Dear Kid Whisperer,
I have four stepkids who are constantly ridiculing each other. They say that it’s in jest, but I think it is mean and it drives me crazy. Nothing I say helps. I want it to stop. How do I make it stop? -Emily, Fairborn, Ohio
Nothing you say will stop them from being jerks to each other. In fact, warning and lecturing kids about their negative behaviors makes those behaviors worse with kids who are brave enough to continuously use those behaviors. When you use words to combat negative behaviors, even remotely difficult kids hear the following:
You are allowed to do the thing I am telling you not to do and I will do absolutely nothing about it, so please continue doing it.
Instead, this is how I would set the limit and then crush the negative behavior with action instead of words. Let’s say this obnoxious behavior is happening at a fast food restaurant.
Kid #1: I think you are fatter than you were yesterday.
Kid #2: Your mom.
Kid #3: My mom is your mom, stupid.
Kid Whisperer: Yikes. This is really horrible to be around. It makes me feel awful. I’m tired of talking about this with you guys. From now on, I won’t. I will have to take care of this later. We’re leaving. I’m too embarrassed to be around you all in public.
Kid #4: But we just got our food!
Kid Whisperer: (as I box up my cheeseburger and get up to leave) I don’t know what to tell you. Feel free to eat your food in the car, at home, or throw it away.
Several days later, in the family living room, with Kids #s 1-4 present, when Kid Whisperer is calm, happy, and unannoyed by children…
Kid Whisperer: Yikes, people. You all are really terrible at being pleasant with each other. I know I have nagged you about this before, and I am sorry about that. It won’t happen again.
Kid #1: Wait. What are you doing?
Kid Whisperer: Having to be around kids who treat each other poorly is really embarrassing to me and your father. So, we aren’t going to take you into public until you all can show us that you can be pleasant with each other. This actually works out great because your father and I have been feeling like we don’t spend enough time with you all anyway. Tell me, guys, how long do you need to practice being pleasant with each other until you are experts: six straight hours or seven?
Kid #2: Oh, no, not this weird stuff again! You are always weird after you read the newspaper on Monday!
Kid Whisperer: Okay, seven hours it is. Instead of going into public to go out to eat, go to the movies, etc., we will come here to the living room. During this time you all can do whatever you want: you can read, do homework, play board games, whatever. You can do pretty much anything that does not involve technology: no phones, tablets, or screens of any kind. I will be doing this with you. You will know how to treat each other by the way I treat you.
Kid #3 : Can’t you just yell at us and not do anything? I think I speak for everyone when I say that this is what we prefer.
Kid Whisperer: During this time, your father and I will notice whether or not you are being pleasant with each other. If you can be pleasant over the course of seven hours straight, we will consider you experts. We will get these seven hours done during time that we would otherwise being doing things in public. Until you show us that you are experts, you will not be going into public.
Their social life outside of the family is now over until they are able to be pleasant with each other. Once they have reclaimed full citizenship, if they are unpleasant again, go back to practicing pleasantness. Your stepkids’ future family members will thank you for their improved personalities.