Talking back: What parents can do to relate to their kid's protests

Parents often see talking back from kids as rude, but are they responding to their potential lack of respect for their kids?

Mike Lawrence/The Gleaner/AP/FILE
From right, Levi Smith, Landon Smith, Easton McGill and Emily Smith, all from Corydon, Ky., throw candy to kids during the Corydon Happy Days festival parade in Corydon in this undated photo.

“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 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 the back of our minds, perhaps triggering old emotional scars and provoking ineffective, yet familiar, reactions.

I asked parents for “talking back” behaviors. Most were in response to a child being asked to do something by the parent. A few familiar responses:

  • “Hold on a minute” or “I know.” 
  • “That’s not fair” or “But why…?
  • “You are kidding me, right?
  • “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.”
  • Eye-rolling
  • Door slamming

Do we expect our children to give us a “yes ma’am” when we tell them to do something they don’t want to do? Is it really not OK for them to say, “No” or “It’s not fair” or even “But why…” in response? 

What do we expect them to be prepared for, when peers might offer anything from simple favors to drugs and alcohol or even sex when they ask our teens to do something. Is this another double standard? 

Perceiving any behavior as talking back can provoke emotions of anger and thus controlling, angry reactions from parents – yelling, punishment, and ineffective consequences. Which in turn can result in more talking back.

One mother reported that it is talking back when she says to her child, “Don’t talk to me that way,” and he says back, “Don’t you talk to me that way.”

Parents typically don’t judge their own behavior as rude or disrespectful. This phrase when delivered from a 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 with 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, “You’re not the boss of me” portends a power-hungry dictator. Play-acting the role of big mean boss as your child described can lead to laughter and silliness, while a lesson on real dictators in response 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 they are doing what you ask, allow the steam to escape while it’s being done. If they are in the middle of something, ask them 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. Phrases like “What if I don’t?” and “I don’t have to” or “You hate me” are experiments. Questions that could mean, “Will you love me no matter what?” might be from a child who doesn’t feel unconditionally accepted.

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.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Bonnie Harris blogs at

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