Should parents put up with back-talk?

Last weekend a TV news crew rode along with some police officers as they kept an eye on the St. Patty’s Day partiers, with an eye toward keeping the drunks off the road. A guy in a pickup truck was pulled over and his interaction with the police was caught on film.

Two officers approached the vehicle. After smelling alcohol on the man’s breath, one officer asked him how much alcohol he’d had that evening.

“None,” stonewalled the man.

Next they asked the man for his car keys. These the man handed over readily enough. However he was not so thrilled with the officer’s next request- to get out of the vehicle.

“Wait a second!” he protested. “Before I get out of my truck, I need to know what you stopped me for.”

Within two seconds those police officers had his door wrenched open, and him deposited neatly on his face on the asphalt, protesting in shock. Never have I seen a man exit a vehicle so fast. And head first, too.

Next stop, jail. Just. like. that.

The man’s argument made me think of my children. Sometimes when I ask my younger ones to do something, they swell like a puffer fish over the injustice of it. (“What do you mean I have to do my math?” “Why do I have to clean my ROOM?”) They huff in indignation and demand an explanation for my audacious requests.

Most of the time I call them on it and demand respect. “Let’s try that again,” I’ll say, and state my request again, the warning on my face letting them know that this time I’d better hear the desired, “Sure, mom” instead of a belligerent, “HUH!?!”!”

Sometimes I weary of fighting the disrespect battle. I feel like a mean mom, always riding someone. Maybe I’m expecting too much. They’re only kids. Shouldn’t they be allowed to express their feelings?Maybe a little sass is not such a huge deal. After all, eventually they obey.

That video the other night shocked the sense right back into me. I don’t ever want my children to be in the place of that foolish young man, questioning the commands of someone in authority. Somehow I’m guessing maybe his mom put up with his sass instead of dealing with it when he was young.

Of course I want my children to have discernment, to know what’s right, and to not be weaklings who go along with anyone. But in the case of legitimate authority, such as a teacher or a police officer, or even good old mom, I want my kids’ first knee-jerk response to be, “Yes, officer/ma’am/mom.” There’ll be time for questions (respectful ones) later.

I think I’ll be sticking with my guns. This house is a no-sass zone.

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  1. This is something that has been in my thoughts a lot lately. Sometimes I forget that I am raising my children to be productive, respectful adults . . . and I begin to feel that my requests for respect are totally selfish, that I just want what I want when I want. But you are so right here, in the long run I want my children to respect authority and know how to give a respectful answer – for their own benefit! Thanks for the reminder!

  2. I think sticking to your guns is invaluable for your children – it is difficult job (and a thankless for a long time), but it’s so important. The amount of disrespect that I see even on a trip to the mall or grocery store is mind-boggling to me. There is no way my parents would’ve put up with backtalk like I see at my local Target – and I appreciate their diligence in disciplining me – because of how it shaped the adult I was to become.

    I’m not looking forward to dealing with back-talk with my own children though. I was a terror in that department as a pre-teen, and I suspect my own kids will have inherited some of my fiesty-nature.

  3. I think you’ve brought up a really good point. It’s easier for me to gently admonish, or let it slide altogether. But disrespect is a slippery slope. And I think it’s something that should be squelched early on. I really need to stay on top of this with my kids, before it gets out of control. And to ensure they have a good healthy respect for the authority figures in their lives. As children and as adults.

  4. I needed to read this today. We have been fighting the battle of sass and I was getting tired. You’ve reminded me how important it is to hang in there and teach the importance of respecting authority.

  5. amen!


  6. Backtalk is an issue at our house. Not a huge issue, but it has a way of quietly slipping in, especially with our oldest child. It’s hard keeping her respectful in a way that’s also respectful to her!

  7. I totally agee with you. Backtalk is not tolerated here and the penalty for it is high.

    Respect is something that you learn at home, and hopefully I am instilling it in my kiddos!

  8. I’m totally with you on the “making sure children obey” stance, but I’m not certain that this man DIDN’T have a legal right to know what he had been pulled over for before getting out of his car. I’ll have to check with my dad on that, but he may have been right in questioning why he was being pulled over.

    I’ve encountered a few disturbing instances of policemen abusing their “legitimate authority.” In fact, there was a time when one of my father’s students was about to confess to being an accessory to shoplifting because the cops had told her that if she went to court, she’d just get in a lot more trouble than if she confessed. It was only because my father reminded her what her civil rights were that she avoided confessing to a crime she HADN’T COMMITTED. The cops were perfectly happy to use their authority to get her to say what they THOUGHT was true. (Her mother, by the way, was appalled that she had the nerve to “backtalk”–i.e. refuse to confess–to a cop.)

    I guess what I’m saying is that yes, children should obey, but I will also be very careful to teach them to critically question civil authority and to know precisely what their rights are before deciding whether or not to do what they’re told.

  9. Umm Skandar says:

    Generally I wholeheartedly agree. We discourage sass and whining very strongly in this house. But . . . I have read that first skill that children need in fending off a potential abuser is the willingness to say “no” to an adult, even an authority figure (minister, priest, cop, coach, uncle, cousin, etc).

    We talk about need to be respective and responsive to your parents and other adults while at the same time, we tell our kids that they need to trust themselves and their “gut” their inner feelings and that if they ever feel that someone (even an adult or figure of authority) wants them to do something that feels strange or not right that they should say “No!” as loudly as possible and get away.

    We’ve had several cases of police imposters recently in our town and its lead to some interesting conversations with our kids about such situations and how to handle them.

  10. Martina Fahrner says:

    I don’t take back-talk as disrespect and often I negotiate, if is something not so high on the priority list (what can I say, I am lazy!). If I deem “it” a priority, I normally just point out, what I will NOT do, if they don’t listen (and I can come up with one uncomfortable list) so that things are normally done in a time fashion…
    I do admit that I did the mom-equivalent of the police throw down a few times when my youngster was not obeying…

  11. Our home is a backtalk/sass – free zone as well. I love the reminder of the fact that we are raising future responsible adults. It’s easy to let that fact slip away in the dailyness of life with many young children. 🙂

  12. We had a really hard time with this just yesterday…. grr. I must have said “try it again” 1 million times yesterday. I also have a low to zero tolerance policy w/ back chat…. but we were sick over the weekend and I let a few things go and before you know it the problem rears its ugly head….. so I have to instill what we call “behavior bootcamp” for a few days (when every rule must be followed to the T or mamma gets on it right away) to put everything back in proper order.

    It is a struggle.

  13. I like your approach “lets try this again” I think I’ll start using it myself 🙂

    We have lots of backtalk here and it really drives me bonkers!

  14. You have NO idea what I have to put up with as a teacher at a secondary school here in England. Respect? you have to be joking. I have been sworn at, and I have never seen such disobedience, defiance, disdain, disrespect, dishonesty, or “backchat” in my life. And you know what? As teachers, we are completely powerless. They lie, make false accusations, and have the power to destroy lives, just because they are children. They can be seriously dangerous too.

    My own kids have NEVER behaved like this, nor have my friends’ kids. This is something new for me, and their idea of truth is farcical. I am so despairing when I look at them, and can see what life is going to be like for them one day soon. How on earth are they going to fit in to society when they know no boundaries or principles? Or consequences? How will they hold down a job? I have written so many unpublished posts about this and can’t publish them, because I am worried the kids at school will find my blog, which I started before I started teaching. I need another one as a forum for the chaos I work in.

    So, as an older Mum, a teacher and a woman who has in the past few days been called a F****** s*** by a 14 year old girl, all I can say is DO NOT GIVE UP. Keep drawing the line for your kids. Teach them to give respect, and how to earn it too. Without boundaries what happens ot civilised society?. I have seen what it is going to be like and it terrifies the wits out of me.

  15. I’m with you on the backtalk, but I’m afraid I have to agree with Money Dummy on the authority of police. I think they are required by law to tell you why you’ve been stopped and this man was well within his rights to ask.
    This sounds like the difference between legitimate authority and tyranny. I want my children to submit readily and willingly to legitimate authority but not to tyranny! I want them to obey me quickly and without backtalk, but what about when a stranger tells them what to do? Not all adults wield legitimate authority, and not every order by every civil magistrate should be obeyed without question.

  16. Kim and MoneyDummy,

    I hear your concerns, and I would be interested to know what a person’s legal right truly are in a situation like this. However I think I did not tell the story completely enough. They did give him a warning that this was his last chance to get out. He opted to argue instead of getting out.

    Then when he was pulled out, a bag of pot and a pot pipe fell out of his coat. So he was ARRESTED for more than just refusing to get out of the truck. But he definitely was pulled out of the truck for not complying.

    I absolutely intend to train my kids to go along with a legit authority in a case like this. If they haven’t been drinking or done anything wrong, then they should have nothing to fear from the police. There is time to argue their case later.

    I know there are police who abuse their authority. But in my mind, that makes it even more crucial that people not defy authority which might cause an anxious or power-mad police officer to react with deadly force.

    My feelings may be influenced by the fact that I am raising Black children. I’ve heard that this kind of compliance is even more important with a Black man, since unfortunately racism does exist, and any appearance of defying authority could put a young Black man at risk of being shot by police. iIt has happened.

    In general in America, a person who answers an officer respectfully, and follows directions is much less likely to be roughed up by the police. Time enough to sort out your rights later, with your lawyer. I would prefer my children, as adults or as children, to FIRST obey police, then discuss later respectfully. I’d rather have them alive than shot dead on the side of the road for any appearance of resisting arrest.


  17. Ah, yes, the age old backtalk. Hmpf. Frustrating. My 17 yr old stepson is King of it. I try many approaches and fail. Thankfully, my husband steps up most times. Our Ethiopian children do ok. I think in some ways they don’t understand that what they are saying is backtalk, yet, they need to learn sometime. I feel guilty, too, sometimes, but then I remind myself of potential outcomes in their future. Children today just do not have the same respect or closeness that past generations had. They don’t even step aside or open doors for the elders or mom’s with little babies! In working with middle school youth for 8 years I have definitely noticed a change in just that short time. With cell phones, ipods, etc. they are out-of-control. Thank you for reminding me why we are strict! Blessings, Sandra

  18. Thank you for this post! I needed to hear this today. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only mom who feels like she’s constantly fighting the same battle.

  19. Well put. Glad I’m not the only one who feels more like a jockey…always riding someone.

  20. Hi Mary! As always, a good debate on the Owlhaven blog. 🙂

    I just have to say one thing. My parents were excellent parents and always taught me manners etc… but I still was the most strong-willed, rebellious little piece of crap that ever walked the land as a sassy teenager. I look back on myself and I am so embarrassed at my behavior and scared to death that Delaney will give me my long-awaited payback.

    So I just wanted to say that even the best of parents have kids that go through their “see how far I can go” phase.

    Plus, I think it is really normal to question authority. We could go into all kinds of debates here about being able to question authority (political figures, teachers etc…) but I agree that it should be done in a respectful manner. I think to some degree it is really healthy.

    By the way, I was ALWAYS extremely well behaved in front of company and at friends houses, as I’m sure your kids are as well.

    Just thought I would say that I always questioned authority as a teenager and I turned out GREAT! 🙂 Not that I am saying you should put up with it, just saying you are a great mom raising healthy kids.


  21. It is a thin line of which I am constantly finding myself sraddling. When is it talking back, and when is it expressing an opinion or desire? I woke up in an unusually good mood this morning…ready to start the day and have a good one. By lunch, I had been dragged down by the feeling that I was the bad guy and my kids were the victims because I was making them do certain things. Carter was not a part of this, just Madison and Patrick. They are having to do a little more Math than they want to because they continue to get little things wrong, therefore, they have to correct them and do more. Anyway, I am only trying to do what I am here to do….teach them. I finally sat them down today and asked them if they understood that the very thing that they are getting upset at me for doing is what keeps them home everyday for school…I am teaching them!!! I told them that for me to make them happy on a day like today that I would have to stop teaching them because that is the very thing that was aggravating them. I told them that if I don’t teach them that someone else would have to. My son, Patrick, immediately apologized and straightened up. Sometimes, they just need me to spell it out for them bluntly.
    I wish that I could always know which side of the line to veer towards….letting them express themselves or putting my foot down. I think what it all boils down to is the attitude in which they “express” themselves. I also understand that often it is the way that I preceive things as well. What a dance between mother and kids it often becomes…..sometimes it all works out like the greatest dance on the greatest night of the best prom, and sometimes we step all over each other’s toes and come out of the dance feeling pretty sure that it was the worst attempt at working together ever…and quite possibly it was! However, it won’t be the worst one we will ever have…there are too many more chances for that to happen before this prom is over!!!

  22. It is a sass-free zone at my house, as well. What does God say about back talk and bad behavior in children? There is an example in the Old Testament of a disrespectful teenager. He was taken to the center of town and stoned to death. God takes this subject very seriously.
    And so should we parents.

    Thanks, Mary.

  23. Ok, I am annoyed because I wrote my response yesterday and it never posted. And I know everyone is REALLY curious about my thoughts on this….

    I just wanted to say one thing, that my parents were excellent parents, always taught me manners etc… and I still was the most snotty, arrogant, sassy little piece of crap that ever walked the land as a teenager. I look back on myself and I am so embarrassed at my behavior.

    So I just wanted to say that even the best of parents end up having sassy teenagers sometimes.

    Also, we could go into all kinds of debates over being able to questions authority (political figures, teachers, officers etc…) but I agree that it should be done with respect. To some degree, I think it is really healthy.

    By the way, I was always very well behaved in front of company and at friends houses as I’m sure your kids are too. 🙂 Just wanted to say that I don’t think you should put up with back talk but that you are a great mom raising really healthy and normal kids! I was ALWAYS seeing how far I could go and I turned out GREAT! 🙂

    I have a sneaky feeling that Delaney will be giving me my long awaited payback….


  24. ahhhhh…sore spot! We’ve been working on this a LOT in our home lately! Amazing how natural heart reaction shows the depths of our sin (NOT just my kiddos…MINE too!!!). We are working diligently on this!!!

  25. I am totally with you on this one! We have our four children 6 years apart — 17, 11/11, 5. With our oldest, in not sharing in my husband’s demands for responding respectfully, we let our oldest off at first. A couple of years later, it’ went from losing the ma’am/sir, to backtalk, slid into no response at all, no eye contact, and then walking off while we were in midsentence. It got out of hand for a few months, but we managed to restore the original household expectations, but not without a lot of conflict and confrontation. It was difficult and disruptive to the entire family, to say the least. If you love your child and want them to be in favor with God and man, and to stand out from the rest, and to keep home the happy haven it is, it is wise to not even allow the slightest family rule to drop because it will inevitably be followed with a slide into all of the other behaviors, and the kids end up running the house and determining the mood. Sorry for that long comment, but I can’t stress enough, from experience, how wise it is to uphold standards.

  26. And Jamie is right, too, in that sometimes one will just try you. Luckily, we got our tester as our first child, and now know better how to handle things with our younger three. But so much of it has to do with having a good personality fit between the parent and child. And even more has to do with their way of learning — either simply listening to wisdom or — the harder route — learning from experience and hard knocks. But sometimes it’s just inevitable that a child is going to try those rules. It’s just maintaining that balance of not letting them make you lose your cool…and always erring on the stringent side.

    (OK, I’m done. LOL)

  27. And the choir of teachers sang: Amen! I get sassed so often by this one boy in my class. It makes me nuts. At a certain point it is a losing battle to stand there and demand respect from a sassy 10 year old. He wants to “win” at all costs. When his parents and grandparents tell me repeatedly that they are Christian and they pray together and they discipline him…all I hear is “blah, blah, blah…” because the truth is that the results speak for themselves. I know sure as gold that most kids are better behaved at school than they are at home. Most children respond the structure of it. At home they can let their hair down a bit. So I know that this kid is not getting the discipline he needs at home. Keep up the vigilence, you are helping your future grandchildren!