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translating talking back behavior
Translating Talking Back Behavior

“Don’t you talk back to me, young lady!” Doesn’t that phrase send chills up your spine? Did you like it? So, why pass it on?

Talking back was problematic for our parents and grandparents when bringing up children to be seen and not heard held high value. Parents weren’t going for independence; they demanded obedience. But even though we now have research on children’s brains and emotional needs, and we want our children to have the voices that we never had, we still expect children to snap in line. The idea of “talking back” sits rudely in our subconscious minds, triggering old emotional scars and provoking our ineffective, yet familiar, reactions.

I asked parents for “talking back” behaviors. Most were in response to being asked to do something.

“Hold on a minute” or “I know.”
“That’s not fair” or “But why…?
“You are kidding me, right?
“I hate…” rants
“You’re so mean. You hate me!”
“What happens if I don’t?”
“You’re not the boss of me” or “I’m not going to do that.”
“I hate you. You’re dumb.”
Door slamming
“Get me my water, slave!”

Do we seriously expect our children to “yes ma’am” us when we tell them to do something they don’t want? Is it really not okay for them to say, “No” or “It’s not fair” or even “But why…”? What do we expect them to be prepared for when peers offer drugs, alcohol, etc. Is this another double standard?

Judging any behavior as “talking back” provokes emotions of anger and thus controlling, angry reactions—yelling, punishment, and ineffective consequences. Which in turn results in “talking back”.

One mother reported that talking back is when her words, “Don’t talk to me that way,” get back, “Don’t you talk to me that way.” We typically don’t judge our own behavior as rude or disrespectful. This child is clear, “If you don’t want me to talk to you rudely, don’t you talk to me rudely.” Imagine if you had said that to your parents.

Most of us were brought up by a double standard. It’s okay for parents to talk and behave however they want, but children must be respectful no matter what they may be feeling. It’s time we stopped using double standards and start following the golden rule.

What to do:

  1. Stop, step back, and translate the behaviors. When I asked parents what they thought their children were saying, most answered, Stop trying to control me or I don’t like what you said. When we think about what they are trying to tell us and don’t take their behavior at face value, we are better able to respond rationally.
  2. Lighten up and play. Sometimes we take our children’s behavior too seriously and catastrophize that, “Get me my water, slave” or “You’re not the boss of me” portends a bigoted, power-hungry dictator. Playing the game can lead to laughter and silliness. A lesson on slavery and prejudice will likely get an eye-roll.
  3. End double standards. Be the model you want your children to become. Be very conscious of disrespectful and inconsiderate remarks and demands you make on your children. Pay attention to the mirror they may be presenting you with.
  4. Stop punishing your child for rude behavior (includes taking away privileges or time out). Punishment is disrespectful and rude to a child. It is power held and teaches a child that controlling another is how to get what you want.
  5. Set realistic expectations. Do you expect your child to do what you want when you want it—cheerfully? Allow grumbles and “I know” and “Hold on a minute”. If she is doing what you ask, allow the steam to escape while it’s being done. If he’s in the middle of something, ask him when you can expect it done. Taking the trash out, shutting off the computer or going to bed is not your child’s agenda, it’s yours.
  6. Respond to testing behaviors as experimenting. “What if I don’t?”, “I don’t have to” and “I hate you” or “You hate me”, are experiments. Will you love me no matter what? is the question of the child who doesn’t feel unconditionally accepted.
  7. Once all your words and behavior are respectful and considerate (anger can still be respectful), then you have a fair and logical argument to a child’s rude comment. Stick with, “I don’t like to be spoken to that way. Can you try again, please?” until you both find agreement.

Respect is learned by feeling respected. If you demand respect at all times, you might get obedience but you probably won’t get respect.


Questions and Answers

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Q. My husband and I see the world differently. He is a type B personality(always looking for his keys) and my son and I are type A personalities(we never misplace anything). How do we raise our son with two different and most times opposing parenting styles? Do we follow Mom’s style when Dad’s at work and Dad’s way when Mom’s at work? It seems to be the only way we are able to get goals met without melt downs from sometimes all three of us. I figure that our son is learning flexibility and that different rules apply at different homes or with different people. My husband, on the other hand, thinks we’re confusing him. He and our son seem to butt heads more often than our son and I do, so my husband thinks that son and I are ganging up on him.

A. I know of no families where the mother and father have exactly the same parenting styles. What you described is different personalities, who will inevitably see things differently. You’re right that he is learning flexibility. The important thing is that you and your husband respect each other’s differences rather than criticize them and try to make one right and the other wrong. If you both love and accept your son, he will do just fine learning from different types of people. Your husband and he probably butt heads more because they are very different. Or your son feels his judgment. They must learn to accept each other and each other’s different ways of doing things. Problems arise when people try to change each other.

Why Kids Don’t Do What You Want

Q. We are having difficulty getting our 6 1/2 yo daughter to listen to us & reciprocate. When we want her to do something, like clean up her room, do her homework etc, we usually tell her in a normal tone. Half the time she doesn’t respond, so I need to raise my voice to get her attention. She nods her head in agreement but then the action doesn’t follow right away. This really bugs me but sometimes I control myself waiting for her to do what she is supposed to. After a reasonable time, I have to yell at her and only then will she do it. When we discuss something serious about her behavior, she busies herself doing something else. If I leave, she has a tantrum and says ‘Sorry’ like a 100 times. Sometimes I give in and ask her to calm down before continuing the discussion, but sometimes I say I am very upset and can’t talk right now. Eventually when we do get to discussing, she listens attentively but unfortunately it’s the same old story the next time. She mostly says what we want to hear to end the conversation but doesn’t care about it.. The problem is we can’t spend so much time on this. We are 2 working parents with a 15 month old toddler. I wanted a positive relationship with her, but I am really lost and fear for our relationship.

A. I will point out a few key phrases to show how your assumptions about your daughter’s behavior get in your way. First you said, “I have to yell at her…” This means your assumption is that you have no choice, she is making you yell. So she has learned that she doesn’t have to do anything until you yell. If you’re going to “discuss something serious about her behavior” of course she will busy herself doing something else. That’s quite normal. Then if you walk away, I imagine this comes with some guilt-tripping, which provokes the “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” She has to figure out how to make you happy again. You are getting upset and angry over her normal age-appropriate behavior. She’s 6 1/2 and of course doesn’t want to clean her room (pretty young to do that alone) or do homework (she’s way too young for homework). She listens when you yell to try to please you but you still expect behavior that is unrealistic. Do you assume that discussing the situation will get her to understand the importance of it? She agrees to try to please, but can’t do what you ask, you get upset again, and the cycle replays. What she needs is your understanding that she doesn’t want to do these things, but you expect that she should do what she is told right away. Try letting her know that YOU want her room cleaned, that you don’t expect her to want to do it, so you want to set up a time with her that works for both of you and do it together. Play music and have fun together doing it. Also understand that she doesn’t want to do homework and ask if she wants your help or wants you to sit with her—whatever will make it more pleasant for her. I suggest talking to her teacher to say that you will not be expecting her to do homework – Your limited time and need to care for your toddler are not her problems. She should not be asked to do what she’s told to make your life easier.

Video Games: Worth the Fight?

Q. My son is 15 and we have a good respectful relationship. Our family has always been about limited screen time and we have resolved many technology issues. I have tried hard to respect and understand my son’s point of view, his interests, the times we live in, and what his friends are allowed. So we allowed a smartphone when he started high school, and he bought his own Xbox. He enjoys sports games and Minecraft. We had a big conflict last year when he wanted Call of Duty. After some discussion, I just had a hard line NO, basing it on my problem of not wanting those types of games in our house, and my concerns about young men growing up immersed in this violence, etc. Everytime it comes up, he gets angry and ends up walking away. My husband supports me but says if it was up to him, he would allow him to buy it himself with restrictions on time played, etc. I can’t decide if I am being too rigid. He keeps asking, when can I get it, when I’m 16? 17? He is all around a good kid, good grades, nice person, etc. I would appreciate any thoughts on this that would help me sort it out.

A. This is such a huge issue. Ask yourself what you’re afraid of and match that to the reality of your son. Our fears only take us away from our children. It sounds to me as though you have managed the situation extremely well and have set a good foundation. He sounds like a very responsible kid. So what are you afraid of? Do you think that playing Call of Duty will turn your son violent? Be clear with your son that you do not approve of a gaming company making it fun to do what they do in the game and then let him describe to you what he likes about it and why he wants it. My son, also a very responsible teen, was focused on the game’s amazing technology, quality of design, and the actual quest of the game. I agree that it would be great to have the same quality in a more admirable story line, however I do believe that violence is attractive to boys especially—but that it does not provoke violent behavior unless there is also violence in the child’s real life. Your discussions about it and what it means to you are as valid as his points about why he wants it. Do allow his voice and come to an agreement. Imagine if children carried out what they read in fairy tales. I also think that you have done a great job in preparing a foundation of connection with your son and now it is time for him to make more decisions about what he does and doesn’t do. When fights start to drive him away, that is the time to reevaluate and see that the problem is not worth the relationship.


As is often the case, you’ve struck the very issue I’ve been working on in myself lately: taking responsibility for my own feelings (and allowing myself to feel them), and recognizing others are entitled to feel their feelings without my emotions complicating things. How liberating for us all! Truly, at 51, this is a remarkable change. A friend said to me some years ago “Stay in your own boat,” and from that a visual came to mind—small boats in flowing water, each one piloted by a paddler navigating eddies and currents. Capsizing seems likely when paddlers attempt to climb from one boat to another. A few words from an experienced paddler may be helpful to someone hung up on a rock, but climbing aboard? That’s just crazy. I am finally learning to stay in my own boat. It’s about time.


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