Q When my sons think they're in trouble, they defend themselves with any irrelevant point they can, it seems, just to outargue me.
A It's called quibbling. Most self-respecting kids have it mastered by age 10. Teen-agers perfect the talent, able to quibble at an instant's notice. When cornered, spouses, too, have been heard to quibble.
What is quibbling? It's the art of muddling, sidetracking and confusing. It is spewing verbal clutter amid pointless nit-picking until the target—almost always a parent—collapses from exhaustion, allowing the quibbler to escape responsibility for his actions.
A scenario: Webb has wandered home an hour after school, clearly breaking the house rule, “Go nowhere after school without permission.” Mom, with worry now turned to anger, asks a straightforward question, naively assuming she'll get a straightforward answer.
Mom: Where were you?
Webb (quibble rule #1—never answer the question directly): I asked you last night if I could go over to Wendell's house for a half-hour after school.
Mom: You asked, and I said, “I don't think so.”
Webb: You said, “I don't think so. We'll see what the weather's like.” Faith was there. She heard you. (A master quibbler cites ear-witnesses, making sure they're unavailable during the actual quibble.)
Mom: (getting outquibbled, tries a new tack): Even if you misunderstood me, you were gone an hour, not a half-hour.
Webb: I was at Wendell's for only a half-hour, helping his dad rake leaves (slick move—pointing out responsible behavior while facing charges of irresponsibility). Besides, it takes time to walk there from school and then home.
Mom: It takes 10 minutes at most.
Webb: That's if I cut through peoples' yards, but I don't think it's right to do that. And I had to wait for both red lights, like you said I should. (This kid's a pro.)
Mom (weakening): Why didn't you at least call to tell me where you were?
Webb: I would have, but my feet were dirty and I didn't want to walk through Wendell's house. Plus, I lost track of the time because Wendell's dad talks so much.
This is merely the early phase of a quibble bout that will drag on as long as mom partakes. Webb won't end it. Time is on his side.
The only person to quell quibbling is you, the parent. The moment you suspect what's occurring, typically within Webb's first or second comeback, identify the process: “We're quibbling. The real issue is you didn't get permission to go anywhere after school. Because of that, you're grounded tomorrow night.” Then end the interchange.
Take comfort—in the long run you will be seen as kinder for not quibbling. Quibbling is arguing, and arguments generally don't make for good feelings on either side.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist and author.
His Website is kidbrat.com