Stopping the Back Talk
By Charlotte Latvala
If your child is dishing out the eye rolling and "what-evers," here's how to respond — for both your sakes
The other night I walked into the kitchen, where my 13-year-old daughter was hunched over her geometry book. "Doing homework, sweetie?" I asked, innocently enough. Mathilda looked up, rolled her eyes, and in a voice dripping with sarcasm said, "No, Mom, I just love reading about tessellations in my spare time — what do you think?" A long discussion followed — or, rather, a pointed lecture about respect (on my part), and a halfhearted apology (on hers). Case closed. Sort of.
Generally, my daughter is a kind and thoughtful kid — but like every other teenager I know, she has bouts of back talking, i.e., making snide comments, indulging in disdainful sneers, muttering under her breath. I know, I know — compared to drinking, doing drugs, or having sex, speaking like a character from Juno seems like relatively benign behavior. But that doesn't make it palatable — and is it really so harmless? Will today's snippy teens be tomorrow's ineffective communicators, trying to settle disputes with a "whatever, dude" attitude?
Experts and moms agree that kids circa 2009 dole out the back talk more than ever before and at younger ages. Laid-back parenting may be partly to blame, but TV, movies, music, and the ubiquitous YouTube are all powerful influences, says media expert Kathryn Montgomery, Ph.D., author of Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet. "Children are growing up in a universe of pervasive, 24/7 media," she says. "And the notion of good taste that used to govern the Big Three networks has fallen by the wayside." Dialogue is ruder than ever: Our TV role models were Cindy Brady and Laurie Partridge; today's teens grew up with the Rugrats' acid-tongued Angelica.
As a mild, relatively safe form of rebellion, back talk appeals to teens' desire to feel independent and adult. Annoying though it may be, sarcasm reflects their growing mental capabilities. "There are several cognitive leaps during early adolescence that mean kids' thinking becomes much more sophisticated," says Maureen O'Brien, Ph.D., who is the founder of destinationparenting.com and a mom to 15-year-old twin boys. During tween years, kids move from straightforward, literal speech to irony and wordplay; making snide observations lets them feel smart and grown-up.
Some moms are tempted to overlook smart-mouthed behavior, figuring that it's an inevitable part of growing up. But you may wind up regretting the path of least resistance, says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Don't Give Me That Attitude! "Yes, it's a normal phase," she explains. "But the tween and teen years are when your kid forms habits and attitudes that will last for a lifetime, and when you ignore smart-aleck talk, you send the message that it's OK." What's more, not being able to turn off the snark can have a negative impact on your kid's future. Unless you spell it out, teens may not have a clue about how they come across: "And as children get older, sarcasm can be a real turnoff to teachers, employers, and other adults outside the family," Borba adds. Read on for guidelines on how to tweak your resident smart mouth back into a sweet talker.