When my daughter was about 10, she got a FaceTime call from a friend. The friend said she couldn't play because she'd been grounded.
"What for?" Maxine asked.
"Talking back," her friend said.
Maxine was bewildered — not just by the punishment, but by the infraction. She knew damn well that, in a head-to-head matchup, she could out-sass just about any of her friends; so what was the big deal?
"Well, the friend asked, "What do your parents do when you talk back?"
"Dad!" Maxine called out, "What do you do when I talk back?”
“I don’t call it talking back," he said. "I call it talking.”
I listened for for the friend's response.
"I love your parents," she said.
Maxine is a typical teenager and has been since she was six. It's honestly difficult to remember a time when she wasn't outspoken and unfiltered in her speech. She has always argued with limits she didn't support, raised her voice when she was angry, slammed her bedroom door from time to time. She went through a long period where she'd point out our failings as soon as she detected them. And if I ever accidentally embarrassed her in public, or hurt her feelings, I could be 100% sure I was going to pay for it with a spiteful dig or well-placed bit of sarcasm.
Once, in my daughter's seventh grade English class, the kids were asked to identify themselves as passive, aggressive or assertive. Most in the class self-identified as passive or assertive. Not Maxine."I'm aggressive," she told her class.
My point is that, as any fly on the wall could plainly see, my daughter has spent most of her childhood talking back to us.
We parents were taught (and, unfortunately, are still being taught) that "talking back" is a sign of disrespect. But true respect doesn't exist in prepackaged politeness. Kids are immature in a lot of things, including their communication. And while some kids really are naturally more passive or assertive, kids like mine can't help but say (and yell) things that would be considered rude, mean or hurtful by adult standards. They deliver their unfiltered emotions to us the way a cat delivers a dead mouse. It's fucking awful, but it can't be helped. Also, it's kind of a compliment: It means they trust us enough to share their truth with us.
We always have to keep in mind: Punishing a child for what is essentially developmentally appropriate behavior, no matter how unpleasant, does more harm to the parent-child relationship than a few shitty words could ever do to our fragile egos.
As writer Gaby Abgulos said in this candymag.com story: "Growing up, my mother wouldn't tell me not to talk back to her because she wanted me to be able to explain my side of the situation. With us both being able to hear each other, we formed a very strong, very close bond."
Now, for the skeptics out there: THIS DOES NOT MEAN PARENTS BECOME DOORMATS.
Forgoing punishment doesn't mean forgoing limits and boundaries altogether. But there are plenty of ways to teach children to communicate with kindness without treating them as "bad" or sending the message that we can't handle their truth.
What to do instead
It might help to picture your child as an immature adult, or an adult who was dealing with a disorder of some sort. If you had a developmentally disabled sister who spoke to you rudely sometimes, would you ground them? If your husband had PTSD and occasionally lost his temper, would you take away his TV time?
No, you'd calmly confront them about their behavior — either in the moment or later on. You'd talk to them like human beings and trust that they were doing the best they could and would continue to do so.
With that in mind, here's my advice:
1. When you see something, say something.
Sometimes kids inch up to the line without crossing it. So when they cross it, you've got to let them know. Be prepared to repeat yourself. Kids need lots of reminders.
You might say: "You are talking in a very unkind way right now." Or: “Whoa, I wonder if I did something to hurt your feelings, because that certainly hurt mine.”
2. Pause, breath, and ask, What does my child need in this moment?
Memorize this one. It's what you do EVERY TIME you are triggered by your child. Just hold your shit together and yell into a towel later. You'll be so proud of yourself.
You might say to yourself: Okay, this is making me really angry. Let me take a beat before I respond. What is this about exactly? What does this kid need from me right now?
3. Look for the hurt you've caused.
Talking rudely is very often revenge for something you've done. It doesn't mean what you did was bad! It just means that it hurt your kid's feelings, which is unavoidable at times. So look for the hurt or insult, and deal with that. Maybe hit the reset button on the whole thing.
You might say: "I'm sorry I can't let you go to that party, babe. I'm just not comfortable with it because...." Or: "I don't think we're talking very nicely to each other. Can we have a do-over?" Or: "I realize I was hounding you about your chores. That's annoying. I'm sorry."
4. Focus on what the child is saying — not how.
It's shocking how fast you can lower a child's blood pressure simply by showing that you actually hear their message and not just their tone and attitude. Listen to them. Really listen. Ask questions. Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings beneath the communication. Reflect back what you hear.
You might reflect back: "You really miss your friends right now. This pandemic is getting really old." Or: "You want to be in charge of your homework and not have us looking over your shoulder all the time." Or: "You really don't want to do chores right now."
5. Let it go — for now.
Remember, letting things go doesn't mean letting them go forever. Sometimes tabling the conversation (or argument) is just what's needed for you both. As soon as tensions begin to fall, you'll be in a much better position to have a more civilized conversation. This also works if you are trying to prevent back-talk before it starts. Say, your child is feeling crunchy, and you are going into a situation where "rudeness" is not going to play well (at a family dinner, for instance), pull your child aside and have a word.
You might say: "We both need to calm down. We can talk about this later." Or: "Okay, I've heard your point of view. Now I need to think about this for a bit. Can we table this until later?" Or: "Hey, I know you're not feeling great about me right now, but please remember it's important to be polite at the dinner table. We can settle this later, but we need to be kind during dinner."
6. Revisit the issue when everyone's calm.
If you do the "let-it-go-for-now" thing, look for an opportunity to revisit the issue after you've both calmed down and moved on. We used to have family meetings every week or so, and every "unsettled problem" would go on a list on the fridge to be brought up at our next meeting. The ultimate goal is to find a win-win solution to the underlying problem.
You might say: "Hey, about your attitude earlier, that seemed really uncalled for..." Or: "Do you think we can talk calmly now about the issue from earlier?"
7. Let kids have the last word.
Because back-talk is often a sign of a power struggle, most tactics you use to get out of power struggles will work here. One of my favorite ways to get out of a power struggle is to let the child have the last word. It takes two to tango, remember. (For more on power struggles, check out my post, How to end power struggles without feeling like the loser.)
You might say: Nothing.
8. Treat door-slamming as the last word.
Door-slamming is ever-so-triggering, and isn't okay, but taking the door off the hinges is a punishment that does zero good. By all means, tell the child door slamming is not allowed, but don't freak out.
You might say: "Close the door without slamming it, please." Or just: "Remember, no door-slamming."
9. Don't let them faze you.
In this article from Lifehacker, Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, offered an excellent tip: Don't let back-talk faze you. “While your children are putting on a drama performance worthy of a Tony award," she said, "your job is to be an unimpressed attendee."
You might: Act like you've heard this a million times.
10. See it as a sign that your kid is ready for more independence.
As Parent coach Meghan Leahy wrote in the Washington Post, when the back-talk ramps up, it may actually mean the child is ready for more independence and control. Although it can seem counterintuitive, power struggles are caused not by kids with too much power, but by kids who don't have enough. Feeling powerless makes kids lash out. Look for opportunities to "loosen the leash," so to speak.
You might ask yourself: What power and responsibility is my kid ready take on? What can I put her in charge of?
Loads of research shows that when children feel truly free to express their negative thoughts and opinions with their parents, they are less likely to go along with peers who experiment with alcohol, drugs or reckless behavior. (I would also add that they're much less likely to lie to you.) But this whole back-talk thing is sabotaging their free expression. We've got to rid our brains of all the very popular and very bad fear-based advice we've been receiving for ages on this subject.
'What is yet to come'
I can tell you from experience that, because we did our best not to shame Maxine when she was rude to us, we often got unsolicited apologies from her. The notes that have been left on my bed or on the bathroom sink over the years are numerous. One of them, written several years ago in nine different colors of marker, says this:
"Dear Mom and Dad... I know I can be really mean and rude sometimes, and I know I will in the future. I want to apologize for what has happened and what is yet to come... I also want to tell you that I know you care about me no matter what I say when I'm mad... Anyway, I just want to tell you how much I love you. You are the best parents I could ever ask for... Goodnight. — Maxine"
I think the biggest misconception of all is that we teach kids to be respectful by punishing disrespectful conduct. Ask any kid, and they'll tell you: Yelling, threatening, shaming, revoking privileges, grounding, punitive timeouts — these are not respectful acts.
If we really want our kids to respect us, we've got to start showing them what it looks like.