How Much Back Talk Should Parents Tolerate from Kids?

"Don’t Give Me That Attitude!"

By Jim McGaw

Here’s a pop quiz. The following are a child’s hypothetical responses to a parent’s request that the table be set. Which one is an example of back talk?

A) “I’m busy with this video game! Jeez, isn’t that obvious?”

B) “How come? None of my friends have to do that.”

C) “Can’t Suzie do it? I’ve set the table every day this week!”

D) I’m one tough cookie, so all of the above.

E) This is a trick question, right?

Actually, yes, it is.

The truth is that all parents have their own definition of what constitutes back talk. But most would agree that “attitude and lip,” eye-rolling and general sassy behavior is happening more often among younger children. Simply put, it isn’t just for teenagers anymore.

“It’s clearly happening with younger kids,” says Michele Borba, author of Don’t Give Me That Attitude! “I’m constantly in the schools as an educational consultant, and teachers, who have the upper hand on seeing the new trends with kids, can tell you that it’s escalating. We’re not talking about just being impolite, but swearing and flippant behavior. It’s like pollution; it didn’t happen over night.”

Etiquette trainer Michelle Powell says she’s now working with kids as young as 4, but it didn’t used to be that way. “Rudeness, tantrums, being uncooperative … People I’ve talked with over the past five or six years say it’s gotten worse,” she says.

Yet why should we be surprised when kids give us “that attitude?” asks Adele Faber, the renowned Long Island-based parenting lecturer and co-author of the popular book How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk. “Our culture is becoming cruder and there are more and more examples of disrespectful behavior, with all these sitcoms and commercials we’re seeing these days,” she points out. “Why wouldn’t the kids pick up what’s going on around them?”

Yes, We Must Be Good Role Models

As our children’s biggest role models, we parents play a key part in this trend toward back talk at younger ages.

“The bottom line is that parents don’t raise moral kids by accident,” says Borba. “There are plenty of good kids out there, they just don’t get enough attention” – so it’s easy to be left with the perception most kids are quick to mouth off even to adults.

A the same time, many adults today, parents included, are less restrained in their reactions to conflicts or obstacles in everyday life, notes Faber. “I think it’s important that we model respectful behavior to our kids. These little bits of sarcasm slip out, and people accept it. It isn’t funny; it’s a sign of contempt.”

Melissa Burton, a mother of two, admits that she doesn’t always choose her words carefully around her daughters. Sometimes, it comes back to bite her.

“One thing I have noticed is that you need to be very careful what you say, how you say it and how you react to things, because that’s what you get back,” she observes. “I can be very sarcastic. Now that Paige is older (she’s 6), she’ll sometimes respond to me in a similar sarcastic tone – ‘Yeah, right.’”

Being a Parent, Not a Buddy

Modeling good behavior is an obvious solution, but some parents can complicate this when they try too hard to be their kids’ best friends. “Guilt plays a huge role,” Borba says. “We’re stressed and exhausted when we come home. The last thing we want to do is reprimand our kids. We also have this fear that when we squelch their behavior we squelch their self-esteem.”

But not addressing back talk or caustic sarcasm in our kids can blur the lines of disrespectful behavior for them.

“That is breaking down the level of respect,” adds Powell. “Any time a child sees you more as a peer, he’s going to treat you more as a peer. You need to find a middle ground. Parents can be approachable and still be figures of respect.”

Tips to Nip the Lip

So how do you handle the lip? Borba and Faber offer these tips on dealing with a mouthy child:

Don’t let it escalate, Borba advises. “The first sign of that whiny pitch – stall it. Once it becomes a habit, it’s learned. Call it clearly on the spot.”

Never engage with a rude kid. “Refuse to talk. A rude child can be very verbal and manipulative and he or she can wear you down,” says Borba.

Be clear about your expectations for your children. “Parents will tell their children to stop being out of control,” says Borba. “But what they don’t tell the child is how to be more in control. If your child forgets what a nice voice tone is, you could say. ‘Make your voice sound like mommy’s.’”

Don’t try to address every bad behavior at once. “Aim for one behavior at a time,” Borba advises. “Otherwise, you’ll overwhelm yourself – and your child. Think about what really matters. Take one issue that’s bothering you this week and deal with it.”

Be firm. “Make it very clear that this is not the way we speak in our home,” says Faber. “If a kid cares about you and he says something that really crosses the line, just say, ‘I didn’t like what I heard. Lucky for you, you have a very generous parent who will give you a chance to rephrase it. I’ll respect your behavior if you respect mine.’”

Christine Viveiros follows that last piece of advice when dealing with occasional sassy behavior from her 4-year-old daughter Emma. “She has this bossy little attitude that she gets. She’s a fireball. I don’t stand for it. I give her the look and she knows,” says Viveiros, adding that Emma then usually retreats to her room. “She hates to be alone. She’ll be up there reading some books and after a while I’ll come up and ask her if she’s ready to apologize.”

Sometimes It’s Healthy

One of the biggest problems with back talk may be the very act of diagnosing it. Are parents sometimes being oversensitive when a child questions a command? After all, a child may have a legitimate inquiry or may simply want to start more of a dialogue with his or her parents. Furthermore, not all children have learned the subtleties of expressing an objection with tact, so parents may be too quick in labeling them as rude or sassy.

“It reminds me of the time my daughter came home from school and said, ‘Mom, what does ‘talk back’ mean?’” says Faber. “She was 7 or 8 at the time and had simply questioned something the teacher said. I told her about teachers needing obedience and how the classroom had a different set of rules than at home.”

Parents need to be careful not to overreact every time a child questions or challenges something they’ve said, says Faber. A child needs to know he’s safe to ask questions.

“I’m always for giving the child the benefit of the doubt,” Faber says. “I want my kid to be able to talk back and question and challenge.”

Sometimes that’s the only way family conflicts get resolved, she says. “I’d say, ‘You don’t think your brother does enough? Then we’ll talk about it at the next family meeting.’”

Such meetings may have gone out of style in today’s go-go family lifestyle, but Faber pegs them as an invaluable tool for dealing with conflict. When she talks to parents around the country, most of them recall a less-rushed household in their youth and “describe family meetings with such pleasure.” They also recall the meetings as an effective way to resolve disputes over such daily-life issues as how much time siblings spend in the bathroom.

In this case, “back talk” can lead to an opportunity for family bonding. “Everybody’s pressed, everybody’s rushed,” says Faber. “But the most important thing you have are those family relationships. At one point, you have to draw a circle around your precious family and say, ‘This is what we need for our emotional health. It’s time for a family tune-up.’”


Backtalk: 4 Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids,  Audrey Ricker and Carolyn Crowder, Fireside, 1998. Offers advice on how to nip back talk in the bud with immediate consequences. This zero-tolerance approach may not be for everyone, but the authors share advice all parents can use, such as how to recognize the difference between rude back talk and requests for more dialogue.

Don’t Give Me That Attitude! – 24 Rude, Selfish, Insensitive Things Kids Do and How to Stop Them, by Michele Borba, Jossey-Bass, 2004. Provides an effective, action-oriented approach to a variety of “bad attitude” behaviors in kids.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Collins, 1999. This classic book provides a step-by-step approach to help parents talk and problem-solve with their kids.