Children talking back: disrespectful or a sign of good things to come?

If you had to think of a way of pushing a parent’s buttons, talking back would be a pretty good start. No one tolerates disrespectful children very well. These children are the ones that always push boundaries and have an answer for everything. It just seems so… rude!

But what if talking back wasn’t all bad? What if it wasn’t a display of cheekiness and disrespect towards a frustrated parent? Can we turn our attitudes toward children talking back to parents around?

Experts have now found that talking back is actually good for a child’s development. This behaviour demonstrates that children are standing their ground and exerting control over their lives. They won’t be pushed over. They don’t follow directions blindly and do what everyone else does.

According to clinical psychologist, Kelly M Flanigan, “the inability to say “no” – the inability to set personal boundaries – is one of the most common, insidious causes of human suffering.”

Think of it this way: would you like to see a child to grow into someone that quietly follows the pack, does whatever they’re told, or never pushes back against authority? What if your child didn’t have the backbone to say ‘no’ to an adult in any circumstances? What if other children were bullying your child in the school yard? What if your child was exposed to cigarettes or drugs in their early teens and didn’t have the sense of self to refuse?

You can see how important it is for a child to stand their ground.

The problem is not that a child stands her ground and talks back. The difference between disrespectful children and healthy, appropriate behaviour lies in the way that children talk back.

Is the child disrespecting you? If so, are you telling them what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour? Are you making them take responsibility for their actions? It is also important to look at your behaviour and see if you are setting a good example in the way you communicate, negotiate, and compromise.

The trick is learning how to teach children to exercise a sense of control with good manners and self-awareness.

Do you dislike being challenged?

Sometimes the annoyance we feel when children talk back stems from our own insecurities. For example, a toddler screaming “no” can make us feel guilty that we are doing the wrong thing. Similarly, a 12-year-old announcing that you are “not being fair” can make us feel self-doubt.

It’s also natural for us to compare ourselves to the past generation, in other words, how we were raised as children.

“Back in our day, we would never have spoken in that tone.” Sounds familiar? It is true that disrespectful children could be dealt with quite swiftly – and often harshly – 30 or 40 years ago. Looking back with rose-tinted glasses is all very well, but it may not be a rational argument. If that logic held, we’d still be getting around in a horse and cart!

Control is another reason why parents like to set strict rules about children talking back. For many, at least in the short term, preventing children from talking back is to ensure that they maintain an illusion of control. But it doesn’t always follow through.

Children are independent beings

Children are independent beings, and will demonstrate their own preferences and desires from an early age. The little conflicts, the bad behaviour and the talking back is about them, not you. This behaviour is not a personal slight on you. As they grow up, children tend to set their own agenda and to a certain extent, decide their own path. Children are living their own lives, and it’s up to you to help guide them through it.

If a child learns good negotiation skills, such as unpacking the dishwasher at 4.30 pm instead at 4.00 pm, as you initially requested, this will be beneficial as an adult – when they have to negotiate work hours or settle issues with friends, spouses or work colleagues. Learning to compromise is also important learning for adulthood.

Children talking back - is this direspectful? - Sage Institute of Child CareInstead of closing down a child that is talking back, try teaching her instead to negotiate respectfully. For example, ask her to rephrase her response to a request if it is rude or abrupt. Encourage active negotiation, rather than refusal or obstinacy.

In addition, rather than insisting that a child must do something “just because”, give them some negotiating power. For example, you could say, “you really need to tidy up your room, so would you like to do this before school or after school?”

Give your child a voice that can be used constructively and one that will help develop independence and a greater sense of self, and the rewards will be there for the both of you.

Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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