One of the most exasperating jobs of a parent is teaching your children how to speak respectfully to each other. We take cut-downs seriously in our household, and so we impose discipline to stop them. In some cases, we’ve made a child put a drop or two of Tabasco sauce in his mouth as a lesson that his words can sting others. We know other families that use vinegar. Regardless, both are food and reinforce the point—words hurt.

Parents start facing this issue prior to adolescence, and it continues on into the teen years with a vengeance. (Is there any place on earth where more unkind things are said than in the typical junior high school?)

Cut-downs start with seemingly harmless verbal jabs, but often escalate quickly to hateful words crafted to tear the other person apart. The resulting feelings can lead to fights and terribly wounded relationships.

Although cursing may be more of a temptation for boys, girls seem to struggle with gossiping. They are more inclined to talk about one another—and it’s easy to let those catty, critical remarks dominate conversations.

If you don’t nip this type of talk in the bud, it will take up permanent residence at your house. A child must be taught that cutting others down in any way demeans people and is repulsive because every person is made in the image of God.

Genesis 1:26 tells us, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness.’” God doesn’t make losers, nerds, or geeks. He creates people in His image, worthy of respect. At the center of every successful human relationship is respect—for your parent, your neighbor, your friend, your teacher, your spouse, your boss. We are to give people kindness, not derision.

Verbal jabs

Our boys came home from their first couple of days at the junior high (after being home schooled for five years) with a bad case of the cut-downs. When I told them they would be disciplined for these verbal jabs, they responded by saying “No way! Everybody at school does it! We just can’t help ourselves!”

They actually were beginning to convince us that they were victims of their circumstances. But we called their bluff and said that they could have one freebie; after that it was going to cost them five dollars per cut-down. Such an outcry went up from their ranks! But they never even used their one gratis cut down. The habit evaporated.

For us, the bottom line is that we don’t allow our children to say certain hurtful things when angry like, “I hate you” or “I wish you’d never been born” or “I wish you weren’t in our family.” Those kinds of statements can inflict wounds of hurt that a sibling might take years to get over. Frankly, our children have said plenty of hurtful things to each other over the years, but this level of verbal vengeance was ruled off-limits long before they reached the teen years. On a couple of occasions children have screamed hate-filled words at one another, but not without severe discipline.

After you draw the line at what is unacceptable in your family, train your children in an acceptable substitute. For instance, instead of “I hate you,” you may want to teach your pre-adolescent or teenager to say, “You make me so angry” or “I am so angry at you right now I could scream for an hour.” Children are creative enough that they might enjoy the challenge of coming up with acceptable alternatives.

Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.