As loving parents, we want to be respectful and hear a child out, letting them explain and feel understood. However, there is a stopping point. When your child keeps arguing, or does not demonstrate relatively calm negotiation, or gets an inappropriate tone, stop. To get respect, they must earn it. When your child does not behave respectfully, you must turn off the sympathy button and hit the brakes on the conversation. Otherwise, you are rewarding the arguing and impolite tone. Here are some specific techniques to redirect a spiraling social exchange between an adult and a child:
“I didn’t ask” and “That’s not what I asked” are meant to stop comebacks and back talk.
I didn’t ask: Stop the explanations. Kids will forever try to explain what happened, why they did it, what they think, or how they feel. You reply, “I didn’t ask.” Then repeat what you originally said.
For example, the kids get into a spat at dinner and a cup of milk gets knocked over. Mom says, “Stop fighting and clean this up.” Kid Number One pipes back, “But she made me drop it!” Mom replies, “I didn’t ask who did what. I said stop fighting and clean this up.”
This power phrase is a constant for me. I tell a kid in therapy, “Pick a book because we’re reading today.” The kid demands, “I want to play a game.” I reply, “I didn’t ask what you want to do. I said we’re reading a book. So you can pick a book, or you can sit in your chair and I’ll pick one instead.”
At home, I tell a kid to brush their teeth. She fires back, “But I wanted to see this commercial.” I say, I didn’t ask if you wanted to see the commercial. I said to go brush your teeth.” Or here’s a great one: Your kid is lazing around and whining, so you say, “Find something to do.” She wails back, “But I’m bored!” (Someone please shoot me. How much entertainment does a kid need at their disposal before they aren’t bored?) So you reply, “I didn’t ask if you’re bored. I said get off the couch and find something to do. You may read a book, draw, play soccer, or work on your castle-building kit.”
When you read this power phrase, it can sound harsh. Believe me, it’s not. The trick is the calm authority. You don’t say this in a sassy or bossy manner. You don’t demean, and you don’t yell. It’s a matter-of-fact statement that stops the back talk. You are very peacefully redirecting the child and blocking an argument or comeback.
That’s not what I asked: The key with this phrase is to end the conversation because kids will do anything to keep it going. If you say, “Did you break this window?” and they go right into what happened and why, you stop it short. “That’s not what I asked. Did you break this window? Yes or no.”
Be careful with this and don’t twist it. You might come up with something like, “Did I ask you to pour soda for our dinner drinks?” [Note: there is a “Did I say” power phrase but you do not use it with a child who back talks often. It’s only meant as a redirect question. So don’t confuse it with the “That’s not what I asked” power phrase!] When you twist this power phrase with a defiant child, you open it up for them to go smart-aleck on you and say “yes” – when you did nothing of the sort. But they’ll do it just to keep the conversation going and try to be a smarty pants. Then you’re stuck making them sit at the kitchen table until they decide to answer your question correctly. That’s your choice. Just remember, when you twist this question with a wise-guy, you open it up for their comeback. In this case, when you see the kid pouring soda for dinner drinks, you say, “Soda for drinks? That’s not what I asked. Pour water instead.”
I asked: This is used to stop a kid from butting in when you’ve got two or more children upset or trying to explain a situation. You ask the first kid (Pete) what happened, so he starts talking. The second child butts in to clarify or argue, and you hold out your hand, giving a visual or physical cue to stop. Then say, “I asked Pete. Go ahead and continue, Pete.” Let Pete finish. Then make sure you give the other child a turn and afford him the same respect (don’t let Pete interrupt).
Not your turn: This power phrase is another alternative to the interrupting nonsense. I pipe this out all the livelong day. First I give a physical or visual cue: index finger up, indicating just a minute or a flat palm up indicating stop. Then say, “Not your turn. John was speaking.” Sometimes you can also give a quick verbal cue of “anh!” or “tsh!” (that “no” voice without saying “no”). Use this followed by, “Not your turn.” You can add more if you’d like, such as, “John, it’s Ryan’s turn,” or “John, not your turn.” Many times, the less said the better, but sometimes you need to say their name. Addressing an interrupting child by name gets the focus back on you and grabs attention.