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Back Talk - When Is It Okay?

Updated: May 12, 2019

Author: Sandra Macke-Piper, MSC | CPA | PLPC

On the way to school one morning my 7-year-old asked me, “Mommy. Do I talk back to you?” It was a rather abrupt change of subject since moments before he was talking about what toys he wanted for Christmas. I took a moment to answer him. “Sometimes”, I said. “But sometimes talking back is good. You should be able to talk back to me. It just depends on how you do it.” He responded by asking if I could train his dad’s girlfriend to be more like me because she won’t let him talk back at all.

Now before I commence with the rest of the story, allow me to tell you his dad’s girlfriend is not a bad person—at all. Part of the difficulty in her relationship with my son is likely related to inexperience--she does not have children. And, to be fair, there are times when my son pushes her buttons. That said, what about back talk? Is it ever okay?

As it turns out, just that morning I encouraged my son to talk back to me. He is a picky eater and I got him a breakfast he likes. With ADHD and no medication on board yet, I have to remind him every 15 seconds to eat. Leaving him at the dining room table I trekked downstairs to get some laundry. When I came up, he was not where I left him and there was still food sitting on his plate. I found him in my bedroom, burrowed underneath the covers. Walking over to the bed, I told him to go finish his food. He left the room, presumably to finish eating. However, a minute later he was back under the covers. I looked at him and asked him if he finished. He said yes. “Did you eat the whole thing?” I asked. He paused and then said, “Yes”. I probed again. “Are you sure?” He paused--again. Like any parent who has had a child lie to get out of trouble, the pause gave me pause. Thus I went and looked at the table and then in the trash where I discovered the crime of un-eaten food.

Walking back to the bedroom, I grounded my child from television for the day for lying. Then I said, “Why didn’t you eat it all?” He said, “Because the egg was gone and I don’t like just bread and cheese.” At that point we had a discussion about the importance of telling the truth. But I like to take moments like these one step further. “What could you have done differently so you wouldn’t have gotten in trouble?” I asked. He said he could have eaten the food. “What else?” I prompted. He couldn’t come up with anything. “Well what if you had gone back, finished the part with the egg, and then told me you didn’t want anymore because you didn’t like just the cheese and bread?” He nodded his head. I followed up with, “Would I have made you eat it anyway?” He said no. And he was right.

So when he asked me about back talk, I reminded him of our morning and how sometimes it is good to talk back because parents do not always have all of the information they need in order to make the best decision. It is important to me that my son have a voice; that he learn to speak up for himself and that it is okay to let me know when I am wrong. He needs to acquire the valuable skill of negotiating. Doing it with me is the safest way to learn this very important ability. The key is to do it respectfully. Keep his tone of voice respectful as well as the words he uses.

Since I am not all-knowing, I am going to make mistakes with my kids. Periodically I remind them that I am not perfect and will make errors in judgement when parenting them. But we are in a relationship. We have a what I hope is a life-long bond. It is okay if my children challenge me sometimes. I want them to talk back, negotiate, engage in conversation as we navigate our relationships and our lives together and separately.

Sometimes talking back is good, essential even. Just no sass (as my grandma would say).

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