Why Do They Talk Back?

By Susan Stiffelman

Why is it OK for my grandkids to talk back to their parents? I would've been smacked if I did that. What happened to respect?

First of all, it is not acceptable for children to talk back to their parents -- or to anyone. I'm a huge fan of people sharing their toys, cleaning up after themselves and speaking politely to one another. So rest assured, I'm big on kids' growing up with a clear understanding of what is – and isn't -- appropriate when it comes to addressing dear old Mom and Dad.

That said, genuine respect is not the same as fear-induced compliance. Many of us were raised in a time when we wouldn't dare speak inappropriately to our elders, not because we loved and respected them but because we feared them. Often along with fear came distrust, dislike and even loathing, fueled by an outward, rigid requirement to behave according to the rules but without the opportunity to express our true feelings.

When you look back on the "smackings" you received, consider whether you felt inspired to be more respectful to your parents, or simply to act more respectfully. Physical punishment was acceptable and commonplace "in the good ole days" because our parents were raised with it, and because -- well -- there wasn't a lot of understanding about its negative consequences. But times have changed, and many parents recognize that relying on overpowering children into behaving properly damages their trust and sense of security.

Here are a few possible explanations for what's behind your grandkids' talking back:

1) Your grandchildren may not have the benefit of witnessing respectful conversations in their households. I find that kids who "have a mouth on them" are often mimicking one or both of their parents. It's difficult to ask kids to speak in a way that's dramatically different from the conversational style they observe in the important adults in their lives.

2) Many children these days are afflicted with "affluenza." Driven by a sense of entitlement, they talk back to their parents because they get their way when they're rude and demanding. Many parents are so desperate to be liked by their children that they're unable to say "no." In a sense, the kids become the ones in charge, and a natural outcome is a lack of appropriately respectful language when they speak to their parents.

3) A child who doesn't feel cherished might not come right out and say it, but his hurt and anger might leak out by speaking disrespectfully to his parents. Kids are quite capable -- just like you and me -- of passive-aggressive behavior. Driven by a longing to be seen or heard as they are, kids can become edgy and sarcastic with their parents as a way of getting back at them.

Ultimately, though, whether any of these reasons apply to your particular grandkids may remain a mystery. I strongly suggest you resist the temptation to get in the middle of this. Be kind and respectful around your grandkids and their folks, and lovingly support your adult children as they address the possible underlying causes of their kids' talking back when they're ready.



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