To Quell a Quibble

How not to get cornered by a kid who’s a consummate quibbler.

Whenever my sons think they’re in trouble, they start defending themselves with all kinds of excuses and “buts.” They bring up every irrelevant point they can, it seems, just to out argue me.

It’s called quibbling. Most self-respecting kids have it mastered by age 10. Teenagers perfect the talent, able to quibble at an instant’s notice. Neither is quibbling something to be hastily outgrown. When cornered, spouses, too, have been known to quibble.

What is quibbling? It is the art of muddling, sidetracking and confusing. It is spewing verbal clutter and pointless nitpicking until the target (almost always a parent) collapses from exhaustion, thereby allowing the quibbler to escape responsibility for his actions. The quibbler’s motto is: “Keep ’em debating until the original issue is obliterated.”

Quibble bouts are most likely to erupt anytime a youngster senses he is in imminent danger of being held accountable for his behavior. A scenario: Webb has wandered home an hour after school, clearly breaking the house rule of “Go nowhere after school without permission.” Mom, with worry now turned to anger, asks what she believes to be a straightforward question, naively assuming she’ll get a straightforward answer:

Mom: Where were you?

Webb: (Quibble Rule No. 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 out-quibbled, 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 people’s 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 that will drag on as long as Mom partakes. Webb won’t end it. Time is on his side. The longer it goes, the more he’ll confuse Mom into feeling unfair if she disciplines him.

The only person to quell quibbling is you. The moment you suspect what is occurring — typically within Webb’s first or second comeback — identify the process: “We’re quibbling. The real issue is that you didn’t get permission to go anywhere after school. Because of that, you’re grounded tomorrow night (or some similar price tag).” The end of the interchange.

One father dubbed quibbling “wordsmithing.” Like verbal blacksmiths, his kids would bend, mold and smash words and logic to fit their immediate purpose. Dad would ask, “Are you wordsmithing?” which meant, “Cease now, or you’ll complicate your consequences.”

Expect quibbling or repeated attempts at it. With time, you’ll get quicker at hearing what’s happening and silencing it. Will your kids like your unwillingness to quibble? Of course not. They’ll think you’re being unfair, close-minded, stubborn, power hungry, or any number of other adjectives that parents get labeled with when we refuse to be pulled into childish interchanges.

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. Refuse to argue. Initially you may be misunderstood, but eventually you’ll be better understood and appreciated for it.

The doctor is always in at