The infamous talkback
Updated: Mar 24
"How dare he talk back to me like that?!"
Here is one very common parental trigger. The talkback! You are scolding your child or you give them a request, and they dare answer back.
I remember saying things like: “Oh I am your mother; I WILL have the last word do you understand?!”
The thing is, what the struggle was about had become irrelevant to me. I was in a position of eternal authority and he was to listen and obey without question. It was a no brainer. I don’t have to describe to you how loud things got because when you try to shut down a hard-headed child who just isn’t seeing things through the same lens as you, the battle will be fierce! I very quickly realized it was also going to be in vain as there can be no winners in such a confrontation (despite my insistence on owning the systematic right to victory).
What the struggle was about had become irrelevant to me. I was in a position of eternal authority and he was to listen and obey without question.
You have heard the famous parental saying “pick your battle.”
I went with that approach for awhile until I realized that I didn’t even want this to be a part of my parenting vocabulary and I didn’t want to bring the “battle” energy to any of my interactions with my children. After all, there are no enemies here! Why are we using war terminology?
When my first-born was a baby, my husband received advice from a well-seasoned (and well-meaning I have no doubt) mother from his office. She said: “Either you’re gonna be the boss! Or he’s gonna be the boss! You have to make that clear from now!”
I didn’t think much about it as I was still in that foggy phase of sleep deprivation, cluster-feeds and hourly diaper changes. But this kind of approach sets parents up to engage with their children with a battle mentality from Day 1.
Our kids are not our enemies, and they are not our employees, therefore using terminology such as ‘battle’ or ‘boss’ just doesn’t align with my views on the parent-child relationship, which is the deepest form of human bond and should be guided by impulses from our soul, not hierarchical impulses.
I wanted to clarify this before I jump into the meat of this post, which is really about how to handle it when kids 'talk back'.
Self disclosure: I became a better parent when I started being able to discern the different types of ‘talkback’.
We have all been raised to not talk back to our parents and to stop our children from talking back to us. And that was a simple and radical rule with no exception.
But here is my challenge to you.
Can talkback sometimes be a kid just expressing themselves?
Can talkback actually carry a message we need to hear?
Is my child just angry, sad, upset and frustrated? In which case I need to give them leeway and some guidance.
So how do we differentiate between what is acceptable (and may need some redirection about the choice of words or tone) and what is simply not acceptable (and we need to systematically remind the child of the boundary)?
What if the kid is just upset and yells back “I don’t want to clean my room! I hate you!” But they are already on their way up to clean their room?
What if they said “Oh my God! You don’t have to yell like that, FINE I will do it!”
Do you need to intervene? Or can you just wait till everyone calms down and the emotions have passed and then have a quiet chat with your child about how you felt when they spoke like this? If your child is triggered and impulsive and you just didn't like their tone I think it's important to wait and not escalate the situation right there and then. The odds are, the talkback will get worse and you will get more triggered, this is often how households find themselves in a whirlwind of constant fighting and yelling.
Here are a few rules about talking back that I would like to reiterate—this is what I consider unacceptable and requires thorough intervention every time.
Kid is using insults: No! Hold the boundary.
Kid is being rude and sarcastic: No! Hold the boundary.
Kid is laughing and ignoring us: No! Hold the boundary.
And how do we hold this boundary you ask? First I want you to remember that we must model a respectful way to speak to our children when we try to uphold our boundaries, because the good old fashioned "Stop talking to me like this or I swear I will [...fill in the blank]" may not resonate very well with them, and isn't a very respectful approach. It also invites them to use this kind of language with their peers or their siblings (and now you have another issue to deal with!).
I invite you to consider speaking to your child in the following way to remind them of your house rules:
We do not use this language in this house!
You know I don’t allow name-calling! No one is allowed to do this in this family!
I don’t use it with you, and I don’t want you to use it with me.
I will not let you speak to me like this; I wouldn’t let anyone speak to me like this.
You know what? When you speak like this, I need to walk away for a little bit.
You may feel that contrary to the more traditional models of using threats and punishments you are not seeing results right away, but believe me, constantly reminding them of the house rules while always modelling respect in the way that we speak to them and to everyone else in our life WILL naturally influence their behaviour.
What about punishments or consequences?
Personally I don't see the value in them in this case.
Taking away video games or cancelling playdates does not teach a child to speak properly. When children speak to us in a manner that doesn't please us I think it's important to remember that it's usually impulsive (that doesn't mean acceptable!). So how could removing a privilege help with this impulse? More often than not, you will only make matters worse when in the heat of the moment, after your kid says "Whatever! I don't care what you think!" you answer, "oh yeah? No video games for you tomorrow!" It's much more productive to go underneath the "Whatever!" comment and address it (this topic is beyond the scope of this post and requires a few pages of its own).
When everyone is finally calm and connected, you must go back and speak to your child about things that don't work for you and that you just cannot accept . Seeing your child's perspective on things, and showing them yours, can help you guys find solutions that work for everyone.
Another little trick that you can use when you don't like your child's answer (and they are not completely taken over by emotions), is to ask them if maybe they can think of another way to express themselves.
"Hey buddy, you wanna try to rephrase that answer without breaking our respect rules?"
"Can you think of another way to say this?"
"You want to try that again?"
You can also start to bring more emphasis on positive behaviours and notice when your child is being polite and tell them you notice and appreciate it.
My own 'AHA' moment
I remember the first time I decided to pause a little before reacting to my son's answer. You will see, it wasn't even a bad answer, but it still triggered me!
I was busy with something when I hear “Mom, mom!!! Mommy! Mommyyyyyyyyy look at us! Loooooook mommyyyyy!”
Of course, I barked out “Oh my God what!?”
And I found them, my 5-year old and my 2-year old, inside the linen closet, but not just inside the linen closet, on top of the shelf inside the linen closet. I then catastrophized the situation, imagining the shelf breaking and my kids falling….. a whole two feet off the ground. Not such a big deal I know, but in moments like this all of your accumulated stress and unconscious fears and feelings rise up and BOOM!
“Oh my God! What are you doing?! Are you insane! This is so dangerous! Get out of there NOW!”
To which my 5-year old (obviously wiser than me) answered: “Mommy I didn’t know it was dangerous, you didn’t have to say it like that.”
He didn’t know it was dangerous?
That may seem logical to you or to me today, but the old me was still a little confused.
There were two possible types reactions:
Reaction 1. “You didn’t know it was dangerous? Sitting on a shelf with your little brother? How could you possibly not know that it was dangerous! Can you even use your brain?”
Ok that last one was added for dramatic effect, I don’t think I would have ever said that. But it's true, in his 5 years of life, he had never been in that situation so how would he know it was dangerous? He was just being adventurous and curious, and he did as kids do, he was exploring his surroundings.
Reaction 2 (although I prefer calling this an intervention rather than a reaction). The light-hearted approach would have been the following:
“WOW! Look at you guys up there on that shelf! How did you get up there my playful monkeys?”
Then I would walk over immediately and slowly help them down.
“You know what, it makes me a little nervous, this shelf wasn’t built to carry two strong boys like you. I think it’s better if you come down and find another place to hide; I don’t want you to get hurt. Can you think of a safer place to hide?”
As simple as that. Conflict avoided. Mother's heart attack avoided. Child feeling crappy about himself avoided. Childhood trauma avoided (I like to exaggerate a little sometimes).
Having just finished my first conscious parenting book, I paused (the eternal power of the pause) and I realized he was right, I didn’t have to yell, I didn’t have to ruin his excitement with my anxiety and my burdens.
My actual response at the time was somewhere in between the two scenarios described above. I genuinely don’t remember my exact words; I just remember the ‘AHA’ moment and the change of direction I took from that day on.
This example may not speak to you, but I challenge you to sitting down for 5 minutes and replay moments when you kids “answered back”. Were they just being rude? Or was there a message? Both can also be true at the same time, and it is our job to get our children to express themselves without being rude and disrespectful. The best way (and if you ask me, the ONLY way) for us to do that is to model the behaviour you want to see.
‘Lead by example!’ Isn’t that a much better parenting mantra than ‘pick your battles’?