Little Kids, Big Mouths

The labor of love called parenting can be difficult  — even when your child is compliant and adoring. But when your simple requests or innocent remarks are met with sassy retorts, sullen silences, even eye rolling or shoulder shrugging, you can feel angry and discouraged or find yourself caught up in an argument neither of you will win.

Given the consequences, what compels kids as young as 3 to be insolent? Often they do it to get attention, to test their skills at arguing, or to try to dominate their parents, friends, or teachers. Being able to use words to make other people angry, or even sad, can give youngsters a sense of power.

But not all rude behavior should be considered an act of defiance. Kids, like adults, expend a lot of emotional energy being well-mannered to people in the outside world  — be it at school or at daycare. Parents should be aware that little ones are more likely to lose their composure at home, where they feel safer, than they are in other places.

Besides, children are bound to be disappointed when their wants clash with parental rules and authority, and you should expect  — and allow  — a certain amount of whining and grumbling when you’re telling a child to do something or enforcing limits: “Awwh, do I have to?” “No fair.” “I did it last time.” “I never get to stay up late.”

You can view such comments as harmless background noise and either ignore them or, if you feel you must respond, simply paraphrase what your child is feeling, while restating your own request. “I hear that you wish you didn’t have to do chores, and the garbage still needs to be taken out.”

Curbing Sassiness

But serious insolence (“You are so stupid!”) should not be overlooked. The following strategies can minimize the tendency toward back talk.

Do Unto Others

Many of us forget the obvious  — that kids are more likely to show respect when you treat them, and other people, in a respectful manner. And if you constantly put yourself down or disparage your partner, kids, or friends, you teach your children that it’s okay to wound others with hurtful words.

Even infants observe their parents and mimic what they see. As soon as your baby starts to speak, teach him to say “please,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “excuse me.” Try to frame your desires  — for your child to put his toys away, for instance  — as requests, not demands. And when he carries them out, don’t forget to acknowledge it, which helps him feel valued.

To teach little ones the difference between respectful and disrespectful speech, you can cite examples of each made by other kids. Another idea: Show how tone of voice and inflection can turn even the most neutral phrase  — such as “That sure made a lot of sense”  — into a put-down.

One of the most effective ways to shape a child’s behavior is to give him positive reinforcement whenever he speaks or acts the way you’d like him to. Praise him for paying a compliment, listening respectfully, or having a polite conversation with you. And when he’s made a concerted effort to control his language or behavior in a difficult situation, tell him how much you appreciate it by saying, for instance, “I know you’re disappointed that we have to leave. Thanks for cooperating without a fuss. Now we’ll have time to stop for some pizza.”

Allow Kids to Vent

Children who don’t feel free to express their views may talk back in order to feel less controlled. Don’t confuse insolence with your child’s healthy willingness to state her own opinion or to honestly express her wants and needs. Be tolerant of such statements as “You didn’t keep your promise” or “I hate green beans.”

When you insist on an overly broad definition of back talk  — one that prevents children from ever disagreeing with adults  — your end result may be an extremely well-behaved child, but one who’s probably stifling her emotions, wants, and needs. Instead, encourage her to assert herself appropriately by conveying what she feels.

Limit Cultural Influences

Unfortunately, popular culture plays a powerful role in promoting back talk among children. Sitcoms make pint-size smart alecks into celebrities, whose one-liners are met with enthusiastic laughter from the audience. And talk-show guests routinely take rudeness to ever higher levels now seem to be a permanent part of TV and radio.

So although it’s tempting to use television as a babysitter or to switch on the radio in the car, either limit your child’s viewing and listening time or monitor what he sees and hears. If you can’t watch an entire TV show with your child, at least poke your head in from time to time or watch the program together for 15 minutes. Explain that put-downs and sarcasm can be hurtful, and stress that you don’t want to hear such language at home.

Ways to Handle Rude Retorts

If despite your best efforts your child still answers back sarcastically  — or gives you the silent treatment  — here’s how to remedy the problem.

Act Fast

Don’t let your child benefit from an insolent remark: Give a clear and immediate message that her words and tone were unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. Don’t allow her to intimidate you with back talk; it will only escalate if she gets her own way by using it.

Explain as objectively as you can that in your family, everyone is treated with respect. Don’t overreact, and be sure to condemn the rude language, not the child. Offer your child the face-saving option of starting over in a calm voice. Sometimes you can instantly defuse a tense situation with humor  — for example, by saying in a light, teasing tone, “Did you really mean to say that?” When your child starts the conversation over, thank her for cooperating and speaking respectfully.

Acknowledge Everybody’s Feelings

Kids often lash out when they’re angry, frustrated, disappointed, or feeling unlovable. Luckily these intense emotions don’t last very long, so although it’s difficult, don’t take verbal outbursts personally.

Instead, try to isolate the hurt or anger behind your child’s words and help increase his awareness of his feelings. One way to do this is to use the word “and” (which links two equal ideas) instead of “but” (which tends to negate what precedes it). For example: “I hear that you don’t want to stop playing right now, and I’m afraid it’s time to get ready for bed.” You can also encourage your child to express his negative emotions more appropriately by asking him to think about what might really be troubling him.

Explain that disrespectful language makes a person feel attacked, angry, and hurt. Calmly describe the effect that your child’s words have had on you. Even a child as young as 3 can understand when you tell him he’s hurt your feelings.

Enforce the Penalty

One of the most effective ways to curb rude behavior is to promptly impose a consequence for it. The goal is to teach your child that if she doesn’t respect others (especially grown-ups) and cooperate with them, they won’t be receptive to helping her get what she wants.

An ideal consequence for insolence is the immediate loss of a privilege. For instance, if your 5-year-old repeatedly answers with a sarcastic “Duh!” to everything you’ve said while you’re both playing Candy Land, you can tell her, “I’m too upset by your behavior to play anymore. You’ll have to find something else to do.”

Other penalties you might choose are a loss of TV time, adding extra jobs and chores, and not allowing friends over. Before enforcing one, however, be sure to give your child the option of picking the consequence: “You can apologize and do what I asked, or you can stay home and miss the movie this afternoon.” That way she gets the power she so desires.

For preschoolers, a time-out  — which allows everyone to calm down  — can be a suitable alternative. After tempers have cooled, talk with your little one about her feelings.

But don’t issue vague warnings when dealing with back talk (“If you say that again, you’re really going to be sorry” or “This is the last time I’m warning you about your mouth”). Empty threats only serve to give kids more control and thus will reinforce the habit.

Yet it’s also important that you don’t impose too harsh a punishment on your child, since that may breed resentment. While back talk certainly is annoying, it isn’t dangerous, and it shouldn’t require drastic measures, such as refusing to drive your 6-year-old to soccer because she was sassy while you were getting ready to go.

Step Back

Children often try back talk to draw you into a power struggle so they can feel more in control. Answering defensively or in anger will only make things worse: It takes two to perpetuate a power struggle, so disengage.

It took me years to learn this. When any of my five children were insolent, my stock response was “Don’t talk to me that way.” One day, though, my daughter (who was 12 at the time) talked back and I said nothing  — though, to be honest, it was simply because I didn’t have the energy to confront her. A few minutes later, she apologized on her own, admitting that problems she was having at school were the real reason for her hostility. I came to her support, demonstrating to her that we were on the same team.

So instead of responding angrily, you can say, “You seem to like to argue and complain, but I won’t play that game.” When tempers have cooled, talk to your child calmly about the source of his angry feelings and ask him to suggest ways he could better express them.

Back talk becomes harmful when it creates such a negative atmosphere that you find your relationship with your child eroding. Disengaging from the power struggle, setting a good example, letting kids vent  — all these strategies can replace sarcastic put-downs with healthier ways to communicate, ways that strengthen the bonds for everyone in the family.