Q: Our four-year-old son has started to be disrespectful to other adults in front of me. For example, he snatched something from my friend’s hand that he wanted. When I made him apologize, he first snarled, “I’m not sorry.”
I am appalled, but I’m not sure exactly how to handle the discipline—where, when and what should I do?
A: From one parent to another, thanks for noticing your child’s rudeness to other adults. So many times, we as parents offer excuses for our children’s bad behavior toward other grownups (“She didn’t have a nap today,” “He’s mad that he missed soccer practice to come here,” etc.). So it’s great that you not only notice his rudeness but want to correct it.
Now the best way to accomplish that is to make his rudeness his responsibility. In other words, he needs to want to change his behavior more than continue it.
The next time he’s rude to an adult, correct him in a firm yet gentle tone. You don’t have to yell at him to make an impression. Keep it short and sweet, such as: “No snatching items from adults. Tell Mrs. X you’re sorry for grabbing.” Then maintain eye contact until he does so. Prod him once to apologize, but if he still refuses, don’t cajole or wheedle with him to comply. You simply smile at the adult and apologize on his behalf.
Then take him immediately home if possible. Confine him to his room for the rest of the day with all his favorite toys or books or games removed. Move up his bedtime to immediately after an early supper. At this age, curtailing his freedom is a great way to compel him to own his rudeness.
If you can’t leave right away, curtail his movements right then if possible, such as requiring him to stay by your side and not play with the other children. If that isn’t possible because of the situation, then leave as soon as you can and do the confined outlined above when you get home, reminding him of his rudeness (“You were rude to Mrs. X when you snatched the toy from her hand.”).
Above all, avoid the temptation to lecture. Kids this age don’t need to know why it’s rude to snatch things from adults or to interrupt conversations. They just need to know it IS unacceptable behavior. The why won’t make them any more likely to obey, so save your breath.
Also work on role playing with him on how to relate to adults. Work through questions such as
If an adult has something he wants, how does he ask for it?
How should he address an adult who speaks to him?
What should he do if an adult does something he doesn’t like?
Incorporate that practice into your everyday interactions with him. Let him pretend to be the adult and you’re the child. Then reverse roles so he can practice. Reinforcing the proper behavior helps him to visualize how he should react the next time he’s confronted with a similar situation.