Eventually all kids — even the most well-behaved and respectful children on the planet — will one day open up their mouths and a total load of sassy, rude, disrespectful back talk will come flying out. It happens at every age and stage of childhood, kids who react abhorrently (and speak in that same way) without thinking for one second who they are actually talking to, and that is precisely the problem. But we’ll get back to that in a second.
My husband and I handled the waves of disrespectful back talk as best as we could — swiftly nipping it in the bud with statements like, “You cannot talk to me, your own mother, in that way,” and “That isn’t how we speak to people,” and “You need to learn to respect your mother and father.” It seemed to work for a bit, but then it would make a return, and we would be left thinking, “What kind of awful children are we raising? It’s like they don’t even see us as people.”
Because they didn’t, and that was precisely the problem.
When reacting to this kind of misbehavior, my husband and I always referred to ourselves as “Mom and Dad.” In a way, we were reducing ourselves to simply being a specific “role.” I was the “mom” you couldn’t talk to like that, and he was the “dad.” Lost in all of this was the fact we were, and are, much more than the role we play in the lives of our children.
But we were letting that fact be forgotten, and even reinforcing it to our children by constantly talking about ourselves in role-speak only. Of course, mother and father roles are the most important roles you will ever play in your life, but to a child? To their immature minds it just means you provide shelter, dinner, clean clothes, rides to school and baseball practice, and all that other stuff that “moms” and “dads” just do. Not only have your children probably never really seen you in a role as anything else, there’s a great chance they don’t even realize that way before being their mom, you were still a whole person.
So, we decided to try something new, and things instantly started to change.
The very next time one of my children snapped back at me in a disrespectful and rude manner, my husband stepped in and firmly said, “You cannot talk to my wife like that.”
It was almost as if I could see the flicker of “Huh?” blazing out of my kids’ brains.
Wait, she’s someone’s wife? But that’s my mom! The lady who knows I like the crust off my sandwiches and can always find my lost socks. How is she someone’s wife, and what does that even mean?
But they actually did know what that meant, and as the words “You cannot talk to my wife like that” washed over their befuddled faces, I knew in that second that I had instantly become more human to them. And that fact alone meant I not only demanded more respect, I also deserved it. I was something other than a mom. I was someone’s most important everything in the world. I had feelings and emotions and wants and needs beyond planning what was for dinner, finding lost socks, or bringing cupcakes to school parties. I was capable of having feelings of sadness and hurt, and most importantly, I was capable of being bullied, even by my own kids.
Once that fact had a chance to set in — that a child was capable of inadvertently bullying their own mom — and that moms aren’t made of Teflon or immune to hurt, they finally understood. They understood I was an actual person made up of the same stuff they were, and nobody wants to be talked to like that.
We have continued to suppress back talk with the same type of responses for years now, and I respond to the kids’ mistreatment of their father in the same manner, and it has led to our children growing into young adults who are empathetic and compassionate. They’ve come to realize that below the surface of teachers, coaches, waitresses, and every other adult they encounter and have interactions with, there are actual people, and those people are simply not just roles and jobs. They are humans who are loved and cherished by other people, and we are called to love them in the very same way.
So the next time your child responds hurtfully to you and your husband, or friend or sister or anyone else is in earshot, have them stand up for you. Change the “You can’t talk to your mom like that” into “You can’t talk to my wife/friend/sister like that,” and then watch as you magically turn into a real person right before their eyes. A real person who deserves their respect. It’s a simple, powerful step.