When They Learn to Talk Back

backTalkingBoyby Neil Anderson, TCS Head of School

I remember being anxious for my first child to talk back to me. I began talking to her in-utero, carrying on endless one-sided conversations throughout her first years of life. When her speech became fluid, those first few years of two-sided conversation were everything I hoped they would be—blessed.

Now I have multiple children that can talk back to me and conversations with them are my favorite conversations in the world. But… they have also acquired the skill of back talk, which is something altogether different. I assume they learned it from your children…

Back talk is a phenomenon displayed in children upon their realization that something other than pure acquiescence is an option for them. They tip-toe into this option, cautiously at first, testing the waters with a cute smirk that says, “I’m just kidding, I really still respect you.” And if their early back talk flirtations are not met with the anticipated parental wrathful-eye, they walk confidently through this door at a young age. Now here we are, with nine-year-old fluent back talkers. How did this happened, and what are we to do?

Step one: Realize that you, too, possess this skill. You began to work on the craft when you were nine and you actually still use it. Your children are a product of you and your spouse. They are imitators of you, for better or for worse. They are not just following your exemplary moral behavior—they are being discipled in all your ways. You probably back talk your heavenly Father at times (in word and deed). You speak poorly to your spouse and to the store clerk who is not meeting your needs, and maybe you still back talk your earthly parents from time to time. Realizing that you have taught your child this behavior is a great first step in dealing with it.

Step two: Care about back talk for the right reasons. We are not the football coach that demands a boisterous “Yes, sir!” because “You’ll respect me or you’ll empty out your locker!” Having our children’s respect is not about having efficient chore minions or simply the pleasantness of unchallenged authority. If the offense of their disrespect ends at us, our discipline will be an unfruitful enterprise. This sort of discipline would be illogical and untenable ultimately because of step one above. We train our children to respect us, obey us, speak submissively to us, because we desperately want them to learn to fear the Lord. We want respect, submission, and suppression of personal autonomy to be familiar for them as they come to terms with their relationship with Jesus.

Step three: Rein it in. This issue is on my mind from personal experiences in my home, from my dealings with students on a daily basis at TCS, and from some recent conversations with some of you. The issue is trending, if you will. I happened to be around a couple TCS students over spring break that showed an unusual amount of respect for their parents. The main thing that struck me is how instinctively they said “yes,sir/yes, ma’am” to adults (many of you know I am a big fan of this southern tradition). This is something we disciplined into our children early and haven’t been so firm on as of late.

I believe it is good for the community to challenge each other in this regard. Not in a parental comparison sort of way, but as a healthy instigation to each other. The reality is, much of the back talk we are experiencing in our older students is stemming from the need to “rein it in.” We’ve just gotten sloppy with our expectations. It can be tiresome to remain firm in our discipline.

Not only is it tiresome, but we are enjoying how our children are maturing and, if you are like me, we enjoy witty banter, teasing, and more mature talk back and forth with our older children. This is healthy and necessary, but not at the expense of blurred lines and carelessness in our children’s habits of respect.

I realize these bad habits can grow slowly and subtly. There is one aspect of this I want to put on your radar (this is especially important for dads). Commonly, children will grow in their back-talk freedoms with mom in ways that they won’t with dad. In so many of our TCS scenarios, mom is schooling most of the day and dad is at work. Slow and subtle habits are growing in ways that dad might not realize and would be appalled to know. I don’t know about you, but I back talked my mom in ways I never would have dared to with my dad. This is an area you should check in on with your spouse and follow up on with your kids. There are implications from this that translate into the classroom as well.

Rein it in, mindful of steps one and two. Disrespect and the perceived glory of personal autonomy are enemies of a thriving relationship with Jesus. Don’t allow your children to talk back to you or any other authority figure. If it has gotten out of control in your home, work to rein it in through steady expectations, consistent consequences, and a regular pointing to Jesus as the reason.

Realize that I am speak formulaically, because I know we all like a good list. But we are tending a garden, not working an assembly line. So just make sure you are watering the discipline plant and pulling the smart-aleck weeds.