Why We Let Our Kids Backtalk

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Chad Baker/Ryan McVay/Getty

On a hike the other day, our almost-eleven-year-old was done. He’d wanted to hike to a certain spot, and his youngest brother (age 6) was bawling that he was too tired to walk any further. I mostly agreed with him. So did his middle brother (age 8). We’d also run low on water and snacks, and there were more people on the trail than we’d expected. So we turned around. Our 11-year-old shouted at my husband from down the trail, “YOU’RE ANNOYING!” and took off. I clenched my jaw before my husband reminded me: we let our kids backtalk.

There are a few very good reasons for this. As a kid, if I had told my parents they were annoying, I’d have been smacked— hard, and more than once. Any backtalk meant major trouble: my parents expected me to be “respectful” at all times, i.e., to keep my mouth shut when I disagreed when them, when I was angry with them, and when I felt that my wishes weren’t being considered. Backtalk could include complaining too much, and I was once severely punished (at around age twelve) for talking under my breath— when my father misheard me muttering about ketchup.

It’s been hard to change my policy on backtalk. But we’ve done it anyway— and it works.

Backtalk Is Normal

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh notes that talking back is normal. As Positive Parenting Solutions says, it’s your child “growing up and gaining independence.” They’re also “testing boundaries.” Backtalk happens, they note, when kids don’t have a sense of personal power: i.e., when they feel powerlessness and a lack of control in their lives. Therefore, they need to exert control, and they do that the only way they can: with their words.

Backtalk is normal, Positive Parenting Solutions says, from a child’s first “No!”, but as we all know, it really kicks in when the tween and teen years hit. Everyone deals with it: parents of girls and boys, parents of teens and toddlers. Since it stems from a kid’s sense of powerlessness, it’s super-common: what kid doesn’t feel powerless sometimes? That’s why we hear it so often when we ask our children to do something: they feel as if they’re being forced, and they want to exert some control.

But It’s Not Just Powerlessness…


It’s often powerlessness coupled with something else. A child who’s been given plenty of autonomy, who feels loved, will still backtalk. When my son yelled that my husband was annoying, he was exhausted, frustrated, hungry, and thirsty. Kind of a recipe for kid meltdown, especially when that kid has ADHD and a temper.

Hangry kids, thirsty kids, and tired kids will talk back more. Period. When they were babies and cried because of hunger, thirst, or exhaustion, we met their need. As parents, we need to meet the need before we can address the behavior. If a kid’s feeling physically bad enough to act out, rational discourse is off the table.

So We Let Backtalk Go— Without Taking It Personally

That means that we let backtalk wash over us— we don’t take it personally. This is hard. From years as a high-school teacher, my husband has a zen-like calm about it. Because of my upbringing (backtalk gets you spanked), backtalk raises my hackles. I have to step back, take a breath, and remember not to snap back or punish my kids.

And damn, it’s hard.

I consider myself a positive parent, and when that little mouth twists up, those eyes narrow, and one of my kids informs me that no, they don’t want to leave the room due to their attitude, I want to yell back. But kids pattern their emotional responses on those of their parents. If I yell back, I teach them not only to respond with anger, but to take backtalk personally. Look at my own behavior patterns: it’s so hard to tolerate a little backtalk because of the way my parents responded to it.

So we take backtalk calmly, without freaking out or yelling back. We set the tone for the interaction: if we want the interaction to be calm, we have to model calm. It’s very, very hard to model calm when your kid’s shouting at you from the head of a hiking trail. But we (mostly) manage it.

But We Don’t Really Let It Go

We let it slide in the moment. But we don’t forget backtalk, and we always circle back to it after the child’s needs have been met. Then we can have a rational conversation. The one about my son yelling at my husband went like this:

“I really didn’t like being called annoying. It’s frustrating and upsetting. We don’t talk to people that way.”

[Hanging head] “I’m so sorry, Daddy. I won’t do it again.”

This only happens if our children haven’t apologized first— which they generally do, once they’re comfortable again. They know they shouldn’t backtalk. They know it’s disrespectful. We know they’re learning emotional regulation, and they’ll only learn it from us, so we stay calm in the moment. But we make sure to point out the behavior later and discuss why it happened, what happened, and that it was unacceptable. We also take some responsibility for it, if there’s responsibility to be taken: for example, my husband told my son that he knew he was hungry and thirsty, and it was our fault for not bringing snacks and more water.

By owning up to our mistakes, we teach our children to own up to theirs. When we apologize, we teach them to apologize. And when we forgive them, we teach them forgiveness. Full stop. By discussing backtalk later, calmly, we teach them to have calm discussions about disagreements: something I never learned as a child.

In The End, I Want My Kid To Backtalk

If backtalk is a sign of burgeoning independence and an attempt to exert control, I want my kids to backtalk. Here’s why: I want to raise children who are strong and independent and willing to assert themselves. I’d much rather have a tween who tells me off than one who (like me) meekly took whatever happened. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I was taught to stay silent, even when my autonomy seemed violated, and that I was a victim of multiple date rapes. No, I’m not blaming my parents for those. But I do blame the pattern of behavior I learned.

Children need to feel a sense of control and autonomy to grow into healthy, independent adults. They need someone to model calm in the face of disagreement, and rational discussion about disagreements. Yes, backtalk is incredibly annoying. But it’s not about you. It’s about control.

When I remember that— when I remember my kids are frustrated, and I’m a convenient target, I’ve found it’s much easier to deal with backtalk the way we want to. So take a deep breath, find your calm, and let it roll off your back. Talk about the backtalk later. Don’t let it stand, but don’t try to have a rational discussion with an irrational child.

You’ll find that the respect you hand out is returned. And like my kids, yours will probably apologize before you have a chance to talk about it.

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