My almost 14 year old has a pretty biting wit. He likes to use sarcasm to be funny, but he doesn’t know when to stop. During serious conversations this drives me (and my husband) a little crazy! And it’s teaching our younger ones some bad habits. How can I get him to be more respectful?
Shauna in NYC, NY
A: It sounds to me like you value your son’s humor and intelligence but want him to learn when this is and is not appropriate to use. Many ‘tweens and teens try out sarcasm and some have a real flair for it! Also, it may be part of normal joking around behavior in your family.
You are right to focus on this behavior. Like any edgy conversation (teasing, joking, even swearing), teens need to learn when and when NOT to engage. He may use sarcasm really successfully with friends and to good effect, but needs to know to leave it in the hallway at school or he could have some big trouble.
Like with any teenage behavior change, it works better to be very clear about the goal.
First talk to your husband. Is it OK with both of you that he practices sarcasm at home sometimes? It sounds like it is. Hash this out as grownups first. You may decide he is not mature enough yet to use this only on the “right” occasions so you want him to stop (in your hearing) all the time. Remember that he will not stop entirely. Consider that you can teach him important life lessons if you choose to guide him about when to use this, instead of just forbidding it.
Now sit with him for a few minutes (and your husband if possible) and tell him that you really appreciate his humor and smarts but need to teach him the skill of when it is and isn’t ok to use sarcasm when speaking to an adult. A possibility is to come up with a nonverbal cue that you can use if he is being smart-alecky instead of smart, like a hand on his arm or (if he isn’t a toucher right now) grabbing your own ear lobe for a minute. Then he has the opportunity for a conversational do-over, meaning he can express the same idea but more respectfully. If he takes the do-over you will continue as if it never happened.
When you are talking to him about this, be clear with him what the consequence will be if he does not take the do-over chance but continues to be disrespectful. You may automatically deny his request if he can’t speak respectfully. He may miss his next social outing. He may be excused from the table even if he is still hungry (this one really bothers teen boys!).
In this way you are not stepping on his creativity and humor, but you are requiring respectful communication and helping him learn how and when he can joke. Also, he has the chance to be a good example for his younger sister and brother so that you don’t hear smart-alecky teenage stuff from the mouths of babes!