Putting An End To Back-Talk

Back-talk is much more common now, says Diane Debrovner, Parent magazine senior editor. There is no specific study that tells us how prevalent sarcasm is, but sarcasm is all around our children (TV commercials, cartoons, and one-upmanship on the playground). Kids are starting to sass as early as kindergarten.

So, on Monday's The Early Show, Debrovner offers some parenting advice to stop the bad attitude to co-anchor Rene Syler.

Back-talk becomes more common around age 5 or 6. That's when children start to test out what they hear, pushing the boundaries a little to see what the reaction will be from their parents. Even though they aren't always intending to be rude, parents need to try nip it in the bud and make it clear what types of language (as well as tone and body language) are rude. Though back-talk may make kids seem smart, cute, or witty, you don't want them to start talking that way to their teachers, grandparents or neighbors.

Back-talk is a child's attempt to assert power. As kids get older (8 or 9 and up), they're at an age where they realize that parents aren't always right about everything, and they feel freer to question parents' requests and rules.

Even at this age, they're not always being sassy intentionally. Kids at school say "Whatever" all the time, and when they're mad, back-talk can just pop out of their mouth.

Sometimes, kids don't know how to voice valid questions and opinions without sounding snide. Preteens, in particular, need to be able to challenge their parents so that they can learn how to make their own decisions.

Look for ways to let your children know that you listen to them when they have something to say, and give them choices about things in their lives. But point out rude language and insist that your children rephrase themselves respectfully.

Even younger kids (those who are 3 and 4) can seem like they're talking back to their parents. Preschoolers often start saying "I hate you, Mommy!" or "Go away, you stupid Daddy!" when they're mad about something. Of course, they don't really hate you, but when they have very strong feelings, that's the worst thing they know how to say. So don't get upset. Acknowledge how your children feel. Tell them that it's not nice to be mean to other people. Reiterate what you want your child to do.

What you should not do:
No matter how old your child is, the key to handling back-talk is not to get angry. Sometimes they're being sassy to get a reaction out of you, but even if they're not, yelling just leads to more yelling. Stay calm and don't yell things like: "Don't you dare talk to me that way!" Or "If you keep talking to me in that tone, you'll be sorry."

Instead, acknowledge your child's feelings ("I understand that you're frustrated that you have to take a bath now" Or "I know you wish you made the rules").

Cut the back-talk:
When you're teaching your child that it's not acceptable to be rude, it's easy to teach important character traits, such as respect and compassion.

From a young age, you explain that everyone deserves to be spoken to in a polite, respectful tone, and that it's not nice to be mean or rude to someone. Similarly, just as you teach that it's not nice to hit someone, you can explain that you don't want to say mean things because it can hurt someone's feelings. There's no need to lecture. One sentence will make your point clear. You can start teaching these lessons from a young age, and continue to reiterate them -- not only when your child is rude, but in the course of daily life.

Here are some tips:

  • Point out the rudeness, and ask your child to rephrase it nicely. ("That was rude. We speak to each other with polite, respectful voices in this family. Can you try saying that again in a nicer way?") Depending on how old your child is, you can demonstrate a polite way to say something, and have him copy you. Don't get into a discussion (or power struggle) about who was right. Don't feel bad about pointing out bad behavior, even when you're out in public. Parents encourage back-talk by letting rude remarks slide when their child says it in a public place to avoid making a scene in front of strangers. But ignoring bad or rude behavior tells our kids that they have the green light to continue their back-talk. And if you wait to correct them later, your child might have completely forgotten what they said.
  • Stick to your guns about what you want (clean up floor, get ready for bath, no candy before dinner, etc.)
  • If they continue to be rude, enforce a consequence: take away their TV time, cancel a fun activity, etc.
  • When it's a constant problem, another approach is to tell your children that you will not talk to them until they can talk to you nicely. And then refuse to engage with them and (ideally) leave the room. ("You are being fresh. When you have a respectful attitude, you'll find me in the living room." Or "I don't listen to rude voices. I only listen to nice voices.") If your child continues to provoke you, enforce a consequence.
  • Praise your children when they are polite. Notice respectful language and point it out.
  • Be patient. It can take several weeks and lots of perseverance to cure smart-aleck behavior. However, that doesn't mean it won't become a problem again when your child is older.

Other suggestions:
  • Tape record your child. Sometimes children won't realize how rude they sound until they hear it played back for themselves.
  • When you want something done, use statements rather than questions. If you say "Can you clean your room now?" you can bet the answer will be a sassy "No" or "Why? It'll just get dirty again later." Give directions in a kind but firm voice. This will leave little room for your child to argue with you regarding your request.
  • Be specific about what phrases are rude. Kids may hear "Stupid babies!" on "Rugrats" or "shut up!" in "Toy Story" movie and kids may say "Duh" or "Yeah, right" to their friends. Let them know that those things are not acceptable to say at home. Just like any other set of rules you have in the house such as: don't leave dirty socks on the floor; you can create some etiquette rules.
  • Tell your children that you'll never say yes to a request if they ask impolitely.
  • Most importantly, don't use wisecracks yourself that you don't want your child to copy.

Character Building Traits:
Don't just correct choice of words; instead instill the traits you want your child to possess.
Respect: All people, adults and kids, deserve to be treated with respect; everyone should be spoken to in a polite, caring manner. Tell your children that speaking respectfully to someone else will earn respect from them, too.

Compassion: Point out that when your child's sarcastic comment makes another child cry, it is the result of harsh words. It will teach your child to consider other people's feelings.

Tolerance: You can teach this if your child remarks harshly or negatively about a person of another background or a person with a disability. Besides saying it is not nice to speak about someone in that manner, point out that your child's red hair or green eyes are also different from other kids, to show that everybody is different and, at the same time, special.

Patience: Sassy comments often come from children because, developmentally, they speak before really thinking, so teaching your child to think about the potential impact before saying a negative comment can teach them about the benefits of patience.