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Stopping the Back Talk

Decide not to take it

If you accept rudeness, you'll get it, says Marybeth Hicks, mom of four and author of Bringing Up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid's Childhood in a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World. "When a kid is rude, we shrug our shoulders and dismiss it with, 'Well, that's a teenager for you!'" she says. "But it's neither acceptable nor appropriate for kids to act that way — it's just common. Parents who refuse to tolerate rude behavior tend to have kids who aren't rude." When one of her children makes a comment she deems over the line, Hicks calls the kid on it immediately. "I tell them when something they say is not OK, and then ask them to correct their language or apologize," she says.

Just recognize that however well-behaved your children are, stopping the snarkiness will require an ongoing effort. Decide what's most important to you (no put-downs? no muttering?) and then announce the house rules accordingly, suggests Borba, and react appropriately when they are broken (more on that below). As kids are exposed to more back talk — provoking influences, be sure to update those rules. I've begun to let my kids check out certain TV shows (The Simpsons) and bands (Green Day) with a clear caveat: If I hear them being as snotty as Bart Simpson or as foulmouthed as Billie Joe Armstrong, that's the end of it. This way, they understand the direct cause and effect — and we've had many in-depth talks about respect while watching Homer and Bart.

Choose your battles

Can you — should you? — punish every single snide remark? Not necessarily, says Ann Douglas, mom of four and the author of The Mother of All Parenting Books. "If you address every infraction, you'll drive yourself insane," she says, "and they'll completely tune you out." Of course, each family has to decide what it's willing to tolerate, but Douglas suggests that parents overlook some of the nonverbal behavior — the eye rolls and dramatic sighs — and instead focus on what kids say out loud. One good rule of thumb: "If you wouldn't want your kids saying something in front of their grandparents, they shouldn't be saying it to you," says Douglas. But do be clear and consistent once you set standards of behavior.

Another instance where you need to draw the line with care: kids dissing friends or siblings. "Teens love to trash each other," Douglas explains. "And when it's done in obvious fun — where everyone is laughing — a little bit is OK." But when the talk gets mean-spirited or feelings are hurt, it's time for you to step in. Says Douglas: "I flip the empathy switch. 'How would you feel if someone said that about you? Would you take it as a joke?'" Kids grumble, but that doesn't mean they don't get it.

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