National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

I Say, You Say

Family Matters

BY Dr. Ray Guarendi

January 16-29, 2011 Issue | Posted 1/7/11 at 2:12 PM


No matter what I say, my 12-year-old son always has a comeback. What do you do with kids who always have to have the last word?

It depends on what the last word is. Is it: “Gosh, Mom, you always make so much sense.” Or: “Most certainly I’ll finish my homework before I rake the leaves.” How about: “Sometimes I honestly feel like arguing with you, Mother, but I know you’ll win because you’re so much wiser about life than I am.”

If your son’s retorts are anything like these, I would a) kiss him, b) nominate him for PTA poster boy, c) bring him out in public as much as possible or d) have him assessed psychiatrically.

Because I have heard a similar lament from hundreds of parents, I’m going to take a wild guess and assume that you are not hearing any of the above. Rather, your son is arguing with you, challenging your rules and requirements, debating your decisions. In essence, his “comebacks” occur only when you ask or tell him anything he finds disagreeable. Am I on safe ground?

To begin, the number of your son’s comebacks is directly related to the number of your comebacks. Put another way, he’ll argue as long as you do. What does he have to lose? He’s counting on any one of several things to happen. One, you’ll change your mind (primary goal). Two, you’ll collapse from the weight of the words (secondary goal). Three, you’ll stand your ground, but only after paying a heavy verbal and emotional price (salvage something goal).

As long as you allow Sherlock to dictate the directions of the dialogue, he will only become more relentless. You need to add an outcome that Sherlock hasn’t consistently experienced yet; arguing will gain nothing. In fact, it will cost him.

Suppose you’ve just said, “Sherlock, be home by 7pm.” That’s really all you need to say. He knows why — for supper, schoolwork, a family outing, whatever. He has lived with you for 12 years. You’ve explained yourself and your motives for 12 years. Seldom do you need to re-elaborate. Nevertheless, Sherlock rebuts, “Why do I have to come home at 7? I don’t want to go to Aunt Clara’s.” Whatever you say next to explain further is pretty much irrelevant because it will elicit the same response from Sherlock: more debate. The word spiral spins a while longer until one or both of you really get mad, one of you gives in (guess who) or one of you goes to Aunt Clara’s but is miserable about it (guess who?).

Stopping this cycle falls on you. Why? Because you’re the parent, for one, and because Sherlock likes things just the way they are, for another. What are your options then? You could simply cease talking and walk away. You’ve made your request; you don’t want to fight about it.

You could give Sherlock a look that says, “You’d better think real careful about what you’re about to say because you’re on thin ice.” Have you noticed that somewhere between this parenting generation and the previous, the “look” has been lost? It seems to me that parents of the past were much more able to give looks that spoke volumes. Not much in the way of endless words, warning and threats needed to be uttered, for once Mom or Dad gave you that look, you knew you’d better back off because the next step would be consequential, to say the least.

If you wish to do that look more, you might say, “Sherlock, one more word and you’re in your room for half an hour, or you’ll write me a 200-word essay on etiquette, or you’ll owe me 50 cents.” In essence, instead of getting pulled into Sherlock’s web of words, you’ll be redirecting the dialogue: “Don’t say any more or else.”

Why do kids argue so much? Because they want to and because they’re allowed. Are they truly interested in understanding your ways? If they were, wouldn’t you think that at least once or twice in the past decade, after 27 minutes of nonstop negotiating, Sherlock would look up at you, enlightened, and confess, “You know, Mom, I don’t always agree with the way you parent me, but if we bicker long enough, things do become so much clearer for me. Thanks, Mom, for taking the time to argue.”

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist, speaker and author of

You’re a Better Parent Than You Think! and Back to the Family.