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How should I handle an 8 year old lawyering and quibbling?

E.g., anytime he has a rule, or a task, or is told what to do, his FIRST impulse is nearly 100% to find some fault with the technicality or wording and either start arguing based on that, or simply not do and then when asked explain "Well you said it THIS way".

Just to be clear - this is on topics where he knows 100% certainty what the spirit of what's being told to him is... he literally does what in adult would be called "Lawyering".

This isn't even limited to things he doesn't like or objects to - he simply enjoys the process of finding loopholes. Which would be fine if he was a law student and not an 8YO child who actually needs to do things he's told to do.

One of my problems is that I don't want to clamp down TOO hard - first, because it shows he has good brains and lets him exercise them; and second because later in life it IS a very valuable skill to have, even to a non-lawyer.

But at this point this create actual practical problems - critical things not done, or tons of my times wasted on close supervision of things that he's perfectly capable of doing on his own since age of 3 (e.g. brushing teeth or dressing or eating or cleanup etc...).

My main concern isn't stopping the behavior completely, but limiting it to things that aren't critical/important or time-sensitive situations. He doesn't seem to care when it's appropriate to quibble and laywer and when not.

Examples:

  • "I'm Done with breakfast". "Did you finish eating?". "Yes". "OK, get ready for school". Then I walk up to where he ate and notice he didn't drink his juice milk. "Why didn't you drink, and why did you say you finish"? "Well, you asked about EATING. I finished EATING, but not drinking". Just to be clear, he knows perfectly well (and confirmed it) that what he was being asked was whether he finished his entire breakfast, liquids included.

  • "Please take all the books you were reading that are now strewn around your room to the bookshelf?" "OK". 15 mins later, find a bunch of books still in the room. "Why didn't you take these?" "They aren't books I was reading, they are activity books". Again, he very happily confirms that he knows full well activity books are included in "books", or that the goal of the excercise was to make his room tidy.

  • "Please clean up your toys from the floor of the room". 10 mins later ... "Why are these 5 things still on the floor"? "Well, my sister played with them, so they aren't 'MINE'". "Didn't you play with them TOGETHER"? "Yes". "So do you think I meant to include them in the cleanup"? "Yes, you did".

  • "Why did you hit your sister when throwing that thing? Didn't I tell you to NOT throw it when she's standing in front of you and tell her to move away so you won't hit her?" "Well, she wasn't standing. She was sitting".

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Stop getting involved. Give firm clear instructions. Make sure good behaviour is consistantly praised without fail every single time. There should be a constant flow of "thank you for doing X! It makes it much easier for me" as soon as he does anything. Relentless positivity. Also make sure that there are consequences to not complying with the spirit of an instruction, and make sure those are followed. Was the breakfast a real example? You don't need to police a child's food and drink intake so closely. He'll drink when he's thirsty. –  DanBeale Jun 12 at 14:58
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Yea...this would drive me nuts. –  ChristopherW Jun 12 at 15:38
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If the kid gets anything out of it, even if it's just winding you up, it will continue. I'd make direct eye contact and say "You understood exactly what I meant, so get back in there and finish or [insert an unambiguous consequence that you can and will impose]". –  Marc Jun 12 at 20:00
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I disagree that its a positive trait. It sounds to me like he's trying to circumvent good behavior, and ultimately ruining your trust in him. –  LessQuesar Jun 12 at 22:33
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If he wasn't just 8, you could also point out that Godel's Incompleteness Thorem shows that there are a lot of meaningful instructions which CANNOT be worded without holes. However, there is no way I'd expect an 8 year old to appreciate that. However, it might be interesting for you to know that the system of lawyering must provably fail mathematically. –  Cort Ammon Jun 12 at 23:08

14 Answers 14

I am glad you used the term "lawyering". I have been on both sides of this situation.

As the child, I distinctly recall the fun in "outsmarting" my parents. I considered them as incapable of expressing themselves well. The more they argued for me to "get the point", the more I thought they didn't "get the point". They never did succeed in their goal and since my goal was to prove they would fail, I thought for a long time that I had succeeded in my goal.

Today, the more detailed a contract, the more fun I have in finding out where it fails... where the loophole exists. Think you can cover every possible scenario? I love it when you try.

As someone who develops software solutions for merchants, I frequently advise the CSR's that those asking for specific features never know what they actually want... they know what they intend. Find out what problem they are trying to solve and solve that -- they won't care which "feature" solves it, just that it is solved.

With my own child, I do not give specific instructions (except in emergencies), I state the intention. For example, "Your room needs to be clean", "The kitchen needs to be clean", "Select something to do over the summer related to animals and which requires you getting out of the house" (yes, this one has 2 intentions being met [animals is because she wants to be a vet]).

Occasionally I have made a mistake and given a specific instruction. Being her father's daughter, she promptly "lawyered up". My response was direct, "You really want to play that game with me? I enjoy it. Do you think you will?"

It's only fun if it succeeds. However, I suggest that speaking in highly-specific terms to someone of a nature similar to mine will never succeed no matter the threats... it's an internal joy you can't take away by continuing, so perhaps the underlying point they are making without knowing it is of benefit: "tell me what you intend without trying to tell me the steps."

There's a side effect of this, too. "How to Win Friends And Influence People" has a whole chapter on "Give A Dog A Good Name" which concludes with the point "Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to"... namely, by stating your intention and allowing that to be fulfilled in whatever manner they think it should, they are very likely to do more than had you asked something specific in the first place. Where they fall short, giving them "an out" by asking, "Nice job. Did you forget _ _ _ _? It will be perfect when that is done, too" takes away any fight and gets the job done.

Finally, the lesson of speaking via intention instead of by specifics is something which has served me well in life. I may not know how what I want is achieved, but I do care that it is achieved.

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I signed up to Parenting.SE just to upvote that answer –  Danny T. Jun 13 at 15:15
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I signed up to upvote the question. Will be here more now. –  Nick Jun 15 at 17:58
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This is an excellent answer and can be applied to many kinds of interpersonal relationships. –  Marky Mark Jun 16 at 1:40
    
"tell me what you intend without trying to tell me the steps". It makes so much sense. –  David S. Jun 17 at 14:43

One thing you can do is avoid providing opportunities for lawyering by keeping your own wording simple. Use short, concise statements.

Avoid asking open-ended questions like "Why did you do X?"

Explain what he is required to do briefly, and the consequences of failure.

Instead of saying "Please take all the books you were reading that are now strewn around your room to the bookshelf" simply say "Put away your books" or better yet, "Clean your room."

Instead of saying "Why did you hit your sister when throwing that thing? Didn't I tell you to NOT throw it when she's standing in front of you and tell her to move away so you won't hit her?" you say "I told you not to hit your sister, but you did it anyway. Now you must [insert consequences here]."

Don't engage in arguments or debates. If you're sure he knew what you really meant, call him on it. "You knew what I wanted you to do and you didn't do it. I'm disappointed." Then walk away. Disengage. End the conversation on your terms, not his.

It's also important to explain the consequences for failing to follow instructions, and follow through with those consequences consistently. This is one of the hardest parts of parenting.

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As a kid who loved to lawyer, this worked with me. Make them work to figure out (or ask) what will make you happy. –  Kyle Hale Jun 12 at 20:59
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I agree. My wife and I are different in our approaches. I'm blunt, e.g. "Put the books away". She likes to give long winded instructions, similar to the examples above. I get results while she tends to be frustrated by our 9 year with similar behavior. Point is: don't use 20 words when 4 will do. Somewhere in a long request kids just zone out or decide to make it a game. –  Chris Lively Jun 12 at 20:59
    
Are not you teaching your children that it is normal not to be polite when you do not say "please"? –  pabouk Jun 14 at 7:47
    
Use this approach only when finishing the task without discussion is critical. Short sentences, closed questions, quitting conversation as a punishment… This all puts pressure on the child and you risk damage to your relationship when overusing such means. –  Palec Jun 16 at 1:47

I would have a discussion about "spirit of the law" vs "letter of the law" as well as figures of speech. I would then follow it up with a discussion about the golden rule. Does he want someone to do this to him every time he says something using a figure of speech?

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As noted in the question, we already had that discussion. Good point about golden rule! (already tried that as well but still a good point :) –  user3143 Jun 12 at 19:06

When I was in college and I wanted a professor to regrade my test, they would regrade the whole thing, not just the one thing I was concerned about. It rarely paid off for me to do so.

I've adapted that tactic with my children who look for and attempt to exploit loopholes.

"Please take all the books you were reading that are now strewn around your room to the bookshelf?"
"OK".
15 mins later, find a bunch of books still in the room.
"Why didn't you complete the task?"
"They aren't books I was reading, they are activity books"
"Do you need me to make a more difficult, specific rule for you to follow, or do you want to try completing the original task to my standard?"

Generally they will choose to finish the task. Sometimes they turn it into a game and see how many loopholes they can find, but inevitably I will continue to give them definitions and rules that actually make their job much harder than it would have been otherwise. I have to be careful to avoid contradictions, but I treat it as a game once in awhile, and when it's not appropriate I tell them, "I'm not in a position to help you understand the instructions better. I believe you understand my standards and instructions, though, and if you choose not to do the work correctly you will lose a privilege or have more work to do later."

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Am I correctly summing up your advice as "Don't let them get away with it"? Thx –  user3143 Jun 12 at 19:07
    
Pretty much, along with a technique that might be useful in teaching them not only that they won't get away with it, but if they continue to lawyer in the future then things will be harder than if they simply do the job expected of them. –  Adam Davis Jun 12 at 19:09

When you're dealing with matters of discipline or anything else are you a stickler for the letter of the law yourself?

If you make a promise to your child do you fall back on the letter or the spirit if they accuse you of not meeting it? eg: "But you said we could go to McDonalds!" "I said we could go to McDonalds if you did your homework, we did, we walked in and out again, then we went to to VegRUs and actually got something to eat."

Children can be frustratingly good at copying bad habits their parents don't notice in themselves.

Since the child is 8 and reasonable bright have you tried reasoning with them as you would an adult rather than getting frustrated in an amusing manner?

Also you can simply not accept unreasonable appeals to the letter rather than the spirit. Focus on what they "knew were supposed to do" rather than what they were told to do. If it works without consequence then they'll do it more.

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Good point! I always try to avoid lawyering out when dealing with the kids. I'm well aware of the consequences of bad example setting :) –  user3143 Jun 12 at 19:08
    
I would think doing this a few times to have him be on the other side would be a good way to demonstrate why we don't behave that way... –  thumbtackthief Jun 16 at 18:52

In this situation I merely tell them, "You knew what I meant. You may not make up excuses for not obeying and you are always responsible for obeying correctly." Their consequence is typically a menial task to perform.

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+1 Jeez everyone is making this more complicated than it needs to be. My daughter feeds and waters the animals even when I say 'feed the animals' because the first two times she tried 'well you didn't say water' I made it clear that she faced the same consequences as if she hadn't fed them either. Come on people. Your precious little snowflakes don't need you to get a legal degree to get then to wipe their tushies after going potty. –  mxyzplk Jun 15 at 3:40

Your child is willfully disobeying and drawing you into an energy draining exchange each time. Treat this as you would any other misbehavior.

In our house, we used the 1-2-3 behavior modification method. Any time our kids did something they were not supposed to do, we would name the behavior and say, "That's 1." If the behavior repeated, they would get a "That's 2" and on 3 they got a time out. They knew this, and most of the time, all it took was "That's 1" to get them to shift behavior. So in your case, I would have said, "You know what I meant. That's 1." If he argued, I would simply say, "That's 2." And so on.

I don't know what your preferred method is for behavior modification, but you need to connect a consequence to this behavior and stop talking to him about it, because he KNOWS he's pushing buttons and he's enjoying it. Maybe it's "You know what I meant. Bedtime at 8 tonight." If he argues, "Bedtime at 7:45."

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Back in the old days most parents would have smacked their kids for being a wise ass and moved on. All these people talking about how your kid is brilliant and is trying to make you a better parent with his responses is just ridiculous. Your child is 8, he may be precocious, but he's being a smart ass. You need to put your parent pants on and teach him to follow both the letter of your instruction and the spirit of your instruction. Being a smart ass gets you no where except on the internet or in politics.

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Very simple. Only ask once. Once only. If they lie, tell them they lied and then take something they like away for a week.

You're negotiating, when you should be giving direction. You'll find you like your child much better as they start acting less stubborn.

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Welcome to Parenting SE, Joey. Helpful suggestions and answers are always welcome. I would refrain from derogatory comments towards children, though. –  Jeremy Miller Jun 13 at 21:18

Put less effort into clarifying your expectations and more into clarifying the consequences of not living up to your expectations. So far it seems that you are providing your son with positive rather than negative reinforcement for his lawyerly behavior.

Have age-appropriate expectations. At age 8, a kid doesn't need to be forced to drink his juice; he is old enough to pour his own drink, and to understand that he shouldn't pour himself something that he doesn't intend to drink, because that's wasteful. At age 8, a kid who throws something that hits his sister is old enough to understand, without being told, that in such a situation, (1) regardless of whether it was really your fault, you apologize immediately, because that's the way nice people behave when they hurt someone else; (2) you need to figure out how to keep it from happening again in the future.

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Didn't think I would ever post on P.SE, but will give it a go none the less, I will keep it relatively self centered as I will be honest that my experience with parenting and children isn't that great.

My History & Why I Stopped Doing It

I did exactly this as a child and I think I drove my parents and teachers quite crazy with it. Now, at some point - still as a child - somebody (likely my little brother) tried to use this against me and as I hated losing arguments I came up with an argument which in one big swoop invalidated years of arguing:

Language is a ridiculously complex system and literal interpretations are actually incorrect. Not only against the spirit of the original statement (which I did not care about), but actually incorrect, dumb (the one that hit me) and short-sighted.

or when I got slightly older (around 10 I believe) and started programming more actively it changed into the following form:

Humans are not computers and [fill in some language] is not a programming language.

and just to put it into a more modern form as a third alternative

Language is created to facilitate communication. Miscomprehension and/or miscommunication is a failure of one or both parties. If the communicated instructions are of a commonly accepted form, then it necessarily means the fault lies at least partially on the receiving end (and likely entirely except in the very specific case if there is an alternative commonly accepted interpretation of the same instructions).

What I was essentially arguing was not about some weird "spirit" of a rule, law, statement or question, but the fact that language by it's very nature is a complex system rather than a rule based interpreter. So if I take an example like

"Please take all the books you were reading that are now strewn around your room to the bookshelf?"

The way that would have worked with me is pointing out that language works in a way where an example or over specific case can be used to give instructions where the person giving the instruction may have made likely, albeit incorrect assumptions and not understanding so is dumb and stupid. Now, it might sound really harsh to call it dumb and the way this is communicated is up to debate, but the thing is, at least talking for myself, I considered myself smart for years due to my literal interpretations. In other words, the only way to stop behaviour like this in individuals like me is to address this core issue: Interpreting language literally is easy: everybody is able to do that. Interpreting language in it's full scope: that's what's hard. Present it as such that a failure of him to comprehend this is something that shows a lack of intelligence, not an abundance of it.

So, is it Actually Beneficial?

Up till this day I rarely lose an argument, so I would definitely not argue that the mindset allowing literal interpretation and being open for confrontation is not beneficial in some regards. However arguments won going down the literal route tend to be arguments won at the cost of social standing and respect, so do in every possible way dissuade him from this behaviour. Lawyers indeed do use these kind of interpretations, but in every other place in life you need actual debating skill rather than this 'fake' debating.

So my final advice: Act as if he needs help understanding it better anytime he pulls this act ("Oh dear, was my instruction too hard to understand? I am sorry, wait, let me explain it to you better now...") and maybe grant him some victories when he starts to actually debate and for example is able to point out inconsistencies in your parenting (he sounds like the type who might be capable of that).

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I think that everyone's answers are all reasonable (though very different), but I lean more towards the "it depends on the child" and "it depends on whether he is really causing problems." I also suspect that the best thing to do is wait it out. I agree that this type of thinking can be helpful to an adult, but could just as likely be problematic for an adult. If you can put up with this for a year or two, I think you should, and then you should revisit how to make it less painful.

The best solution might be to provide less guidance and just be outcome focused.

Note 1: I would not consider my answer "advice." It may be helpful, it might not, but it is not guidance as to how you should respond. None of us know enough about the situation to give the right answer.

Note 2: Once upon a time, when my child was about 4, he had trouble remembering to put on clean clothes each day. So every morning, I would ask "did you put on clean underwear today?" He always responded "Yes." About 4 days into this, he needed a swat on the butt, and I noticed it was pretty soft. You guessed it -- he had followed the letter but not the spirit of the law. He had put on a clean pair of underwear each day -- over the dirty one -- so he was wearing 4 or 5 pairs by the time I found out. My point is that I think I can understand where you are coming from, and I sympathize. He is now in his late teens, doing fine in college, and pretty normal. Only wears one pair of boxers at a time.

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I get this kind of behaviour too, and found the most effective way of dealing with it is to congratulate my child on spotting the problem with my instructions ("Well played sir!"), asking that they thought I meant (which they almost always know), and asking for them to do that. This seems to defuse the game-playing, as I have acknowledged defeat on the language front, yet stress that I still seek performance of the task. We also take that opportunity to discuss the various frailties, ambiguities and nuances of our language. Both of my kids are delighted by word play and the jokes that can come from it, and I suspect the lawyering is an extension of this.

I also give context to instructions ("Your untidy room is making me grumpy" or "... so that your socks don't get wet walking to school" or "I don't want the other kids calling you 'Stinky McStinkypants', so...") which is usually motivation enough to actually perform said task. I guess you could call the context "consequences".

Anything with time constraints is given time calls ("10 minutes until we leave" and "four minutes"), and if it's not life-threatening I'll let it slide and allow my child to wear the consequences, such as wet socks from not putting shoes on when asked, or wearing pyjamas to school because they weren't dressed in time (they were unaware there was a change of clothes travelling with us, and have not subsequently made this mistake).

These techniques have worked great with our eldest, who's doing the lawyering much less, and will no doubt work well with the youngest, who's doing it increasingly. They were also very interested to hear me name the practice; I now have two children running around accusing each other of being a "language lawyer".

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Your son is incredibly brilliant. He is trying to help you become a better communicator.

I must commend you for taking the time to clarify that he does indeed understand the spirit of your words, and that he does in fact know what it is you would like for him to do. This is a testament to his brilliance and his confidence.

Each time he lawyers, consider thanking him for pointing out that what you said was ambiguous (guaranteed he know what ambiguous means) and, given that he understands the spirit of what you were trying to tell him, ask him how you could have better spoken your words to be less likely to be potentially misunderstood. Chances are, if the way you talk to your son is blatantly open to interpretation, so is the way you talk to everyone else. This can wreak havoc on your professional career and stand in the way of advancement, and even make you more likely to be a candidate for dismissal.

English is a language in which it is incredibly easy to be misunderstood, and worse, without even knowing that you were misunderstood! Statements made at the office have the potential to be interpreted in at least as many ways as there are people in your audience -- misinterpretations which can foster ill will, disrespect, blame towards you.

Your son has the gift of confidence. If he weren't self-confident, he would assume that his literal interpretation of what you said was incorrect, and become confused -- and as time goes on, introverted and withdrawn. His continued behaviour in this way is indicative of his self-confidence, and you should not interpret this behaviour as disrespect toward you.

Embracing his viewpoint will turn you into a better communicator, which will in turn work miracles in your life both as a parent, as an employee, and as a human being!

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Wish I could downvote this, and if possible multiple times. Humans are not computers. Humans are capable to work with ambiguous statements and they actually can add to communication. Literal communications are the easy and dumb interpretations of a statement. Something that anybody, even a computer, can do. Comprehending the full meaning of a sentence is far harder indeed, but something that is absolutely crucial for a child and anybody who wants to be socially successful. –  David Mulder Jun 13 at 1:59
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@DavidMulder: When was the last time you've read your bank's Terms and Conditions? You say literal communication is easy and dumb; the opposite is true. Humans not only excel at understanding badly communicated meaning, they also excel at misinterpretation. Without prejudice to the first, the ability to express yourself clearly and unambiguously is an important skill too. –  TechieType Jun 13 at 10:34
    
@TechieType: "they also excel at misinterpretation", so all the more reason to teach the child to improve rather than blaming the parent who's using English the way it should be used. Now mind you, you're right in that there are places where these skills are valuable, but at a general workplace and school life people incapable and/or unwilling of communicating in a normal way always end up alone and in ungrateful positions. And @ ToS and law texts in general, it's more about patience than skill or intelligence... and yes, I do work myself through them occasionally. –  David Mulder Jun 13 at 11:37
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I wouldn't call this confidence. I would call this stubbornness. He's not trying to help his parent become a better communicator. He's 8. He's a child. He has zero business intentionally misinterpreting the meaning of the person that provides him sustenance and a place to sleep. –  ChristopherW Jun 14 at 12:47
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"English is a language in which it is incredibly easy to be misunderstood, and worse, without even knowing that you were misunderstood!" I laugh to this because I am a Chinese speaker, and I know how vague our language could be. There might be languages less vague than English, but I can guarantee that English is not the worst, even in popular languages. –  Earth Engine Jun 14 at 13:03

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