getting a job as well as having more opportunities, even as homeschoolers, to be in situations with other adults in charge.  Bad attitude *costs* you in life/good attitude benefits you–this is a direct object lesson for them.

As for what they “pay” me, if they get an allowance then they give me money and I give it back when they are ready to be respectful. They are very kinesthetic at these ages and the act of “paying” and then being “restored” is a lesson that seems to drive the object home sooner than without it.

If they don’t have money, then I have them bring me something of value to them and it’s restored as soon as they restore the relationship. It’s not done to punish them, but more to tap into that very literal mind that needs clear pictures to get things.

If it were being done to punish the child then the money would be paid and gone. That’s not the case with this tool. With my oldest, when he was about 8, it was a quarter. He didn’t get an allowance and he was saving for things so he saw that if he didn’t change his attitude it would *cost* him good things.

You May Not Steal Privileges

There is a direct correlation between privileges/freedoms and responsibilities.

I have this talk with them at about 5 for the first time and then every few years after that, or as needed. I tell them that I see they believe they are ready for more freedoms and I respect that, and agree, but that they’ve missed a key step.

Freedom and privileges are earned by taking on more responsibility. That’s the order God put in place.

Until they have earned a freedom or privilege, they are stealing it to try and take it. You aren’t ready for anything you have stolen. You won’t use it properly and you show you aren’t ready for it just by stealing it.

So we talk about what freedoms I think they are ready for and what they think they are ready for.  Then, we talk about what responsibilities they think they are ready for. I tell them I will give them the first freedom because I trust them and they will start the responsibility right away.  But, if they drop the ball with the responsibility, then they lose the freedoms until they show me they are ready.

This includes doing more around the house, helping more both when asked and when not asked, and specific chores that they can be responsible for doing without having to think about it. I will provide a list, a chart, or reminders depending on the child and what they need, but there is a direct link between doing what they are responsible for and the freedoms and privileges they get.

Things are generally tied together in the following manner. The computer, TV and video games aren’t on until after school work is done. And, in general, if you tell me no to what I’m telling you to do then the next request you make of me gets a no answer.  I’m all about cooperation but it goes both ways. And whenever they want to remedy this I’m all about changing things to a yes.

If you make things I’m doing for you unpleasant for me, I stop doing them. So, if I’m taking you somewhere for you and you’re refusing to get ready, making the car ride miserable, or misbehaving while we’re there, we stay home next time.

It’s key that NONE of this is done in a petty, tit for tat way at all.  It’s just about being practical and insisting on respectful behavior. I will ALWAYS start the flow of cooperation and good things.  If you clog that flow, the flow stops until you unclog it. I’m applying this for ages 5/6 and up. Also, if they are stuck on how to fix it I will walk them through the process and give them the script, etc. Whatever it takes to help them fix things–but they need to fix it.

Idle Hands and All . . .

It’s very important that children be given the increase in responsibility even if they aren’t trying to steal freedom.  Some children will just complain about being bored, or will become sneaky, or get in trouble in odd ways or push boundaries regularly.  Often these behaviors are annoying, but it may not be so intense or so regular that you recognize it for a real problem.

At the key ages of 5/6 and 8/9, again at 10, and 12/13 there is an increase in capabilities that needs to be challenged by parents if they don’t want their child to find other, unacceptable ways to test those capabilities.

I’m going to start with a simple list for a 4yo.  I also want to be clear that with super young children there are some things they can do on their own but mostly they need help–lots and lots of help. So you will take longer doing it–but you will need to gradually transition them to doing it themselves when they are ready.

Things a 4yo can do on their own (with reminders and supervision):

bring laundry from the dryer to the folding place
fold washcloths/towels
put their own clothes away (if they are divided by drawer already)
bring the garbage from each garbage (especially if there is a bag in the garbage pail they can grab)–replace bag
put away things with mom
clean up small things on their own
clear their place from the table
feed/water a pet
dust low things
replace toilet paper rolls as needed
if you are inclined to fun Mary Poppins style cleaning you can always attach things to their feet (sponges or dad’s old socks) and have them clean the floors

They are capable of doing these things themselves. They mostly need help and reminders. It works best if it is family cleaning time and you are working as a team and making it fun.

Between the ages of 4 and 7 these things will gradually be transitioned to the child.  It starts with showing them how while you do it, then having them try with you finishing it, then having them do it and you showing them what was missed and helping them fix it, then having them do it and you pointing out what was missed and them fixing it, until they do it all themselves up to the standard for your home.  This is usually possible by age 8 (barring special needs dx).

In the ages of 5-8 years old, you can add in cleaning their own room, cleaning the bathroom (some children love to use the toilet bowl scrubber), washing windows and mirrors, walking even large dogs and anything else you think your child may be capable of doing.

Recent Examples from Our Home

Most recently we started two new things in our home.  The older three children (13, 11 and 9 this month) are responsible for doing their own laundry and switching out laundry at the end of the day. They each choose a day and, because of how our utility rates run, they are to start their load before 9am on their day and then put it in the dryer in the evening, at which point they start a load of family laundry.  This means that in 3 days time we have 6 loads of laundry that are washed. The final load is taken out by a parent, but the rest is done by them.  If we have any left we do it on Sunday.  I separate and fold the laundry, which I don’t mind doing, but they could easily be responsible for this also—though they do put it away. This just allows us to have one drop spot for the clean laundry.

The second thing we started is that each member of our family is responsible for dinner one night a week.  The person responsible chooses a meal (from what we have and with guidance in how to plan a menu) and then cooks however much of the meal they are able.  This means the 6 year olds help and the older children are doing some things themselves.  They are learning other things and after getting helped a few times, they will do them on their own.

By the time they are 18, we have to be ready to send our children off to college or into the world. Even if we are okay with them staying with us in the home beyond that age, we need to have them ready to be adults before they are adults!  We have to teach them the things they need to learn.  When I consider that for my 13 year old that means I have 5 years to teach him so much, I want to shove even more at him! But I know it will come in time.

“But It’s Already Out of Control!”

It’s never too late to change things.  I would have a family meeting. I would address how chaotic things have become, apologize for letting it get that way, inform them that there is a new higher standard and you know they can rise to it, and here it is . . . .as you own your part in where things have gotten it will be easier for them to own their part.

If you aren’t happy with how things are, you can bet they aren’t either. Children do not want to be allowed to get away with being rude and nasty to their parents. They feel terrible when they are.  They want to know how to fix it.

Often people who implement punishments report that things improve for the very reason that children will push the boundaries until they are confident and secure about where the boundaries are.  Extremely punitive programs give the illusion of fixing things, because they implement no-nonsense black and white boundaries and a definitive message about when the pushing has gone too far.  But that same result can be achieved without punishments!  It just requires parents being confident that they are the parents, trusting themselves to be able to make the choices, and backing up their words with actions.

Every time you engage in an argument with a child, you have given weight to their argument. You have suggested to them that they do have a point, that they are right, that they are able to get away with how they are behaving.

On the other hand, every time you tell them that they may not talk to you that way, that you end a conversation with the quick instruction to put their attitude in their pocket (an adaptation of young energetic children putting their monkey in their pocket), or assure them that when they have their own children they may try out all their ideas (and you hope they are a better parent than you) but this is your turn, you have reinforced your authority.  If you do not doubt your authority, they will feel much safer trusting you to exercise it.

If Things Are Really Bad…

One thing I did when my oldest three were little (oldest was maybe 5 or 6) and being argumentative and rude was a “Day of Trust”. I took them to the downtown college area where we lived and I had a plan. We would do one thing and then move to the next fun thing. It might be sharing lemonade at one store, going to play at a fountain, or going through a store they liked, etc.

I outlined the rules for the day — If you can trust me we will have LOTS of fun. If you can’t trust me, then we’ll have less fun. When you don’t trust me it makes our lives less fun so we’re going to learn about trust today.

I would tell them it was time to go to the next thing and if they whined or started asking me what we were doing or where we were going, I would remind them that this was a day to practice trust and ask if they trusted me. If they kept arguing we skipped that next thing and I told them, “Oh, you didn’t trust me. That means we skip that fun thing. We were going to do X. Now we will go to the next thing. Do you think you can trust me?”

That day really improved things in our home at the time I did it.  Even if your children are older, I would give this a try to turn things around and make things more positive.

The Jar

A final tool I have had a lot of success with in families I’ve worked with is The Jar.  It works best if there is something tangible that can be listed as being a problem. It might be swearing, a rude attitude, arguing, telling parents “no”, etc.  It just needs to be stated clearly and everyone needs to understand what it is and when it is being done.

Decide on an activity that you want to do as a family—anything from going to the movies or out for ice cream, bowling, whatever you enjoy. Then put the amount of money into the jar in quarters (or nickels or dimes depending on how much the activity costs and/or how often the issue is a problem).  Every time that target action is done a quarter comes out of the jar.  If mom or dad is having a problem with the issue also and wants to save money, then they get to put an extra coin in if they are the perpetrator.

At the end of the week you have your scheduled family night and together you count the money in the jar.  If you have the money to do your planned activity that is great!  Usually some money has come out.  You may find instead of movies and ice cream, you can afford to rent a video and buy a pint of ice cream.  Do whatever you can afford to do.  Maybe you planned to go bowling but stay home and play a board game instead.  Whatever you do, do it as a family.

This tool creates the dynamic of working together to both change bad habits and accomplish a goal.  Keep it up as long as you need to change the dynamics in your home.  You can change the activity you are shooting for each week depending on funds or scheduling.  When you’ve accomplished your goals and they aren’t problems anymore, try keeping the family night just for the sake of keeping family relationships tended to and nurtured.

Set Them Up for Success

One final note—especially for the new things and in any area you’re having a hard time with them —remind children of the rules before they go into a situation where they need to know them.

I do this with my children of all ages.  When they are young, I tell them the rules the first time we go anywhere or do anything.  Eventually I ask them to tell me the rules and I fill in any gaps. Then I can ask them to tell the younger children the rules. And eventually I can just say, “Hey, remember the rules for X.”  This applies to doctor’s offices, malls, friends’ homes, or dinner time.  We do this for anything where we’re struggling with behavior.  As with anything, I would have older children take on more responsibility, especially if they are having a hard time with behavior.

Take mealtime, for instance.  In addition to helping choose and prepare the meal, as I mentioned already, I would have them help set the table, clean off the table, do the dishes, etc.  Out in public, I will often ask older children to take their younger siblings’ hands or carry bags.  They load and unload the van at Park Day or other events we attend.  They carry in groceries when I come home from shopping.  In a family, there is always work to be done.