Why Aren’t We Rude to Grown-ups the Way We Are Rude to Kids?

sad face

Ben Martin listens to the way we talk to kids. And he finds it incomprehensible that we can’t give them the respect we give to adults.


What the ever-loving, craptastic, holy heck! I’ve seen adults reprimand kids countless times before, but it wasn’t until yesterday morning that I finally noticed what assholes grown-ups are when they talk to kids.

It began in the library at about 8:00. I overheard a woman as she was tutoring three middle school kids. The tutor, her voice already dripping with disgust, sighed, “Open up your textbooks.” One of the guys, who looked particularly bleary-eyed and tired, was slow to react and the tutor said, “Is this how we’re going to start? Really?” She was exasperated already and the kids hadn’t even settled into their chairs. She began to drone out the text and asked the kids questions that had clearly been designed by the chairman of the board of a mattress company specifically to put people to sleep. Over the next half hour, she split her time between reading aloud from the textbook and complaining that the kids a) needed to keep all the chair legs on the floor, and b) needed to wake up and answer the questions she was sleep-reading from the book.


Later, I overheard an exchange in a classroom of early elementary age kids. The teacher, teeth audibly clenched, and with all the enthusiasm of a politician testifying before Congress, said, “I’m going to get some games for the classroom and I want to know what ideas you all have for what games would be good to have.” It sounded as if she resented the kids for making her take the time to explain this whole “classroom games” scheme. The kids, being of the younger variety, were pretty excited about games in the classroom in spite of their teacher and started calling out the names of their favorites. The teacher’s response indicated that this was exactly the kind of bullshit she’d expected. With a tone that virtually cried out that it was all she could do not to bang her head against a wall, she said, “You know, I do not have to get games for you!  If you’re not going to raise your hands and talk one at a time, I just might not get any games at all.” Rinse and repeat as the little kids quieted down, got excited again, and were threatened with no games again.

At swimming lessons it was more of the same. All the kids had to get out of the pool to put on life preservers for the drill they were about to run and a 5 year old fast-walked around the pool. I get that you can’t have horseplay or running at the pool. Safety is important. Still, that doesn’t excuse the way the instructor shouted the boy back into the pool to re-exit and slow walk it. After the lesson was over the instructor began handing out congratulatory certificates. My son, Steve, who always has to pee by the end of the lesson had gone straight to the bathroom from the pool. The instructor held out Steve’s certificate without looking up, said, “Steve,” and then, still not looking up, shouted, “STEVE!” before I had a chance to take it and tell him that Steve was in the bathroom.

During the swimming certificate distribution, another boy, who looked to be around 4, stood and swung a faux-olympic medal around by the ribbon. His mother grabbed his arm, snatched away the medal, and shouted, “You’re going to hit someone with that!”


In each of these cases, the rudeness occurred in the context of doing something helpful or special for the kids involved. It was all just tokenism. The fake-gold medal, the swimming certificates decorated with smiley-face stickers, the special games for the class, and the extra help with homework were all designed to bolster self-worth, but were all undercut by a lack of basic patience and consideration.

I’ve done these types of things myself all too often. I’m impatient. I’m exasperated. I’m tired. I predict the worst behavior and then react to it before it happens. I’m not saying that the tutor or the teacher or the swimming instructor or the mom are bad people. Hell, there’s a better-than-even chance that they’re kinder, more patient people than I am. Some other guy is probably wrapping up another blog post right now based on something awful he heard me say to my kids. For one reason or another, it just really struck me today, for the first time, that even the most well-behaved kids get talked to this way every single day. Our collective inability to treat kids with basic respect provides one consistent message: you’re irritating and in the way.


The Way We Talk to Kids

I, however, don’t get spoken to the way kids do. People just…don’t shout at me. I honestly don’t remember the last time anyone spoke to me the way I heard literally dozens of kids being spoken to throughout the day in a variety of settings yesterday. Not when I’m at home. Not when I was employed. Not when I’m on the subway. Not when I make mistakes. Not when I’m a bit lazy. Not when I skip out on brushing my teeth before bed. Not when I lean back in my chair. I’m not a particularly intimidating person, but people don’t roll their eyes and grit their teeth and talk to me like it’s all they can manage to just keep from punching me in my big, fat, stupid face.

I also don’t remember the last time I spoke to another adult that way, but I probably raised my voice or spoke impatiently to my kids yesterday. I don’t remember because, honestly, it wouldn’t really stand out as unusual.

Picture this though: Imagine that an intrepid hero, we’ll call him Grown-Up Man, is waiting to get on the bus. It’s cold. There’s a woman in front of him who is not immediately boarding the train and is holding up the line by a few seconds. She’s probably just daydreaming or something. Imagine that instead of clearing his throat and saying, “Train’s boarding”, our hero raises his voice and spits, “Hey! Stop spacing out and get on the train right this second! You’re holding up the whole line!” The woman would probably give Grown-Up Man what-for unless she was too frightened of him. Others in line might tell our hero to calm down, or would at least give him a bunch of ugly looks. Now imagine that instead of being some grown-up woman, our hero is talking to an eight-year-old boy. That’s not even an interesting anecdote anymore. Maybe someone would raise an eyebrow and then go back to playing with their iPhone.

Here’s another one. Imagine you’re at a spinning class at the rec center. You’re pedaling away, but you really have to pee. So, you get off the bike and start walking toward the bathroom when the instructor stops everything and says, “Hey! Where do you think you’re going? Get back on your bike now.” “Umm. But, I have to go to the bathroom.” “Okay. Fine! Maybe we should all just wait here until you get back. Come on! You’re holding up the class!”

I know that my circumstances, gender, and even dumb luck play a part in keeping me from being shouted at regularly. It’s certainly not that I’m a particularly competent person. I know that parents sometimes shout at teachers. Bosses sometimes swear at employees. Customers scream at waiters and cashiers. We can pretty much all agree that when that happens it usually means that the one who starts the shouting is being an asshole. When it happens between a kid and an adult, it’s easy to dismiss it as just the way things are.

As a dad, I know that I’m a role model for my kids. I’ve always been careful to treat people respectfully. I say thanks when people hold the door. I don’t yell at waiters when they forget that I wanted them to hold the onions. But yesterday I realized that it’s not enough to just show my kids how I try not to be an asshole to the bus driver. I also have to recognize when I’m being an asshole to them.

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photo: vesparado / flickr

About Ben Martin

Ben Martin stayed home with his kids for 5 and a half years before going back to school to become a social worker. After his daughter was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, he and his family moved to Boston and he returned to being a stay-at-home dad. On this second time around, he's taking a more thoughtful approach to being a husband and father. You can find his personal blog at www.afamilyinthecity.com. You can also follow him on twitter @FamilyintheCity


  1. One of the best articles I have read in a really long time. Spot on. Brilliant. Could not agree more.

  2. You make a very good point! I too am guilty of snapping at my kids and then get exasperated when they melt down or dare to speak to me in the same tone. I have seen a little saying that states, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Thank you for the reminder!

  3. Exactly!
    I thought something similar when I was leaving my gym. There was a big white slobbery dog ‘locked up’ waiting outside the door and as everyone walked by they said things like, “Hey Big Guy,” or “Oh aren’t you cute!” and bent down to rub his neck…

    I wondered why the members were not so nice to each other, hardly looked at others in the eye or smiling as they passed in the locker room or on a bike, but to a non-human… they were so friendly and positive…

    Sad realization that people treat each other and kids so poorly.

    • Well to be fair, if someone in the locker room looked at me and said “Hey Big Guy, aren’t you cute” and started rubbing my neck, that might not go over so well…

      That said, good point – we often treat animals better than we treat each other. Then again… Some people don’t.

  4. The thought occurs that some people speak that way to children because kids are smaller and there is no backlash from treating children this way unless its extremely ovbious you’re abusing them. The further thought occurs that some people like to talk to kids like dirt because they’re self-centred abusive assholes who get off on control and degredation. There ARE those who have just hit their limit (parents) and those who simply dont know how to speak to children (not-parents), but these are temporary states. There are a LOT of people out there who exist in a permanently malicious state and taking cheap shots at defenceless people makes them feel big. Its disgusting.

  5. Yes. YES. YES!! Thank you for saying what most people don’t connect when speaking to children – Kids learn to speak to others – in the exact ways that they have been spoken to. Be kind.

  6. Yes, It drives me crazy when I hear my kindergartner dish out my very own bad attitude. It pushes my buttons and gives me the much needed reminder that I am indeed responsible for his outlook on life and the way he treats himself and those around him. Its also a good reminder that I must not sound so pleasing when I’m dishing it out myself. Its a good look in the mirror.

  7. Well, let me be the other side of the coin and say a snapshot of how people are is not a good gauge as to how they are at all times. Also when it comes to reaction to poor behavior, even if not intentionally, the more its corrected the shorter someone will be with them. Your notion that we don’t speak to adults the same way is wrong if you think about it like this; lets say I tell my husband to take out the garbage on Monday at 6pm. By 7 its not out so I remind him, nicely of course. 8pm still in the can. 9pm I am ready to go to bed and the garbage is STILL in the kitchen. he finally takes it out at 10 before going to bed, but after its stunk up the kitchen. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we have the same situation. Do you think by 8pm on Friday I am going to tell him in the same tone I did on Monday?

    When my kids were young I saw my son’s 2nd grade teacher looking like she was just ran over by a truck. She sighed and said “I can’t believe its only Tuesday I don’t know how I will make it all week” and as a few kids came running into the class tossing their backpacks to the ground she snipped “hey you know better than that!” At the time I left thinking she is sort of mean to be a teacher, so I went in and talked to the principal about it. I was then told she was a Kindergarten teacher for 9 years but was told to quit because of medical problems resulting in panic attacks. She opted to move to 2nd grade because the school divided students into smaller groups with several teachers allowing her to have less than 10 kids most of the day. Over the school year I learned how great she was at teaching kids, and realized her tense nature was partially from conditioning.

    Its easy to say “I will never yell at my kids” but sometimes there is no way to talk to them in a calm voice. When my 2 boys were small and would fight/ wrestle around it was cute, but as the years went by and they grew up we would end up with holes in the wall, broken furniture and one time an arm through a window that resulted in 9 stitches. When they start fighting my voice does go up, about 50 decibels up, especially given they are now 18 & 20 and can do quite a bit of damage in my home. Last time my oldest visited they instantly started wrestling and fell into a door ripping it off the hinges.

    On your example of the slow moving woman getting on the train no one would be rude just once, but if every morning this woman stood there and held up the line eventually someone is going to speak up very rudely, and the other regular riders will smile, even if inside, because they agree. I find myself yelling at coworkers and other adults more than I do my own kids because sometimes adults just need to be corrected. Just last night I snapped on an intoxicated man who felt the need to make belittling remarks to me.

  8. Just so. Treating children with respect not only teaches them to respect others, it teaches them they are worthy of respect themselves. How many of our choices hinge on self worth?

    Yeah. This is important.

  9. Excellent article! So cool how you’ve brought this issue to light. This is a huge double standard in our society. I truly believe if parents, teachers and anyone who interacts with children are more mindful of how they talk we can raise kids with healthy sense if self worth. The expectation we have fit out kids cannot be higher than the ones we have for ourselves and other adults. We need to give them room to just be human. As a family coach my goal is to address this issue and empower parents to be more mindful in their actions and words.

  10. Thank you. This is exactly how I feel & is expressed far better than I could. Love, love, love it!

  11. Good article… Too bad the language you choose makes it inappropriate to print in some of the places I’d like to share it. We can all pretty well agree what words are offensive, even if they’ve fallen into casual use. Using those words is also rudeness. Why not extend the respect to your readers as to a grandparent you respect?

    • I agree – lost me in the first sentence with his vulgarity of language!! However I did manage to keep reading, tripping over more vulgarities – is this how most Americans speak? (I’m an Aussie) Then just before the end he finally acknowledges “as a dad, I know that I’m a role model for my kids.” I get the point of the article, but I find it incomprehensible that he can’t write without using the vulgarities he apparently uses in his normal speech. He certainly isn’t a good role model if he talks to his kids in the way he wrote for us.

  12. This is SUCH a great point. I often overhear people being rude to their children in my place of work. I’m not perfect and, like you, I’ve been snippy with my now 10 year old daughter from time to time, but I realize that just because she’s little doesn’t make her less deserving of my respect. I want her to learn to treat others the way she wants to be treated, and that means following the Golden Rule myself when talking to her as well as any adult. Thank you for your perspective.

  13. Sarah Pearce says:

    I find that many parents talk that way to their first child, the second if it is close in age, because they don’t know how to be good parents yet. Those with older kids know we much take it slow and talk to the kids to get what we want. It breaks my heart when I see some young busy mom yank their poor kid around and yell at them because they are tired/exasperated.

  14. This definitely made me think about how I speak to my children. I don’t, however, agree that we should speak to children the same way we speak to adults. Kids are adults in training. An athlete in training expects direction, encouragement and honest feedback from their coach. The questions we need to ask ourselves is are speaking to our kids like a coach or like a bully? The difference very much lies in our motivation and a kid can tell the difference. Are we correcting them because we are training them to be thoughtful and responsible adults or are we snapping out of exasperation?

  15. I get it. We should be more respectful to kids as a collective whole. I practice respectful parenting myself, and I’m flabbergasted at times by what I hear in public. Yet, picking on teachers is a pretty low blow. I’m a teacher, and we have literally thousands of interactions with children each day. One flustered, irritated moment is analyzed when I imagine the teacher had many other respectful, understanding, and thoughtful moments throughout her day and week. You make the teacher out to be a real asshole and most teachers are heroes in my opinion. Perhaps you should have a little more respect instead of picking apart a moment.

  16. Thank you for writing this, it’s such a great point. Sometimes we forget that we’re the adults and, even when we’re tired and cranky, it’s up to us to help teach our kids how to deal with things in an acceptable way. Us yelling at them when we’re stressed is only teaching them that it’s okay to take your stress out on other people. (I still haven’t gotten this formula right, but am working on being more mindful when dealing with my son!) Great post.

  17. Kendall says:

    But sometimes people are harsh with kids in order to let them know about the seriousness and gravity of the situation. Sometimes you say, nicely, “Hey, Johnny, may I ask you nicely not to swing that gold medal around as you may hurt someone?” And Johnny continues. Next thing you know, Timmy lost an eye because Johnny didn’t realize that, yes, you really can hurt someone else by swinging a medal around.


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