Last week, I reread the family diary I kept faithfully years ago when my first two children were little. The entries stop rather abruptly after my third child entered the picture. For ten years, I haven’t had time to look at these notes.
Most amusing: examples of the back talk problem I used to have with my middle child. Here are things my daughter actually said to me:
“Mom, I very ’pointed in you!”
“Mom, I put you in storage!”
“Mom, no YOU be quiet!”
She was two years old at the time.
Let’s just say, the back talk got worse after that. For about 12 years. I’m still not certain how I, or my daughter, survived the sputtering rage her increasingly sophisticated back talk inspired.
My parenting wisdom, from the view today as a mom with three teenagers, is that it is essential to teach your kids not to talk back as soon as they start testing out this behavior on you. If they do it at school, on the playground or basketball court, the consequences could be serious, even life-threatening. And if you ignore their early sass, they use the lag time to hone their back talk skills.
What the experts told me then was simple: in order to stop kids from talking back (or gesturing back, also common and equally enraging/dangerous) parents need to find a way to reason with our kids.
Reason, in my family’s case, came in the form of punishment.
Some experts don’t believe in punishing their children for bad behavior.
Those people have never had kids who could talk back like mine, or had a twelve- year-old give them the finger.
Sure, I tried explaining etiquette to my children. I took away dessert. I sent them to their room. This was moderately successful with my oldest and youngest children.
However, none of these “soft” tactics worked with my middle daughter, except to make her laugh devilishly.
The most effective back talk punishment, ever, came the day her father gave her an iPhone as a birthday present. I recommend every parent get their child a smart phone at as young an age as possible, simply so you can take it away as a behavioral tool. Imagine for a second if your boss had the option of impounding your smart phone if you misbehaved at work – or your husband could appropriate it if you didn’t pay enough attention to him over dinner.
Yep. There we go.
The privilege of a smart phone is so profound, addictive, delectable, and socially imperative, that my daughter used to stop speaking mid-sentence when I reached to take away her purple-cased iPhone. Which I did several times a day for years.
I concocted three tiers of smart phone repossession, which I learned to communicate non-verbally so I could mete them out when I was on the phone, driving, or working at my computer:
Parent Holds Up One Finger = one hour
Parent Holds Up Two Fingers = the rest of the day
Parent Holds Up Three Fingers = 24 hours
I was cold-hearted in the face of defiant back talk. My daughter quickly understood the system. I never once relented after making the threat to confiscate her iPhone. And that girl could beg, scream and cry like nobody’s business. But I learned to harden my heart – for her sake, of course. Which is why the punishment worked.
Surprising to me, one of the biggest problems with ending kids’ back talk can be incidental family members. My other children were not allies in my punishment scheme. They tortured their sister by dangling their own phones in her face. They also argued with me that whatever they had done was nowhere near as awful as what she had done, so their punishment had to be lesser.
Ditto for my husband. He was at the office or on business trips for most of her daily/hourly tantrum-y back talk sessions, so for years he thought I was the crazy one, not her. He was constitutionally incapable of disciplining our daughter. In fact, he couldn’t even uphold my punishments.
So I had to get creative about where I hid her verboten iPhone – from him. Otherwise he would give it back to her. I forgave him, because he had grown up without siblings, a kind of lala childhood that meant he didn’t understand family dynamics, poor thing.
So my back talk advice: first, find an effective punishment. But equally important is recognizing it’s not just about punishing the sassy mouth. You have to survey the family terrain first, and look for landmines. Question whether you can count on your spouse or other family members to help enforce whatever utterly brilliant and effective punishment you invent.
In sum: think long and hard before you settle on a punishment that will be effective, and make sure it is one that you alone can control. Back talk can be cured. My daughter is now a lovely, well-behaved, polite and mature 16-year-old angel who is a constant source of joy and delight – particularly because these days she lives 90 miles away at boarding school, and it’s hard for her to spout off from so far away.
The best news for those of you struggling, as almost all parents do, with back talk: one day when they are teenagers, those same kids who drive you whack-job crazy now with their obnoxious, incessant, mind-bending back talk abilities, will not talk to you at all.
Special thanks to my Harvard ’87 classmate — New York comedian, author and stressed-out mom Karen Bergreen for contributing this topic.