Family life

Is there a cure for backtalk?

When Tracy was young, she never dreamed of talking back to her parents. So why is she getting lip from her little ones?

By Tracy Chappell
Is there a cure for backtalk?

Photo by Makz via Flickr.

“Whatever,” my six-year-old mutters as she walks away. In the middle of my sentence. As I angrily call her back and let her know she can stand and look at me when I’m speaking to her, I wonder what the heck has happened in our house.
It’s not like we’re new to defiance. Anna started with that tone at two (she was too articulate, too early) and we found ourselves dealing with a toddler who back-talked well beyond the typical “no!”
Around the time Anna was four, I asked a friend who had older kids for some advice. I gave her an example of something Anna said to me (I can’t remember it exactly, but it was something sassy) and her response was: “My kids would know not to say something like that to us. They would never.” I asked her if they’d done something to nip backtalk in the bud, but she insisted her kids just knew not to speak like that.
It was disheartening advice and I told her so. How did they just know? And if they just knew, how come my kid didn’t? What were we doing wrong? I explained that we certainly never gave Anna the impression that it was OK to speak to us with disrespect or not to listen to us, that there was always a consequence, but it didn’t seem to help. Maybe it was the wrong consequence, but what was a natural/logical/effective consequence to backtalk?
I didn't think we were pushover parents. We were stern. We used time outs. If things got ugly, we’d send her to her room, explaining that until she could speak to her family respectfully, with an inside voice, she needed to be on her own. But we also listened because we do respect our kids. We know Anna has a temper that would escalate quickly, so if she was getting upset or frustrated (which is often what would lead to the backtalk), sending her away would do nothing productive. We used strategies like taking her hand, getting her to pause and take a breath to calm down, letting her know we were listening, but that she must watch her tone and her words if she wanted to be heard. Sometimes this helped, and I felt that doing it was important in teaching her self-regulation. There were times when frustration wasn’t a part of it, it was just lashing out, and in those cases, there was no conversation, just a consequence. I admit, I once put soap in Anna’s mouth because I had reached the end of my rope and I felt that if she got one, swift, awful consequence, it would cure her of that terrible backtalk. Instead, it made her throw up, and I felt terrible, and couldn’t even bring myself to use it as a threat the next time.
Somewhere along the line, it did get better. But now it’s back. And I’ve realized something: Avery, at four-and-a-half, may be spearheading it this time. So maybe there’s something to this age that brings on that challenging, defiant tone, since this was how old Anna was when I was desperately seeking guidance with my friend. Maybe this is the stage that kids suddenly realize they can stand up and say, “You can’t make me!” Because Avery has suddenly found that voice and, well, here we go again. Avery’s newfound defiance has had a ripple effect on her big sister. So while Avery’s yelling “I will not go to the bathroom before bed!” Anna is rolling her eyes and saying things like, “Blah, blah, blah…” Terrible. I hear so much about today's kids not learning respect, but I never thought that was how we were raising our girls.
Oh, the joys of parenthood never cease! I know it’s much worse right at dinner, when everyone’s just come home and is hungry and tired and eager for attention, but it’s not only then, and I’m back to wondering how to make my kids just know that this kind of talk is not OK, beyond having them camp out in time-out all evening long. Growing up, I knew never to speak to my parents like this — and though spanking was a part of their generation’s parenting toolkit, my parents did not spank. I just knew. But I don’t know how I knew. 
How do you deal with backtalk? And if your kids just know that it’s not acceptable, what do you think you’ve done to create that environment?

I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments section, or tweet me @T_Chappell

Photo by Makz via Flickr.

This article was originally published on Feb 14, 2013

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