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Stop the sass: Be cool

I walked into the dining room one night and asked a cheery and simple question of my seemingly well-rested 9-year-old as she sat at the table.

"Whatcha reading?''

"A book,'' she sneered, not bothering to look up.

Urgh. I rolled my eyes and walked away to avoid getting snippy myself, later wishing I had calmly drawn her out instead.

Neither me nor my husband had anticipated a teenager-y sass factor so early.

Were we the only ones with a wonderful but sometimes sassy kid? How do we make it stop?

Sass is all around us, in toddlers to teens. And it seems to be wrapped up in the debate on helicopter parenting, aka overparenting, and what appears to be an overindulgence of an entire generation.

"I wasn't talking to YOU Abigail,'' a friend's not-yet 4-year-old snipped one afternoon when her mother interjected as she chatted with a little friend.

Mom froze, clenching silently for an instant before letting the remark slide unacknowledged. Was that the right thing to do?

"When a child talks back or speaks inappropriately the goal of any parent isn't to make them feel terrible about it,'' said Tamar Chansky, a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., and author of Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.

"The goal is to help them learn what is appropriate and what is not. Less is more when it comes to parental responses. The best reply is to say, 'Excuse me?' or 'Try that again?' ... Then when the child fixes it and restates, they get kudos rather than time-out.''

Psychotherapist Susan Stiffelman in Los Angeles offers a shorthand that speaks volumes. She calls it "MOM TV.'' Here's how it works:

Little Julia is in the back seat, bored out of her mind, but she has to drive with Mom to take big brother to soccer. She doesn't want to. She has nothing fun to do. So she starts kicking the back side of Mom's seat.

"Honey, stop kicking Mommy's seat.''


"Sweetheart, Mommy needs you to stop kicking.''


"Julia! I said stop kicking! Do you want me to have an accident?''


Mom pulls the car over, turns around with nostrils flaring, face red, and shouts, "How many times have I told you ...''

Julia is no longer bored.

"That's MOM TV. It works in lots of scenarios,'' said Stiffelman, who wrote the upcoming From Chaotic to Calm: Raising Kids Without Power Struggles, Negotiations or Meltdowns.

In the New York City home of single mom Wendi Friedman Tush, sass from her nearly 6-year-old daughter has MOM TV flipped on way too much. Tush said the talking back from Gabrielle usually falls into three categories:

Dissociative Disrespect.

"I say, you have to clean up your room. Until you do, there is no story time and no game time. She says, I actually don't have to do what you say. I say, actually you do. If you don't you lose those privileges. She says, then I don't care about those privileges.''

What would Tush have done differently?

"Not reasoned with her about whether she has to listen to me or not. I should somehow have made it an absolute. She had control because she decided not to care about the punishment.''

The Drama Queen.

"My daughter uses my lines back at me in the most ridiculous ways. She learns these lines well and delivers them with conviction. I say, you have 10 minutes to finish breakfast and brush your teeth. If you don't make the bus, I won't take you to school. She says, don't you ever talk to me like that again!''

What does Tush do?

"Usually laugh. What do I wish I had done? No idea.''

The Litigator.

"Me: Go to bed. Gabrielle: What happens if I don't? Me: One, you will be miserable in the morning and two you will be punished by me. ... Gabrielle: If we can't make a deal I will just stay up for a few minutes and see what happens.''

And then?

"I usually give up, here,'' Tush said.

Stiffelman offers these strategies:

Don't get reactive,

sucked in or heavily engaged in the behavior. Notice it and distract yourself nonchalantly.

If you suspect

the talking back is an attention-getting strategy, try giving them more attention, especially when they aren't asking or demanding it. "A child who feels nourished with attention is less likely to push buttons to get it.''

Give The Look.

"Parents underestimate the power of silence, accompanied by a stern, straight-faced gaze.''