Backtalk Battles

by Heligirl on May 9, 2011

in Mom Tip Monday,Parenting Articles

Any parent or caregiver of a child old enough to talk is familiar with back talking, or backtalk. Think of this though, how guilty are you of the same offense? Some recent parenting advice helped me see this differently.

I recently learned the hard way that my own inherent controlling behavior caused me to respond to my daughter’s backtalk, further escalating the power struggle and my blood pressure.

With great thanks to the parent educator in my Co-Op Preschool, an incredible preschool system focusing on positive discipline, I saw the error of my ways and have been able to put a new tactic to work.

When we engage a back talking child, we give them power to continue the behavior. However, if we refuse to be pulled into the struggle, despite our complete annoyance with back talking, we reduce the back talking while also reducing the power struggle.

Put another way, it’s the “turn left to turn right” lesson from Cars.

Here’s the old scenario:

Me (about five minutes after a transitional warning): Sweetness, it’s time for dinner. I need you to wash your hands please.

Sweetness: No.

Me: Please do it now.

Sweetness: No, I don’t want to. What’s for dinner?

Me: Spaghetti.

Sweetness (whiny): No, I don’t like spaghetti. I don’t want it.

Me: Yes you do. You asked for it two hours ago.

Sweetness: No, I don’t like spaghetti.

Me: Wash your hands now please.

Sweetness (crying and throwing herself on the floor): Nooooooooooooo!

Me (raising voice and getting angry): That’s fine. Your other option is to go to bed now.

Sweetness (screaming and crying now): Noooooo! I don’t want to.

I eventually end up carrying her to the bathroom, forcing the hand washing and then she sits at the table crying.

After a little coaching from my parent educator, this is how the next dinner battle went:

Me (after the five minute warning): Sweetie, it’s time for dinner. I need you to wash your hands please.

Sweetness: What are we having?

Me: Spaghetti.

Sweetness: No, I don’t want spaghetti.

Me: I need you to wash your hands. Would you like to do it by yourself, or do you need me to help you.

Sweetness (still trying to engage a struggle): No, I don’t want spaghetti.

Me: (ignore her attempt to engage me about spaghetti and give her time)

Sweetness (louder and more whiny): NO! I don’t want spaghetti.

Me: (still ignore the behavior for a bit more, giving her time to remember the house rules without me needing to reiterate them).

Sweetness: (runs over and throws herself on the couch)

Me: Ok, I’ll help you wash hands. (I walk over to pick her up and take her to the bathroom.)

Sweetness: No! I want to walk. I want to do it! (She runs to the bathroom.)

The difference was I refused to get into the power struggle so she lost interest in it. As I’ve been doing this more and more, she’s stopped telling me she doesn’t want the meal. I did have a similar situation around refusing to even take a bite of food (we don’t force eating all the meal, but you can’t refuse to even take a bite). She went straight to bed without dinner. This only happened once because, like the above scenario, she knew what the option was as it had been instituted in the past.

For me, patience is a hard lesson. By simply refusing to get drawn into a power struggle (and talking back to her), I was able to reduce the talk back and ultimately get Sweetness to the dinner table with little struggle (and keep blood pressure down for me).

Was this helpful? Do you have other tools you use to reduce backtalk?


Sarah May 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

We’ve been implementing this at our house for a few weeks now. It’s worked wonders for us!

Now we have started to get Answer C when we offer choice A and B. Sneaky toddler!

Twitter: Heligirl
May 9, 2011 at 11:26 am

I hear you on the answer C. My Hubby jokes we’ve got a future lawyer on our hands with her perceived art of negotiation at 3 1/2!!

kt moxie May 9, 2011 at 10:52 am

My most common response to backtalk is “try again.” This is said in a calm voice (or as calm as I can!). It gives my child the opportunity to have a “do over.” Maybe it was just use a better tone of voice, or say “please” or just not backtalk. It usually works. Sometimes I say “try again” two or three times, but they eventually pick a good choice.

Twitter: Heligirl
May 9, 2011 at 11:25 am

Ooooo, I really like this. Very great idea. Thanks so much!! I just might put that to work.

SharleneT. May 10, 2011 at 5:41 am

What’s wrong with, “It’s dinnertime; wash your hands.” I never hit my children nor did I ever get into an argument with them. I think by telling your child that you ‘need’ her to wash her hands (or whatever) gives her the power to disagree. My number one rule was to never give my children an option to discuss or refuse to do anything I couldn’t accept — and, that leaves a lot of open choices for the child to practice reasoning and compromise.

Bedtime and dinnertime were not negotiable, they were what was done at that time. My husband almost never learned that lesson. He’d say, “Do you want to go to bed, now?” What do you think he got for a response? “No, I don’t want to.” Then, he’d try to insist they had to and I’d tell him that, if he didn’t want to let them say no, he shouldn’t have given them the option. Because, once they say no, you have to honor that choice. And, if they know they can argue, that’s what they do, and he has to respect that choice, as well. Bedtime would get moved back fifteen minutes (many times over, sometimes). I simply said, “Put that stuff away. It’s time for your bath, and then bed.” And that’s what was done. Not negotiable.

Now, to me, that in no way is being a bully and demanding MY own way. It’s being a parent because I knew better than the children that they needed their dinner and they needed a bath and they needed their rest and they weren’t in charge. I was. I didn’t prepare poison for my family to eat and prepared what we could afford. To me, that is not a child’s choice. Not negotiable.

There are many many times during a child’s day when they can learn to exercise choices, and you can respect them. But, when it’s really not a negotiable thing, don’t let them think it is and then not follow through. To me, that’s positive parenting and teaching them that there will always be a time in their lives when they are not in charge of what happens. And, my children became very fine adults.
SharleneT. recently posted: First Harvest May 2011

Twitter: Heligirl
May 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Thank you so very much for this Sharlene. You’re so right about my “I need” statements. I’m guilty of that too much. I do use “It’s time to…” more often, but you’re right about how when I make the “I need” statements it opens the door for negotiation.

I wholeheartedly agree with the non-negotiable items like meals, bath and bed. I’ve found personally with the stage my daughter is going through that offering limited choices on how she gets it done just works for us because she is so very stubborn and controlling. When I’ve stated it was time and that’s that, the tantrums became unbearable. We did it for a week, ate cold meals while we listened to screaming and she went to bed hungry a lot. I felt terrible and it was recommended I try these limited choices. I’m all too aware that one day she’s going to realize they’re not really choices, and I’ll then try the no choices approach again.

Oh wouldn’t it have been nice if we had a manual.

And I hear you on the husband approach. Mine is still ending statements with “okay?” Grrrrrr. 🙂

Heather May 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm

I have been wondering about the use of “need” when asking children to do something. On another parenting forum I was on, one of the mothers had come up with a series of steps to get cooperation using the phrase “you need to ~”, with the idea that it encouraged children to take responsibility for their actions. Other mothers questioned whether the child really had the need to ~, since if they did, they would do whatever the ~ was! I wasn’t convinced that using that phrase was the right way to go either and Sharlene you helped me understand better why it’s not.

I do think that there is a place for giving children choices in HOW they do the things they are asked to do, as Jen did (do it herself or be helped to do it), especially if that is what makes the difference between getting cooperation and ongoing misery for everyone involved. In fact, this was one of the later steps in the series I mentioned earlier.

Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts on this issue 🙂

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