Tuesday, September 01, 2009

PD Tool Card: Back Talk

I'm glad to see a card for Back Talk in the Positive Discipline Tool Card set. This is a topic I've had in mind to address for a while now. First, I'll share the card with you, and then I'll give my personal take on the whole issue of "back talk."

From the tool card (emphasis in original--will try to scan it later and update this post with the image):

"Don't back talk back. This creates a power struggle or a revenge cycle."

1) Validate feelings. "Sounds like you are really angry."
2) Take responsibility for your part. "I realize I talked disrespectfully to you by sounding bossy or critical."
3) Take some time apart until you both can communicate respectfully.

This is great advice. In general, when a communication problem exists, it's a good idea to validate what the other person is saying in a kind way before presenting your side. And it's only just to apologize when you have behaved in a way you shouldn't have. This goes for children, spouses, friends, coworkers--anyone.

The tool card doesn't address what Back Talk is exactly, and this is the part I've been considering lately. Back Talk was a BIG THING when I was a child, almost the worst thing I could do to my parents.

A few different types of behavior fell under the general heading of Back Talk. Speaking rudely to my parents. Expressing anger to my parents. Complaining and/or expressing resistance to my parents about something they wanted me to do. Saying the word no to my parents. I'm sure I'm leaving some out.

Back Talk, though, is distinguished by one thing, did you notice? It only goes in one direction: from child to adult. A parent can't Back Talk a child. An adult can't Back Talk a spouse or a coworker (well, outside of an abusive spousal relationship, perhaps, and of course that is completely wrong).

Adults can argue and disagree and speak rudely or complain to one another, but nobody refers to this as Back Talk. I think Back Talk is specific to the parent (or other caregiving adult)-child relationship, and I think it is wrongly rooted in the false notion that children ought to respect their elders because they are only children and the adults are Adults.

The issue of insubordination is perhaps appropriate in the military, but since I do not (or try not to!) guide my children in an authoritarian manner, it's not relevant. I discipline through modeling behavior and guiding them--I am not trying to control them. I do not argue from my own authority when I am addressing a discipline issue, which is why I don't use the phrase "Because I said so!"

Now don't misunderstand me--I hate it when my kids are rude to me. It's not nice. It makes me mad. And there's a little voice inside my head that says "Don't you Back Talk me!" That Back Talk Voice is wrong, because there is no Back Talk here. There are rude ways to speak to the other humans in this house, and there are better, kinder ways to speak.

I want my kids to speak kindly to me and Brendan and our family and friends, not because we are adults, but because we are human beings. In turn, I make an effort to speak kindly to my children, not because I'm trying to patronize them, but because they are human beings. Giving the people we care most about the benefit of the doubt and treating them with kindness is an expression of the Benevolent Universe Premise.

So, in our family, Back Talk as such doesn't really exist. When the kids speak to me rudely, I'll say something like "Could you try saying that again in a nice way?" or "Can you think of a way to ask me that that would give me a reason to help you?" or "I don't like it when you speak to me so rudely. It makes me feel mad." or "Why don't you say 'I don't like that.' instead of what you just said? That would be a kinder way to say what you're feeling."

If one of them says "I don't want to do that!" or "No!" that's not Back Talk. It's okay to have your feelings about whatever it is you don't want to do. Now, of course, you may still have to do that thing--you may still have to brush your teeth or get in the car or take a drink of water. But it's okay not to like it. And it's okay to say that. If the way in which the kid expresses his opposition is unkind, then I'll help him find better words.

And sometimes, when they are opposing what I want them to do, it's a chance for me to problem-solve with them. Sometimes, especially if we're not speaking rudely to each other, we are able to find a solution that meets all of our needs, and that solution might be different from what I originally had in mind.

Because we do not hold obedience as a virtue, and because we do not expect our kids to respect adults simply because adults are older, and because we encourage our children to express their emotions (and we help them learn to do that appropriately), Back Talk is just not something we encounter. However, the advice on the tool card is good, as I said, because it's easy to get caught up in a cycle of rude speaking (child and adult). I know this all too well.

I have more I'd like to say about this, with specific examples, but I'll have to save it for a follow up post. I'd love to hear your comments about this issue, whether you agree with me or not!


kblogger said...


I struggle with this:
"Could you try saying that again in a nice way?" because I find it hard, when spoken to in an unkind way, to find that "nice voice" myself, to request a re-do!

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts & the link to those cards. Bought them just now!!!

kate said...

Oh.....This is a huge button for me! I can try so hard to speak in a respectful tone, using positive constructive words while remaining calm and then...one rude, dismissive ''whatever!" and I'm channeling my mother!

I'd love to read your examples and how you deal with this. Sad to say, I do find it very challenging to hold the bully in my mind at bay after a long day at work, followed by grocery shopping in rainy weather, and coming home to unpleasant tones and words.

Heike L. said...

Interesting post - I am trying out the PD cards myself, and find them helpful to focus on specific tools.

One topic related to this that I am struggling with is not 'back talk' but WHINING. My 2 1/2 year old is in a horrible whining cycle right now - whenever something doesn't go her way right away, she just whines, whines, whines.

I am trying the 'Can you try to say this nicely so I'd be happy to help?' and the 'That tone makes it hard for me to understand. Can you say it in a normal voice, please?', but it doesn't seem to have any lasting impact. I also tried humor (making a funny face and holding my ears shut), and removing myself from the room (with warning before, and quick explanation as I do: 'Whining - I'm leaving') - but none seem to have a big impact.

Any thoughts? Did you encounter that at all with your two older ones?

Wendy Hawksley said...

It looks like I'm not alone. I also "struggle" with this - trying to ask my son to say something in a nice way or politely.

If he is throwing a hissy in public, I become especially frustrated. I consciously try to avoid power struggles of ANY sort. I'm still working on it.

Thanks for the this post - it reminds me that I'm doing the right thing and need to stick with it.

Dr. Jane Nelsen said...

Jenn, I love your thoughts on this tool card. It is so interesting that when adults are angry, rude, or disrespectful, it is not called backtalk. That is why I love the phrase, "Don't Backtalk Back," in an attempt to help parents understand that they are modeling what they are condemning.
I notice several posts about trying to get a child to "talk nice" when she isn't feeling nice. It would be so much more effective to simply validate feelings at this point. "Taking time for training" (another tool card) can come during a calm time when everyone is feeling better.

Jonathan M said...

Jenn: this post really resonated with me. I have visceral hatred the entire idea of back talk as a one-sided "crime". It seems so unjust -- just a small step away from "children are to be seen not heard".

So, having read your post today, I was really surprised to get home last evening and hear my 3-year-old son tell his older brother "don't back-talk me". I have no idea where he got that from, but I need to find out! I suspect it was from our soon-to-be-departed au pair, who has a totalitarian streak.

Which brings me to another topic: how to encourage other caregivers to follow PD principles? My wife is really the primary caregiver, and she generally likes PD (though I don't think she's totally convinced). But then there are grandparents who live nearby and the (soon-to-be-new) au pair. Anyone have thoughts or experience on this? (Perhaps I should post this on Dr Nelsen's PD site as well...)