How To Kowtow to Your Kid

A friend stared at Hubby, stunned, as our son walked away. “That was unbelievable!”

How did you get your kid to be so polite?

Hubby, calm as ever, said, “I don’t give him a choice.”


We used to refer to our children as “the hyenas.” Little Wild Things having no grasp of manners, respect or, for that matter, reality. Neglect, abuse and terror combined to create the perfect hurricane of hatred and anger, expressed in the only communication device they knew: horrific behavior.


Now, though, in any group of children, ours are almost always the most polite-toward-parents with invariable reliability.

Acquaintances often ask our secret.

These people tend to be friends we’ve made in the last couple of years. They weren’t around for HellonEarth.

Our boy still deals with PTSD and ADHD issues, so I’m not claiming perfection. He tends to have an issue or two with impulse, most times when we’re not visible.

Our girl has RAD, which pretty much ensures she’s an angel outside our house these days (this was not always the case…just ask the caregiver who peeled her, screaming, off my leg so I could have an hour of respite). Unless she knows you very, very well, she’ll perform with a flawless sweet facade.

RAD doesn’t make her polite, though.

Annnnnnd, this Politeness didn’t “just happen.”

I read an article in the Miami Herald about Leonard Sax’s book, The Collapse of Parenting. (Am shocked to find there’s a parenting author I somehow missed…)

Dr. Sax advocates putting the parent back in control.

  • To encourage communication, don’t let your kid wear earbuds in the car (I can vouch for car riding as the best-ever conversation starter)
  • Enjoy dinner together EVERY night (this may be more difficult as they become more involved with school activities)
  • Communicate to your kids that disrespect is not okay
  • Stop over-scheduling
  • Do NOT allow children or teens to have a phone in their bedroom at night

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t stop at cell phones—the recommendation in the November 2013 issue of Pediatrics calls for removal of all electronic devices from the bedroom; our kids aren’t sleeping.

Removal of electronics (mostly his Leapster learning pad) became key for our boy; we found him playing learning games into the early hours. His math skills improved but the lack of sleep compounded behavior problems.

I haven’t read the book—or anything he’s written—yet, so I can’t provide an informed opinion on Dr. Sax’s overall stance. Based on the article, I agree with his ideas.

Grooming a child into a polite, respectful individual is time-consuming. We don’t take breaks, a lesson we learned on vacation. Our kids need consistency at all times. Sometimes the depth of our conversation is exhausting, taking the time to explain why one must apply _____ manner in ____ situation.

“You must look others in the eye when you speak to them.”

“Expression matters. Smile when you say ‘Thank you.'”

“Speak up. Mumbling is rude.”

“Enunciate, please!” (Yes, our kids know this word.)

And every time we hear “uh-huh,” or “nah,” we repeat, “excuse me?” until they say, “yes, ma’am,” or “no, sir.”

Again, I’m not saying they’re always the best-behaved kids in the group. But they’re definitely the most polite. Because we’re not their friends. 

But you really want to be your child’s friend.

I get that. Here’s how to succeed:

  1. Give the girl what she wants. Eventually, she will be so thankful for all the gifts you’ve provided that she will, in turn, give to others with selfless abandon. Maybe.
  2. Be a pal. Support your little guy in whatever he wants to do. Karate is too difficult? We’ll stop attending. That doesn’t make you a quitter, son. Back out of Boy Scouts…none of those kids were cool anyway. It’s okay; I’m your buddy. Forever and always. Or at least until you’re old enough to drive off in my car.
  3. Listen to her feelings. She hates you? Of course she doesn’t mean that; she’s just angry. Let her get it all out. ALL the time. In front of your friends.
  4. Become a short order cook. No one likes every food; if the Little Prince only wants chicken nuggets and fries, what will it hurt? They’re only young once. And the Little Princess won’t eat sandwiches? Just prepare a better lunch. Sandwiches are for losers.
  5. Smile and take it. It’s just the Terrible Twos. Terrible Threes. Fours. Fives. Seventeens. They’ll grow out of it. Eventually.

Our kids don’t need us to be friends.

Children need boundaries. They crave rules, stability and routine. Yes, once the boundaries are in place, they test them (do they ever) to determine whether we can be trusted.

Whether we can be trusted.

In spite of appearances, boundary-testers are not just being jerks. Our children need to know we are dependable. Trustworthy. Promise-keepers.

This includes the positive (“If you get a B on this test, I’ll take you for ice cream,”) and the negative (“If you hit another child at school, we will go to the police station and talk with an officer”).

If you’ve been around this blog a while, you know that our son spent two years dishing out hellish behavior because he didn’t believe we’d keep him. When he finally believed we would keep our word, he relented. (Again, he’s not perfect, but he’s light-years from hyena.)

Only one thing convinced him.

Consistency is the name of the game.

Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every moment.

Yes, commitment is required. Before adopting, I never fathomed how painful parenting can be.

Our kids are not polite by accident. They’re not (more or less) well-behaved by accident. They have tested us at every turn and found us solid.

We’ve mourned over the consequences of consistency (not in front of them). We have learned not to make idle threats nor to neglect follow-through.

I told our daughter ad nauseam, “If you continue to ignore my request to clean your room, the clothes on the floor will go to someone who will take care of them.”

She, with clear intention, left clothes strewn across the floor. More than once. Pulled the clothes out and spread them on the floor. Finally, I stood in the room while she bagged her clothes, then took her to drop them off at a charity.

We did this several times. She didn’t stop until she realized she only had two pair of jeans left. Now, I inquire whether she’s cleaned her room—and I only have to ask once.

We informed both kids throughout the year, “Lying and bad behavior won’t be tolerated. Continuing this pattern will affect your Christmas.”

They didn’t believe us.

Side note:  In this case, “lying” and “bad behavior” do not describe normal kid stuff. Both of them have escalating chronic patterns. Yes, it’s “typical” for children of trauma to have issues, but we work with multiple counselors who agree that regardless of cause, the behavior pattern has to stop in order for them to grow into happy, healthy individuals. As in: NOT megalomaniacs or strippers.

*No offense intended if you consider yourself a benevolent megalomaniac or enjoy a bit of stripping on the side. Those just aren’t our first choice in future occupations for the kids. 

New bikes were on the agenda this Christmas; they’ve both grown too tall for the current cycles. We also found great deals on Kindles; they both enjoy reading (BIG WIN!) and I planned to load fun learning games.

Did I mention that they didn’t believe us?

Our son did great through the summer because he had what he always wants: visual proximity to Hubby or me. Our girl remained consistent and vigilant in her disobedience. As soon as school started, the boy began having difficulty. By October, things were getting out of control. Her teacher called Hubby. The Assistant Principal called me.

“Christmas is coming,” we reminded them.

They didn’t believe.

Christmas came.

Hubby and I both shed tears (again, not in front of the kids). We WANT to give them amazing holiday experiences. While gifts are not the main event, we both remember “that Christmas with The Bike.”  Ahhh, Desert Rose, how I loved her. I kind of wish they made adult bicycles with pink banana seats…

They each opened presents; we’re not unkind. But there were no bikes, no Kindles, and several cool gifts will wait for birthdays.

We explained the situation. Asked whether we’d been clear and fair (shocked and unhappy but truthful, they agreed we had given them plenty of warning).

We even told them what they’d missed.

This wasn’t in spite or meanness; we wanted them to understand the situation fully.

Since Christmas, both have become a bit Stepford. Almost too well-behaved.


Photo Credit: Becka Spence

And if you think I’m complaining, you’re crazy.

I don’t care if they’re behaving out of a misguided, narcissistic worldview. If they just want those bikes and Kindles, I’m okay with that. They’re on a path of better behavior.

My mom used to say, “Smile on the outside and eventually you’ll feel like smiling on the INSIDE!” Moms do know everything. This is a proven fact. Google it.

Maybe the same theory applies to behavior. It takes 21 days to instill a habit (also a Mom-ism), so if they behave well for 21 days—regardless of motivation—perhaps we’ll be on our way to a good year. Here’s hoping.

So you want to know our secret.

Polite kids don’t just happen.

  1. We don’t give them everything they want when they want it. If they have everything they want, why will they bother listening to us? Delayed gratification is a good experience for children. Waiting increases value of the desired object. Rewards are better than gifts.
  2. We’re not their friends, not their pals. We’re the parents. When they are 25 and living on their own, then we can be friends. Until then, they live by our rules. We tell them, “You can do what you want, but we promise you’ll experience negative consequences. Or you can obey and experience positive consequences. It’s up to you.” (Yes, we really talk to them this way. Generally, it works.)
  3. We listen to their feelings but also require considerate communication. Unkindness like “I hate you” and “you’re not my real mother” are not only disrespectful but also detrimental to the reception of signal. And, in general, they’re not elucidating the actual issue. “I’m angry with you” is absolutely acceptable but needs to be followed by discussion.
  4. We cook it, they eat it. Cooking, in our house, shows love. We pour time and effort into making good, healthy food. Everyone tries new foods and discusses their preferences, but “yuck” or other negative comments are not acceptable. In fact, when they arrived, I explained that “yuck” is another word for “I’d like seconds, please!” They’ve each said that word only once.
  5. Nastiness is not tolerated. “It’s just a phase” is no excuse here. We’ve experienced high levels of horrific behavior in this house. We found that preventing certain behavior is impossible. However, consequences—applied consistently and liberally—can create an environment in which the child no longer benefits from said behavior. We’re still working on a few behavior tweaks, but we can now eat in public, play at the park and spend an evening with friends without major incident, so I call that a win.

There you have it. The game plan.

Don’t get too excited; arriving at this point took us four and a half years. Take heart, though, especially if you’re starting with a younger child. Beginning at an earlier age tends to bring quicker results. Even if you have older children, consistency will eventually wear them down.

Please note that the above is what worked for us, and I understand that your family’s needs may differ.

I’d love to hear your parenting tips. ALL perspectives are welcome (even if you don’t consider yourself a parent). I’m especially interested in your thoughts if you’ve adopted older children, because, you know, we’re trying not to screw up here.

What worked for you? What didn’t?

Give us YOUR tips! Share, share!


About Casey

Adoption = my life. I'm determined to give my kids the chance they deserve. Adoption isn't always easy. I promise, you're not alone in this. Join me at - we're in this together.

Posted on January 28, 2016, in Adoption, advice, Education, parenting, Resources and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. My husband and I will be adopting from foster care soon and it is SO deeply meaningful to have people like you who share your real-world, in-the-trenches, challenges and lessons learned. We are trying to ground ourselves and prepare for the reality, but many blogs gloss over (“It’s hard, but we love them”). So THANK YOU for getting into the details of how your family works and the real moments that shape you. This is like water and oxygen for me right now. Sending love from Colorado!

    Liked by 1 person

    • YOU are why I write. We had no support to speak of. For two years, Hubby said, “Write. It will help others.” I haven’t had a chance to check out your blog yet, but I highly recommend starting a blog detailing the adoption; I wish I’d started Day 1. There’s so much I’ve forgotten. Feel free to email me at if you have any questions you don’t want to ask online. 🙂
      I’m working on a Disruption series now, and one on Reactive Attachment Disorder will come soon. You might like this one if you haven’t seen it. It’s my least favorite about me (I like the ones where I look like I know what I’m doing, ha!), but is definitely true to life.
      I’m all about preparation. Your (and your husband’s) expectations will affect your ability to succeed. It’s no trip to Disney, but I PROMISE it’s worth the hard work. Sending BIG HUGS (we all need those on a regular basis to survive this…find a good friend who doesn’t mind dispensing hugs)! 🙂


  2. Being an educator, you speak to me! As a society, in my opinion, we are given the message that we should be our kid’s friend. But you are so very right. Kids don’t need parents to be friends. Kids need/want guidance, consistency, and structure. This is no matter the age.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. OH Casey, you pull my heartstrings again! The Christmas thing brought tears to my eyes for I am sure you and hubby did share tears in private! As I have said before your kids are so blessed to have such loving, wise parents! I know you don’t feel wise all the time, but your wisdom comes through in your posts and I am so glad you share it with us! Wish so badly we could sit and share coffee some day!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and for always being so supportive. Yes, that would be amazing! Do you think you could make it to Philadelphia in December? 🙂 I hope to be at WordCamp US 2016.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is such an amazing piece…a piece is worth a share when you read then you re read again and again.
    This is such a great experience and as parents of today we ought to pick a leaf.

    Great work Casey.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The greatest reason your plan works is because at the heart of it is unconditional love. We work at our school to provide the same consistent structure from Grade One to Grade Seven, motivated by love. Not the ooey-gooey sentimental love — the kind of love that can break your heart but never gives up. The kind of love that says, “I am on your side, in your corner. No matter what, I am here for you. However I will NOT move the goalposts or lessen the load.” And prayer is awesome! I am blessed by your faithfulness. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • “love that can break your heart but never gives up.” That’s a perfect description. Obviously you know a bit about this. And what, may I ask, were you doing up at that hour?? 😉 HUGS!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I need to share this- I am amazed and touched to see such loving parents-I can see your love shine through each line of this post and in spite of your tears( shed in private), you have reached their inner souls. These are children who have been traumatized in life and have had trust issues but it seems to me, they trust the two of you now and really love and adore you because they would have realized by now that you would not treat your biological children any different from how you treat them and that everything you do is only to keep them well.
    God bless you both and your patience and I would like to share this please !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and for your kind words. We had so few resources in the beginning that Hubby encouraged me to blog about our experiences. We’d love to help others feel less alone. Please feel free to share if you think this is helpful. Hugs! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow. Wow! Definitely sharing this. Astute. Needful. Excellently rendered. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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