My Child Talks Back!

If the title of this article speaks to you, then you're in good company. No matter what their child's age, one of the biggest complaints I hear from parents is that their children talk back. Why is it that even young children have "an attitude" with their parents? What is causing this phenomenon to occur at younger and younger ages? And no matter what your child's age is, what can you do about it?

We all know the part of the Constitution of the United States that states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." More and more today, children are coming to believe that this statement applies to them as well! In a sense, they're right, in that children are equally deserving of respect and they have equal needs (for shelter, love, food, protection etc.) to those of adults. But "equal" does not necessarily mean "the same as." Children are not "the same as" adults -- they're younger, less experienced, still learning about the world. They're more impressionable than most adults. They have fewer responsibilities than adults do. They're not ready to go out into the world and make responsible, adult choices - their brains haven't matured yet. However, society often pushes the idea that children are "equal" to adults in many ways and children hear this message loud and clear.

In the media, for example, there are commercials where parents don't understand why kids like the type of cereal that they do, and the children roll their eyes in disgust, saying, "you wouldn't understand." There is children's TV programming where kids (from infancy on up) are depicted as completely independent from their parents and, in fact, the adults are shown as incompetent clowns. Adult programming, too, is at fault. Adult programs are often aimed at "tweens" and teens, yet many of these programs have characters who are actually young adults in their twenties having sex, drinking, etc. More and more children are coming to believe the media's message: that adults and children are the same, that parents are often incompetent fools, and that talking back is either humorous or their God-given right.

I don't mean to place the entire blame on societal influences, of course. Part of the fault belongs with us, the parents. Often parents allow talking back because they don't want to "squash their child's spirit." When our children are toddlers, we may be impressed with their "legalistic" stance, their ability to argue a point about bedtime, for example, almost as well as an adult could. We want to respect them, to help them learn to negotiate -- after all, negotiation is an important skill in today's word. So we allow them to argue, we fail to draw a firm line in the sand when it is our obligation as parents to do so. While our desire to respect our children is appropriate this does not mean that they should get away with talking back and other disrespectful behavior!

So what's a parent to do? I believe that a combination of tactics is necessary to battle this growing problem.

Turn off the media and spend more time with your kids. Statistics show that by the time a child finishes high school they've spent thirteen thousand hours in school, and between sixteen thousand and twenty thousand hours in front of the TV or on the Internet. If you want to be the primary influence on your children's values with regard to how they treat you, then one of the best things you can do is reduce the outside influences.

Set limits with confidence. Children actually prefer parents to be in charge and to set limits. It helps them feel safe and secure in their environment. Even teenagers, who may be "pushing the envelope" need to know that there are things they can't get away with. Some of the limits you set should address respectful language, while others should be about behaviors: getting ready for school in the morning, doing homework, going to sleep at night, coming in by curfew.

Apply consequences when your child breaks one of the rules or limits in the house. Tell your child what expectations you have with regard to responsible language and behavior: "We expect responsible language in this house. That means no curse words, no put-downs, no name calling." Then, state the consequences for irresponsible language and behavior: "The consequence for not remembering to use responsible language is ______." Consequences should be based upon the privileges that your child has as a member of the household. Sometimes parents forget that certain things are privileges and not rights. Computer, for example, is a privilege. And not just game-playing on the computer, but any computer use. Should your child lose a privilege because of irresponsible language or behavior, follow through. If you take away the computer, it just might mean that one night he has to complete his homework by hand! Remember to choose consequences that you can live with, though. It's no good to threaten to take a privilege away if you then become wishy-washy and allow your child to have the privilege after all. Stick to your word a couple of times and watch responsible behavior reappear in your house!

Teach your child a different way to express her feelings. Especially in young children, irresponsible language and behavior often comes from not being able to express themselves in more appropriate ways. Remember to give her the words - no matter what her age: "I see that you're feeling very angry right now, and I know that you remember the rule about talking back. Let's find a different way for you to express your anger."

Role model respectful language and behavior. Remember that you are your child's first and most important teacher. Consider whether your language and behavior could use a gentle reshaping in order to better teach your child what responsibility looks like.