In Defense of Letting Kids Talk Back

In Defense of Letting Kids Talk Back November 7, 2015

I grew up in a family where “back talk” was not allowed. The result was that I often felt muzzled and suffocated. For example, when I was in trouble any attempt to explain what actually happened or to disagree with a selected punishment and suggest an alternative resulted in more “spanks” being added to my punishment total. I often felt compelled to say something—to speak out in the face of what appeared to me to be clear injustice—but any words I might say were silenced, replaced by increased corporal punishment.

Could I have been in the wrong, though? Maybe I was just trying to make excuses? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Part of being a parent is listening to your child and communicating with your child. When you silence your child, you teach her that her words, her views, her opinions do not matter. That is not a good message to send! If you listen to your child’s explanations of a given action and deem them inadequate, you talk about that. You help them understand why what they did was wrong and talk about the importance of taking responsibility for your actions. You talk it out. That, and not through silencing and punishment, is how learning occurs.

I’ve written about back talk before, but today I want to take a moment to highlight a couple of articles I’ve come upon recently on the subject of back talk.

First is The Reason Every Kid Should Talk Back to Their Parents, by blogger and clinical psychologist Kelly Flanagan. Flanagan begins with telling a story in which he tells his son to give him some toys and his son responds with an adamant “no.” As Flanagan explains:

The parent in me feels like a failure because I’m not being respected. The parent in me gets angry because I feel out of control and I’m supposed to be “in charge.” And the human in me feels just plain sad, because the morning just got a whole lot harder.

But the psychologist in me is secretly thrilled he said “No.”

Because the inability to say “No”—the inability to set personal boundaries—is one of the most common, insidious causes of human suffering.

When we can’t say “No,” 

we become a sponge for the feelings of everyone around us and we eventually become saturated by the needs of everyone else while our own hearts wilt and die,

we begin to live our lives according to the forceful should of others, rather than the whispered, passionate want of our own hearts,

we let everyone else tell us what story to live and we cease to be the author of our own lives,

we lose our voice—we lose the desire planted in our souls and the very unique way in which we might live out that desire in the world,

we get used by the world instead of being useful in the world,

we give in to the pressure of a friend and we drink and drive and we endanger lives,

we cave in to a persuasive boyfriend and we end up pregnant,

we get taken in by a sales pitch and we bury ourselves in oppressive debt,

we get abused by a boss and end up with long hours at work and a short fuse at home,

we cater to our kids’ every need and we begin to resent their demands and we fantasize about a deserted island in the Caribbean,

we submit to unhealthy partners and they keep drinking or working or gambling or flirting and we end up in the backseat of our own lives.

There is no end to the ways our lives are diminished by our inability to say “No.” And when a client of mine is being wrecked by porous boundaries, I will often ask this question: “How did your parents respond when you said ‘No’ as a child?” And I will almost always hear this answer: “Oh, you wouldn’t dare say ‘No’ to my parents.”

Read the rest here. What I really really appreciated about Flanagan’s piece is the importance he places on the child’s ability to say no. I’ve talked a lot here on my blog about preparing children for adulthood. I’ve explained that valuing obedience over every other trait, as some parents seem to, does not actually prepare children for adult lives. When we instead teach our children skills like listening, communicating, and brokering deals (aka compromises) we give them tools that will serve them well as adults. When we parent with adulthood in mind, we parent differently.

But enough with the reasons, what about the results? What does the research say about children who are allowed to talk back? We can find some answers to this question in a slightly older piece, Why A Teen Who Talks Back May Have A Bright Future, which looks at a study by psychologist Joseph P. Allen.

In Allen’s study, 157 13-year-olds were videotaped describing their biggest disagreement with their parents. The most common arguments were over grades, chores, money and friends. The tape was then played for both parent and teen.

“Parents reacted in a whole variety of ways. Some of them laughed uncomfortably; some rolled their eyes; and a number of them dove right in and said, ‘OK, let’s talk about this,'” he says.

It was the parents who said [they] wanted to talk who were on the right track, says Allen. “We found that what a teen learned in handling these kinds of disagreements with their parents was exactly what they took into their peer world,” with all its pressures to conform to risky behavior like drugs and alcohol.

Allen interviewed the teens again at ages 15 and 16. “The teens who learned to be calm and confident and persuasive with their parents acted the same way when they were with their peers,” he says. They were able to confidently disagree, saying ‘no’ when offered alcohol or drugs. In fact, they were 40 percent more likely to say ‘no’ than kids who didn’t argue with their parents.

For other kids, it was an entirely different story. “They would back down right away,” says Allen, saying they felt it pointless to argue with their parents. This kind of passivity was taken directly into peer groups, where these teens were more likely to acquiesce when offered drugs or alcohol. “These were the teens we worried about,” he says.

It turns out that “roll over and do what I say” is a terrible thing for parents to teach children. It turns out that what I said about encouraging children to communicate and allowing them to have their own ideas and proposals on an issue does in fact provide children with useful skills. It turns out that saying “no” and talking back to their parents is something children need to learn to do. It turns out that parenting for adulthood is more effective longterm than parenting for obedience.

Don’t get me wrong, having your child obey you without question is convenient. It makes parenting a lot easier! This is what people mean when they say corporal punishment “works.” But does it really? As parents, should we prioritize convenience over raising independent adult capable of navigating the world and making informed decisions? I think the answer is obvious.

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