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Sassy Kids: What to Do When Your Kid Talks Back

If you talk to anyone who was a parent in an earlier generation, chances are they’ll tell you that kids are sassier and ruder today than they ever were in the past. Of course, kids were probably pushing the boundaries back then too, but the punishment was often swifter and harsher than many of today’s parents would offer.

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Still, there’s something to be said for the different standards of our time. Turn on any TV show aimed at teens or tweens and you’ll probably see young people speaking their minds and testing limits that would make your grandmother gasp. These days, “sassy” isn’t necessarily even a bad word: There are plenty of stores, clothing lines, and play centers named after “sassy” kids. What might have been looked down on as “sassy” fifty years ago might be tolerated – or even celebrated – today.

With that said, no parent should have to tolerate rude back-talk from their children. In the short term, it undermines parental authority. And in the long term, it teaches kids that they are entitled to get their way if they are being rude or pushy, when in reality that attitude will probably set them back in the world.

How can you stop your children from talking back? For children younger than age five, you should first let them know immediately that back-talk is unacceptable, and then model better ways for them to say what they want to say. When you hear your little one say, “I hate this stupid shirt! I’m not going to wear it!” you should respond immediately with, “I don’t like that kind of talk. We talk nicely to one another in our family. Why don’t you say, ‘Mom, this shirt feels uncomfortable. May I please wear a different shirt?’” Of course you might not get perfect results right away, but you’ll get their wheels turning. If you are consistent in not letting them talk back, and in helping them find better ways to express themselves, you may soon see improvements.

By the time children are five or older, they should be better at impulse control and they should understand the consequences. At this age, you need to make clear that back-talking is not allowed in your house, and that it will get them nowhere. When you first hear the back-talking (“I’m not going to clean my room, and you can’t make me!”) you need to nip the attitude in the bud first (“We don’t ever talk to each other like that in this family”) and end the conversation right there. You can even walk away if you need to, as long as you don’t fan the flames by turning it into an argument or a shouting match. They need to know that disrespect is a conversation-ender.

When you and your child have taken a step back, you can assess whether the issue is minor one that you can talk through (“It sounds like you are bored when we have to take your sister to her dance class. Maybe you need to start taking some books or a game to keep you busy while we wait”) or whether you are dealing with a non-negotiable (“We take turns doing all of the different jobs in our house. You may watch TV after you finish cleaning your room.”)

Chronic back-talkers sometimes need the threat of punishment to help them curb the habit. If you feel you are getting nowhere with words alone, you can lay out some punishments to fit the crime: The first episode of back-talking in a week means no dessert, the second means no TV, the third means no allowance, and so on as appropriate for your child. As long as your children are consistently getting the message from you that disrespect will not be tolerated, they should get on board quickly. And let’s face it, a parent’s job is hard enough on a day-to-day basis; you should at least get some respect for doing it.


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