Things are different here: “Back Talk” and Healing

“Bobby!” I swooped in quickly to scoop up my wailing baby. “Sally, you have to be careful!” I admonished my preschooler as I held the baby close. “You just tripped on Bobby!”

“But he was in my way!” Sally exclaimed, indignant.

Like a marionette puppet jerked by its strings, my younger brother looked up from where he sat on the couch, and for a moment, time stopped. Sally had just back talked me. This sort of thing was not allowed in our house growing up. This sort of thing resulted in a time out or a spanking. My brother knew that as well as I. And so, even though he knew that things are different here in my home than in our parents’ home, he still tensed up instinctively, waiting, watching, cringing.

“Yes, Sally,” I said. “You’re right, he was in your way. But babies are very easy to break. Look at him, see how little he is? You don’t want to break him, do you?” Sally shook her head. “No, I didn’t think so. And we’re careful not to break you, either. That would be bad! So next time, Sally, if Bobby’s in your way, just tell me and I’ll move him out of your way. Okay?”

“Okay!” Sally nodded her head and smiled.

“Can you give Bobby a hug?” I asked. “It might make him feel better.”

“Sure!” Sally hugged her little brother, who had stopped crying in the meantime, and then went back to playing. And I looked up at my brother and could see the tension melting off of his face.

Things are different here.

“I really like what you’re doing with Sally and Bobby,” my brother told me. “It’s so awesome. I wish I had had that. They’re so lucky.”

“I don’t believe in back talk,” I told him.

And then we talked about it, on and on, understanding each other as only sister and brother can. The evening grew later and later, but still we talked. We talked about how we felt when we were spanked. We talked about the feelings of helplessness and anger. But mostly we talked about back talk. You know, where you try to explain what happened and then, rather than listening to you, the response you get is “that’ll be three more spanks, and for every additional word you say, I’ll add another spank.” That feeling like you’re being smothered. The rage rising inside, threatening to overwhelm you until you begin to feel nauseous. The moment when you realize that what hurts is not so much that they don’t understand as that they don’t want to understand. That you matter that little.

Before my brother left my home that night he told me something. “I decided a long time ago that I never want to have kids,” he said. “But you and Sean? You two seem so happy, and what you’re doing with Sally and Bobby is amazing. I still don’t think I want to have kids, but watching you and Sean has shown me that it doesn’t have to be like that. You know, how it was.”

And he’s right. It doesn’t.

The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
Busting the Mommy Myth
Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Melissa @ Permission to Live

    I can so relate to this post! I have had siblings say very similar things to me after observing the way we treat our children. And despite the changes in my own parenting, I still tense up when something happens that would have warrented a spanking back in the day.

  • smrnda

    The whole idea behind the ‘no back talk’ is that the adult always understands 100% of the situation, which includes that the adult knows and understands the child’s motives and that anything the child says is just making excuses. You get this where writers like James Dobson write about child behavior giving their own play by play of the child’s internal monologue. Yeah, because what? Adults can read minds?

    Of course, the idea is nonsense, and working with kids taught me that a lot of the time children are behaving in ways that seem rational to them, but not to the adult because we’re looking at the world from different perspectives.

    • Rosie

      I’d venture to say that EVERYBODY, regardless of age, is always acting in ways that seem rational to them. There are just a lot more ways to view the world than I used to realize. Of course, I think some views are patently unhelpful, or lead to ineffective ways of interacting…but that doesn’t mean the worldview doesn’t make sense to the person holding it.

  • Jaimie

    Wow, that’s considered back talk? A preschool child defending her actions and gasp, putting a little emotion in it? What a horrible, counter-productive system of raising children. It never fails to amaze me that although they go on about all the children they have or want to have, they actually know very little about childhood development. Or care.

    • Noadi

      That was my thought too. When my parents punished me for “back talk” it wasn’t for trying to explain but being actually rude or disrespectful back to them. There were times they wouldn’t listen to me trying to explain (and to be honest, sometimes making up an excuse) and that was certainly frustrating and made me feel helpless but I wasn’t punished for it unless I started yelling or being disrespectful.

  • smrnda

    An adult who is obsessed with getting ‘respect’ for little kids must have some major insecurities or ego issues. Kids yelled at or insulted me all the time when I worked with children, but kids are learning social conventions the same way they are learning everything else; they’re likely to screw up a bit.

  • wanderer

    You’re lucky to have a brother you can talk that openly about your feelings & experiences with. And he’s lucky to have you.
    I felt stifled just reading how it was for you. (for me I felt that way growing up too, but not to the degree you described here).

  • Karen

    I had a lot of issues with my mother growing up, but she did stop to listen to me. I remember once I was playing on front porch with a playmate. She rang the doorbell and told my mother I hit her. My mother dragged me in the house, and angrily demanded why, and I told her I’d done no such thing. “Why didn’t you say that out there?” Mama demanded. “Because we were on our porch, and you told me never to correct a guest,” I answered. She was blindsided by that one, but she (correctly) believed me.

    • Fish Jones

      That’s actually kinda cute.

      I only ‘backtalked’ (or told I was backtalking?) a couple times–usually right after a movie where I was obviously parroting the character. I still have a hard time watching a specific movie because of memories of that.

  • Chris Buchholz

    This brought back so many memories. Things were not nearly as bad for me, but I well remember the spankings if I tried to explain, and how my parents refused to listen every single time. So many times i was punished and I didn’t even understand why.

    And then I’d go to my friends’ house, and they really would back talk their parents, and not do chores, and I couldn’t believe they were spanked, or that they dared to talk to their parents that way. I though they were “bad” but as we grew up, they were the well adjusted ones with normal relationships.

  • Sarah

    Wait, wait, wait! OK, I’ve read TTUAC, I read half a dozrn fundy blogs and seeral ex-fundy blogs, and no-ones’s ever said you’re not allowed to explain yourself.

    My GAWD! That is just… Even worse than the beatings, I think. Wow, I’m gobsmacked.

  • JeseC

    Did you ever get in trouble for “attitude”? That was the other big one. To this day I have no idea what my mother’s criterion for a bad attitude are.

    • Libby Anne

      Oh heck yes! And also for pouting. No attitudes allowed, no pouting, none of that! So . . . smile!

      • JeseC

        Gotta love that one. Once I hit college I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Guess spankings don’t do a whole lot to cure mental illness?

      • Niemand

        You know, the phrase “the beatings will continue until morale improves” is SUPPOSED to be satire. I’m not sure every parent understands that…

  • LeftSidePositive

    Lifelong atheist here, with fairly counter-culture parents (albeit with 6 Ivy League educations between them), and I don’t remember ever getting in trouble for back-talking, and even for my little sister I remember the parents let us speak our piece and it was an important part of learning and having what my mother would call “a parenting moment.” My parents were big on questioning authority, one of the things I’ve always liked about them! I think this has something to do with both us kids being eager critical thinkers, not to mention great friends with our parents, even through our teen years!

    The other thing–has it never occurred to these evangelical parents that back-talking can be FUN?! Back-talk and general one-upsmanship is part of being open and affectionate, and as long as there’s a groundwork of respect there, it’s great to banter! (And makes the kids actually enjoy talking to their parents, so they’ll call home once they move out!)

    • Carol

      I was raised with fairly conservative, although not religious, parents. There was very little talk, very little bantering. The generation gap was the size of the grand canyon. I still find them extremely hard to speak with.

      With my 2 teenagers, I have the kind of relationship you describe here and it’s great. They back talk, they sass me, it’s all done very affectionately, and we all get a kick out of it. After a lifetime of weighing the import every single thing I say, it’s freeing. We value having a sense of humor, rather than obedience which is not a value in our house. My kids are wonderful, smart, dedicated students, they’re loving, and really funny. I enjoy their company enormously. I know every parent says that about their kids, but in my case it’s true, hahahaha. Actually, my big problem with them is that, to me, they are just way too cute. Still, as teenagers. I just look at them and say “how can I say ‘no’ to that face.”

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    My mom never let us explain and being the eldest I was the one always punished because I should be more responsible (and we didn’t even dare to have an attitude, my mom was too damn scary). I didn’t have the tools to deal with my brother who wanted constant attention from me and was a pretty good manipulator (or at least that was my mother says) and I finally complained enough times to my mother that she said that if he was messing with me or annoying me, I should call for her instead of fighting with him (which always ended with me being punished anyway). Cue me calling her and my mother mocking “Mum, mum, mum” without coming. I’m never going to do that to my kids.

  • Marta Layton

    This is the first of your posts that I’ve read, and I can tell you, I’ll be coming back for more. You strike me as a compassionate + wise mum who really “gets” what’s going on in moments like this.

    Since neither I nor my siblings are parents, my mind went in a different direction than to my own kids, nieces, nephews, etc. I thought of other adults whose reasons are discounted by those in a position to judge them. It could be the Arabs who react violently to Westerners after generations of colonization and imperialistic wars. It could be the “urban youths” who spraypaint graffiti because it’s the only way to show the world they matter. you even see it in the frustration to Republican memes like the 47%. It isn’t a strictly rational reaction; there’s a lot of frustration at being rendered voiceless.

    I’ve seen similar dynamics at work in more personal situations, particularly with the women and racial minorities I’ve known in academia. And definitely in my own mindset, too. This is a good description of that feeling, but also a good key at how to address it.

  • Lilly

    I didn’t want to have kids either – for the same reasons. I HATED that authoritarian crap I was raised with. There was no way I wanted to perpetrate that. But I have a fun, happy little girl now. and when my mom tells me to “tap her on the leg,” which sounds so harmless, but really means, “smack her so hard that it hurts and you are controlling her with pain,” I just pretend I don’t hear. You CAN be a christian who doesn’t spank. Thank God for Dr. Sears. This is EXACTLY how I feel around my brother and sister’s kids. I’m always waiting tensely for them to mess up and get smacked and it makes me a nervous wreck.