How to Not Raise a Jerk
No matter how you slice it, being called a “jerk” is not a good thing. Whether you define it as “an annoyingly stupid or foolish person” or a “cruel, rude or small-minded” person, the term is far-reaching. It applies to everyone from the person who cuts in front of you in the supermarket line or the schoolyard bully who makes your kid’s life miserable.
No parent wants to raise a jerk, but it’s not enough to just hope for the best. You have to put in the work if you don’t want your child to fit into anyone’s definition of the term. Here are 13 tips from professionals and parents on how not to raise a jerk.
Don’t Be a Jerk
First and foremost, don’t be a jerk yourself. Family Therapist Kevon Owen suggests deciding what qualities you associate with being a jerk and then carrying out an honest evaluation of your own behavior. It’s not easy, but it could be the single-most important thing you do as a parent.
“Kids are like little mirrors,” says Owen. “If being a jerk means not being empathetic to the needs and feelings of others or not being self-aware, we have to remember that those are qualities that are taught. They aren't natural.”
The good news is that it’s never too late to start setting a good example for your child, and you can back that up with education and rules about what is acceptable and what isn’t. “Go beyond the list of what they can't or shouldn't do — go to why we do not behave that way,” says Owen. “There's an adage that says what we allow will continue. If you've stopped modeling jerk-like behavior and actually spent the time to teach the why, put an end to rude behavior. Why do some people act like jerks? Because they can.”
Create an Emotional Connection
A strong emotional connection with your child gives them — and you — a safe, supportive, loving place to talk openly about what’s going on in your lives. “This takes vulnerability on your part, as well as teaching your kids to be vulnerable with you,” explains Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
It’s never too early to build a strong emotional connection with your child. From a psychological perspective, the attachment theory, a term first coined by John Bowlby, is based on the premise that babies use their relationships with their parent or main caregiver to form expectations about themselves and their relationships with others.
A securely attached child doesn’t only learn that their parent or caregiver will comfort them when they’re upset; they develop a sense that they are worthy of being loved, are better equipped to manage their own feelings and behaviors, and better able to respond to others with a positive, supportive attitude.
Provide Guidance and Limits
Ordained Youth and Children’s Pastor Paula Whidden, who hosts a podcast called “Bible Momming,” has often observed a particular pattern of behavior in some of the families she’s worked with. “The parents who let their kids raise themselves by not being involved in what they watch or listen to or absorb via the internet or video games had problems,” she reveals. “The parents who did their own thing and rarely gave their kids attention and rarely sought to understand them or communicate with them in a kind way often felt frustrated. And the parents who worked constantly for their family but didn't spend time with their family ended up not liking their family.”
Whidden believes kids need guidance and limits, even if they don’t ask for those things, or even understand that need. “The kid who hurt someone or damaged something and never received a reprimand of any kind assumes that it didn't really matter,” she explains. “After a time, they stop worrying about how others feel because no one helped them understand in the early days.”
Monitor Social Media Activity
As well as putting limits on your child’s screen time, it pays to monitor their social media activity. If your child spends long periods of time on social media every day, it’s natural that what they experience will affect their behavior and personality. Put age-appropriate restrictions in place where available, and make sure your child’s social media accounts have the maximum privacy settings in place.
But you can’t rely on passwords and settings for 100 percent protection. Monitor your child’s social media activity on a regular basis, so you can address any issues, such as cyberbullying, at the earliest opportunity and consider whether anything they’re involved in is promoting rudeness, intolerance or discrimination.
If you think your child spends too much time on social media and that it’s having a detrimental effect on their behavior, the best thing you can do is set a good example. “Personally, I struggle to stay off my phone,” admits Elizabeth Malson, president of Amslee Institute, an online technical school. “When I'm home, I should show the same discipline in caring for and spending time with my family as I do focused on my work. I constantly remind myself that my son will mimic all my behaviors. If I don't demonstrate discipline in my life, including my use of screen time, then I can't expect my son to learn how to self-manage his time.”
If you want a child to be a kind adult, you have to encourage kindness — and discourage rudeness — at every opportunity. “That means there needs to be logical consequences that happen as a result of rudeness and praise whenever kindness is noticed,” says Whidden. “Children need to have direction on how to help others rather than take advantage of them.”
On a daily basis, this could take the form of asking your child, “Who did you help today?” to spark the belief that helping others is an expectation. You can also give your child many ideas on how to be helpful, such as speaking nicely to their teachers and taking the garbage out, making their bed and cleaning up at home. “These things create patterns in their brains that empower them with the ability to do something, which carries over to how they treat others,” explains Whidden.
Amy Williams, a parenting blogger and former preschool teaching assistant, suggests implementing a “kindness chart” at home to reinforce the importance of kind behavior. “A lot of parents use chore charts to reward their kids for doing household chores,” she says. “Why not reward your kids for their kind behavior also?”
Listen to Your Child
It’s a myth that communication is all about talking. The most important part of effective communication is actually listening, and it’s a crucial part of parenting, too. Again, it’s all about setting an example. If you want your kids to listen to you, you have to listen to them — which may be easier said than done. A study carried out by Highlights magazine showed that 62 percent of kids under 12 say their parents are distracted when speaking to them, and cellphones are the biggest distraction.
“As parents, we wonder why our kids don’t listen to us,” says Executive Coach Kirsten Siggins, who teaches parents how to better connect with their kids. “Stop what you are doing, put away your phones, give your child your full attention and listen. This teaches respect and teaches your child what it feels like to be listened to. You can’t learn to listen to others if you don’t know what that feels like.”
At the same time you’re actively listening to your child, it’s important to be open to learning from what you hear. “When you are listening, are you listening to judge or listening to learn?” asks Siggins. “Be open. Suspend your judgment or thoughts of knowing what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or what’s ‘best.’ There is never just one way to do anything. Be open to hearing different perspectives, thoughts, ideas and experiences, even when they are different from your own. This doesn’t mean you have to like what you hear or even agree with what you hear.”
According to Siggins, the goal is to understand what you hear, which teaches your child the value of, and need for, different perspectives. “It’s how we learn, grow, collaborate and innovate,” she adds.
Choose the Right Books
Don’t underestimate the power of great books. “Not raising a jerk has always been my priority,” says Melissa Hart, contributing editor at The Writer and author of “Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens.”
Hart attributes her 12-year-old daughter’s compassion and kindness to the books they’ve read together. “From novels like ‘Wonder’ and ‘Out of My Mind,’ she learned to reach out to kids who might look different, and who are equally deserving of compassion and friendship,” says Hart. “And from the novels ‘Raymie Nightingale’ and ‘Wishtree,’ she learned the value of sticking up for kids who might be marginalized because of poverty or their ethnicity.”
Hart, who included a main character with Down syndrome in her middle-grade novel “Avenging the Owl,” based on her younger brother, believes passionately in the power of literature to stop kids from becoming jerks. “There are so many incredible children's and young adult novels out right now that engage young readers in a compelling story, which translates into increased empathy for people different from themselves,” she says.
Teach Coping Skills
Nobody can go through life without experiencing disappointment, so it’s important to teach your child coping skills they need to deal with those times. “We cannot protect or prevent life’s disappointments,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, family and relationship psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
To equip your kids with the coping skills they need to deal with inevitable letdowns, Walfish recommends encouraging healthy expression of anger, and nurturing and praising your child’s incremental steps toward separation. It’s also important to not dismiss a young child’s feelings of disappointment, like crying because there are no cookies left, even if they’re disproportionate through an adult lens.
You can’t tell a toddler not to sweat the small stuff and expect them to change their behavior. Instead, you can identify the problem (there are no cookies), acknowledge your child’s feeling (you must be disappointed about that) and give them the time and space to talk about it, listening for as long as they need you to and resisting the urge to “fix” the problem. This helps to validate their feelings and shows that you care. Crucially, it also helps to stop the emotional behavior from intensifying.
Adopting a curious attitude when you talk to your child helps to establish a healthy, open relationship and keep conflict to a minimum. “It’s no surprise that kids don’t like to be judged,” says Siggins. “What can be a surprise is how often parents judge or make assumptions without even realizing it. This shuts conversations down and fractures relationships.”
This is yet another way for parents to model healthy behavior to teach your child how to treat others (i.e., how not to be a jerk). “How you speak to your child in emotional or frustrating moments is how your child learns to speak to others,” explains Higgins. “Rather than judging, get curious to understand what’s going on for your child. Ask them open questions about how they want to solve or resolve their own problems.”
Siggins recommends testing your assumptions about your child — what could you be missing or making up? How do you know it to be true? “This gives them the message that you trust they are capable and value their problem-solving skills and teaches them to be curious and open with others,” she says.
And as a starting point, remember that open questions begin with who, what, when, where, why and how. And “tell me more” is a great way to stay curious if you struggle with a question.
Manage Your Emotions
If you can’t manage your own fears and emotions, there’s a danger your child won’t be able to do that either. So, understanding your own emotional triggers and how best to manage your emotions makes your kids less likely to display jerk-like behavior, like resentment and intolerance.
“Take the time to understand your emotional triggers — what values are being disrespected?” says Siggins. “If you value respect and you feel your child is disrespecting you, your emotional buttons are going to get pushed.”
Rather than react in emotional moments, Siggins suggests taking a breath and asking an open question to gain understanding. “As you gain understanding, you have a mind/heart opening, meaning your emotions dissipate, so you can stay in control of them, rather than have them control you,” she says.
Keep the Conversation Going
As well as modeling positive, kind, non-jerk-like behavior, you can reinforce the message with ongoing, open conversation, whatever age your child is. “We are only as successful as the conversations we have. Having open, curious conversations to understand your child — not having all the answers, asking questions, being open, trying new things, failing, circling back and trying again — teaches our kids the difference between having jerky moments and being a jerk,” says Siggins.
Make a point of talking to your child about examples of you — or someone else — modeling good behavior, suggests Justin Baksh, chief clinical officer of Foundations Wellness Center. “Go out of your way to help someone, or remain calm, cool and collected when someone else loses his or her temper,” he says. “After the incident, talk about it with your child.”
Being the best person — and parent — you can be doesn’t mean being perfect. Everybody screws up sometimes, and it’s OK for your kid to see you make mistakes. In fact, this can be a great learning experience if you deal with screwing up in the right way, i.e., by apologizing if you’re in the wrong and trying to learn from the experience.
“Your kids watch everything you do, and they learn to be adults from your model, so if you are a jerk, they'll either learn to be a jerk or teach themselves not to be like you,” says Adam Cole, educator, speaker and co-director of the Grant Park Academy of the Arts.
Being authentic doesn’t guarantee your kid won’t act like a jerk sometimes though. “People are who they are, and beyond doing what you can do, you can't blame yourself for how your kids turn out,” says Cole. “You have to cover your bases, stay present and then let them grow up.”