When your kids are talking back, “mouthing” or otherwise arguing when you give them instructions to do something – do you ignore it or address it?
I have to admit, I’m the pick-your-battles type of mom, and there have been many times I’ve simply walked away from a back-talking child in an attempt to diffuse the drama.
But one thing I’m finding lately is that by NOT addressing it, I’m also dismissing the disrespectful nature of it.
I’ve realized that if I want to raise respectful kids, I need to not only model respectful behavior, but also teach them how to express their opinions – and disagreements – in a way that honors God.
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What talking back really is, and what it isn’t
I think it’s important to clarify what “talking back” means, because I’ve seen some experts suggest recently that there’s really nothing wrong with it.
It’s just asserting your preference, enforcing your own boundaries. It’s the stuff natural leaders are made of!
I have to disagree and point out that we’re not comparing apples to apples here.
While some kids seem to be more naturally passionate “debaters” than others, let’s not use a strong personality to excuse bad behavior.
Any child that we hope to be a good leader will have to learn discernment between letting his voice be heard when it counts – and knowing when to simply submit to the authority figures in his life – and ultimately to God.
It’s not having an opinion that’s the problem; it’s how we choose to assert it (and when).
So maybe we can partially blame it on social media or the Girl Power culture or the Disney channel for glorifying “sass” as something that’s witty or cute.
But when we evaluate it a little more, we can see this behavior for what it really is: defiance and disobedience.
It’s that pesky sin nature that we all struggle with. And we have a duty as parents to correct the behaviors that result from it.
With that said, here are a few ways to address back talk by reinforcing what Scripture teaches about our words, actions and attitudes.
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Remain calm but firm
So here’s an example: You ask your tween to unload the dishwasher and she promptly responds with, “But I’m tired!! Why don’t YOU do it?” or some other snarky remark.
(Tweens can be hormonal and snarky at times! It happens.)
Staying calm – and in control – is pretty much the #1 thing I have to remember when addressing any type of misbehavior with my kids. “I am the adult; they are not.”
If we expect our children to learn to be respectful, we have to control our own emotions and our words.
It’s really a matter of learning to operate out of our heads, and not our feelings. It’s choosing to respond instead of just reacting.
And sometimes it’s much worse than just argumentative back talk.
Our kids can hurl insults, throw our mistakes in our faces and even try to humiliate us in an effort to manipulate the outcome of certain situations.
One tip I learned from the book (and video series) Have a New Kid by Friday was not to just ignore the rude remarks from my kids, but to teach them empathy and also model how to appropriately express feelings.
For instance, you can say, “That was really hurtful and I’m very upset by what you just said.” And THEN very purposefully, walk away.
Do not engage in an argument or worse, a shouting match. Do not allow them to gain power over you in this way.
Let natural consequences teach the lesson (whenever possible)
Let them deal with the realization that their words matter.
It might be one of the most powerful natural consequences a child can experience, especially when this becomes our pattern of response.
A pertinent Bible passage that addresses controlling our emotions is James 1:19-20, which states:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Showing restraint from lashing out in anger is important in teaching our kids what righteous behavior looks like when faced with insulting/disrespectful behavior.
Because that’s over-arching goal, right?
Not just to end this one negative behavior…not just to teach respect or empathy or any number of character traits (although we want that too)…but that these traits we’re enforcing will produce in our kids a desire to do what’s right.
We want our kids to do what’s right simply because it’s the right thing to do, and it pleases God.
So after walking away from a back-talking child, give them some time to think about their actions.
Read Next: 5 Tips for Raising Responsible Kids
Should you ask for an apology for back talk?
Some may disagree, but I don’t think it’s helpful at all to demand an apology for back talk.
I am sure I’ve done this before, and I know my husband has demanded the kids apologize to me a few times.
Here’s the thing: an apology that has to be solicited is never sincere! Especially in the heat of the moment.
Kids will apologize just to “get it over with” but I don’t think that action necessarily means anything when it’s coerced.
How to know if you’ve addressed the issue
At this point it’s up to you as a parent to decide if you want to press the issue further.
You may choose to enforce a specific consequence for talking back after you’ve walked away and given some cool-off time for both you and your child.
I tend to wait until I can gauge if my child seems repentant or not.
You might be surprised by this, but 9 times out of 10, if I just walk away and don’t talk to them for a while, don’t try to re-engage — they will come to me and apologize on their own.
Sounds too simple to be true, right? It has taken a lot of practice to get to that point.
But I can tell you that any time I lose my cool and respond in anger- they typically won’t be coming to me to apologize later. And then, of course, we’re both at fault!
If they do not seem sorry at all for their behavior, I think it’s good to discuss the incident again after the cool-off period. Talk about the impact of our words. Point to scripture about the “power of the tongue” and submitting to the authority of our parents and to God.
The deeper root
In these moments, my kids will often confess the real root of their defiance (especially if I take time to dig). Sometimes it has little to do with whatever I asked them to do and more to do with other feelings or thoughts they didn’t appropriately express at the time.
And when they can finally glimpse this insight into their own behavior, this is what lays the foundation for wiser choices in future words and actions.
A few more tips on diffusing back talk
Hopefully the above points give you an idea of why it’s important to address “talking back” instead of just ignoring it like I have done far too often!
Practical things to remember – to help to decrease defiant behavior in general:
- When giving kids chores such as cleaning their bedroom, consider giving them a timeframe rather than “right now”.
- As adults, we would rarely ask an employee or a friend to go and complete something right now unless there was some emergency.
- Telling them the room needs to be cleaned before dinner or bedtime is usually sufficient.
- If they don’t complete the task, simply enforce an appropriate consequence. Less tech time, no tech time…or better yet, let them do one of your regular cleaning tasks in addition to cleaning their room the next day.
- It’s most effective if the punishment relates to the crime in some way!
- Make sure you have times during the day for positive, intentional connection with your child.
- Kids will seek attention in negative ways if their emotional tank isn’t being filled by the time, attention and love they need.
- Keep in mind, depending on what’s been going on in their day, these needs might be greater on some days than others.
- If our main interaction with them is reminding them of chores and lists of instructions…they are going to go on the defense because they also need a balance of down time, FUN and positive interaction with you!
(Just speaking from experience here, because I’m a do-er and I have to be really intentional about the relational side of family life especially after a busy, disconnected day.)
- Pay attention to your own words and attitudes toward others (not just your children). PRAY for wisdom in this matter.
- Respectful behavior and language is caught more than it’s taught!
- Kids hear everything– whether we’re on the phone, driving in the car…they are forming their values and ideas of what is appropriate by what they hear from us.
- I have to remember that I need to be appropriately submissive to my husband, authority figures and to God, if I want my kids to learn and value that behavior. (It’s a two-way street.)