Friday, September 04, 2009

More About Back Talk

I mentioned in my post the other day that we don't consider angry or defiant words from our kids "back talk" in the sense that the term was used when I was growing up. When I was a child, it simply wasn't acceptable for a child to express such sentiments (such as "No." or "I'm mad at you.") to an adult, because of the way adult-child relationships worked in my family.

I thought I'd get a little more specific about how I have handled "back talk" situations around here. It's hard, because I tend to "Back Talk Back" as the PD Tool Card wisely advises against.

Let's take a somewhat common scenario with my kids. It's time to go somewhere, usually because one child has an activity we need to get to, and we need to be there at a certain time. Sometimes, despite my best efforts to adequately prepare the kids for the fact that we need to load up in the car within a certain time frame--in other words, despite my "perfect" parenting!--one of them will respond to my "Okay, everyone, it's time to get in the car!" with a "NO. I'm not going."

ARGH. Especially when I have been calm in my manner and have been more than fair in terms of meeting everyone's needs (one last round of a game, or a quick snack, etc.), that just makes me MAD. And when that "No, I will NOT." is delivered in a rude tone of voice, that just makes me madder.

Now, since I'm trying to be completely honest about my parenting successes and foibles, I must confess that I have (often) let this get to me and snapped back something in a mean voice like "I told you we needed to go! Get in the car!" [That would be the Back Talking Back.] You know? Now that I think about it--so much of better parenting is in the tone of your voice.

Anyway, my saying "WE NEED TO GO, GET IN THE CAR!" loudly, while not how I prefer to communicate with my kids, is a step in the right direction away from "Don't back talk me!" or "You'll do as I say because I said so!" But I can still do better.

When I'm really in the positive parenting communication zone, here are some things I might say (and have said) to the child instead of shouting in a mean voice:

  • "It sounds like you don't want to go and I'm sorry about that. But it's time to go now. Can you walk to the car or do you need me to carry you?"
  • "What's a kinder way to tell me what you're feeling?"
  • "I've explained the plan lots of times now and I feel frustrated about repeating myself. I'm all done talking about this right now."
  • "Would you like another chance to say that? Because I feel pretty mad."
  • Or, I could act without words (another PD Tool Card I haven't reviewed yet) and take the child gently by the hand or carry her to the car.

Yes. These situations-formerly-known-as-"back talk" are super irritating, but they are also wonderful opportunities to reiterate the principle of kind communication. (Especially when I'm able to model that myself!) They give me opportunities to express my emotions in an appropriate way, and the child can see the real-time effect his hurtful words have on someone he loves. I do this not in an "I'm going to teach him a lesson" kind of way, but in a "rational human interaction" kind of way, if you get the distinction.

I've recently hit on another way to explain why "kind communication" is not only important to the people you're talking to, but is also consistent with the child's (or anyone's) rational self-interest. I must admit that I think I'm pretty clever for having thought of this explanation, particularly because it really struck home and things have improved! :o)

Ryan. Oh my boy Ryan. He has many wonderfully endearing qualities and strengths. I have had dozens of comments from complete strangers who observe him or talk to him and say things like "He is such an interesting kid. I wonder what he'll do in his life!" And I agree. He is an interesting and creative child. I love him to the moon and back.

But, Ryan. Oh my boy Ryan. He can be pretty mean when he wants to, and he crosses the line more than he should, and upsets Morgan or his friends or even me. I dislike it when he speaks so unkindly, not just because I don't like such things said to me or others I care about, but because I can see how such words and tone will cause him harm in the long run. I don't think he truly wants to alienate his friends by bossing them to death or using an unkind tone of voice, but he simply doesn't understand why it matters. Not yet--he's getting there, and he will get there. Anyway, my intent of course, is not to rag on my seven year old, but to provide you with a bit of background knowledge for context.

One night on our vacation, Ryan was arguing and speaking pretty unkindly to me about something. I think we were trying to settle them down to bed or something. Anyway, I looked at him and said something like, "The way you're speaking to me makes me mad. I don't like it." But that didn't really faze him too much, as I believe his intent was to make me mad. Mission accomplished, yes?

And then I said, "You know how we trade in our family? How we trade work for work? Like when you need me to do something and I ask you to watch Sean while I do that for you?" And he nodded. "That's a good way for us to do things, isn't it? Because we are each getting something we want, and we are helping each other out at the same time. Right?" More nods.

"Well, the thing is, Ryan, we need to trade when we speak to each other, too. We need to trade kindness for kindness. And if you are expecting me to do something for you, then you need to offer me some kindness first, because that's your part of the trade. Or if you are glad that I did something for you, then you can offer kindness by saying 'Thank you.' You don't like it if you ask something nicely and I say "NO!" in a mean way. Because you offered kindness as your part of the trade but got meanness instead. And that's not fair, is it? And that works both ways. Does that make sense?"

AND. IT. DID. What I said to him penetrated into his head that night. He really got it. In a way, it's the Trader Principle applied to communication and relationships.

Since that evening about a week ago, Ryan has made a noticeable effort to speak kindly to me and everyone else in the family. He is thanking us more consistently. He is saying things like "Well, I don't really like that at all, but since you asked me to wait, I guess I ought to wait patiently." and "I'm feeling like yelling right now, but instead I'm going to just ask you to hurry up please, Mom." :o)

Now I'm not saying this strategy is going to help every child see the point of kind communication. Nor am I saying that Ryan has been a perfectly kind communicator in the last week (he had a big blow up this evening, as a matter of fact). But hey--it's an idea! If it helps one of your kids, I'd love to know about it!

I think if I had been focused on the idea that children shouldn't speak to grownups in a certain way, I would have missed this opportunity to get through to him on this issue. If I had been focused on Back Talk and how "no child of mine is going to speak to ME that way," I would have also become focused merely on somehow getting the child to stop that behavior--at least towards me. I'm not sure I would have been focused on helping him learn better ways to talk to others--especially if I had had the wrong idea that there are supposed to be different standards for the ways in which children should speak to adults than the ways in which they are permitted to speak to other children.

So I'm glad that I'm (mostly) successful in reframing "back talk" as "rude communication" and focusing on problem-solving the latter.


fred said...

Hi Jenn,

I have been reading your blog for a while and I joined OGrownups (still lurking) based mostly on your writing here.

This post really opened my eyes to the possible constructive lesson when dealing with "back talk".

Your application of the Trader Principal to communicational kindness was the most explicit and sound reasoning I have ever heard for being polite.

Thanks and keep up the good work.


Kelly Elmore said...

I'm glad it's working, Jenn. I have one concern, and I want your opinion on it. Some of the trades we make in relationships aren't immediate. Sometimes a family member should help you with the baby, not because you are doing something for him right then, but because you do stuff for him all the time. Same with kindness. Sometimes we can be patient with our siblings or our spouses or our children, even when they have been a little rude to us, because of the love and kindness they have shown us over time. Is there a way for this to be a part of the trading system.

We know a person who decides what his behavior to a friend will be based on what that friend does right that second (and it hasn't served him well), and I want Ryan (and Livy and Morgan and Sean) to learn that we keep the whole context of a person's kindness and helping in mind when making a trade.

What do you think?

Rational Jenn said...

Thanks, Chris! And welcome!

Kelly, you have a good point. I think for the purposes of that discussion and introducing the Trader Principle as it applies to relationships, that focusing on an immediate exchange helped him see the point.

But that's merely a jumping off point. Now that he understands WHY it's important to be kind, I can continue to expand on this theme, and help him see it in a bigger context, where the pay off is less immediate.

For now, (and it's only been a week!) I'm reiterating this idea as it comes up, to help him grasp different instances of the same concept. I'll try to think of ways to point out instances to him that are less immediate, and probably less obvious to him.

As you know, this is something that does not come naturally to him! :o) And if you have any ideas of how and when I can continue to help him understand this, please let me know! Because I do not want him to be like that other person--and I don't think he will want that either (at least I hope not!).

Mike N said...

Great post Jenn. I really like that application of the trader principle. As a grandpa of 4 kids under the age of 4.5, with the fifth due in less than a month, I may be able to use it or at least communicate it to their parents.

kate said...

Ahhh... Thank you! This is practical, and the tie in with the Trader Principle is inspired!

Very helpful, and I will be using your explanation, likely in the very near future!

Wendy Hawksley said...

The "NO! I'm not going!" drives me nuts. And I only have ONE child and NO car (overseas, it is easier to walk everywhere; plus, the public transportation is phenomenal).

I get mad too, especially if I've been good about meeting his needs, calm, etc. Everything you said! And, yup, I've back-talked back.

So after reading your entire post, I like the "trading kindness for kindness" concept.

When we admonish our son to be nice/polite to us, I always remind myself that it goes both ways, and I say as much to him too - that he has a right to expect us to treat him politely, kindly and respectfully, just as we want him to treat us.

I'm so glad you are writing these posts, because they are great reminders to stick with this parenting principle! Thank you.

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Amy said...

Yes! I don't think the concept of back talk is really helpful at all. It is full of connotations that the child must obey. And the Trader Principle is a perfect way to explain the selfish reason for practicing kindness. My daughter is a bit young for that explanation, but it will be in my subconscious ready and waiting. Thanks!