Children need the opportunity to talk back to parents to grow into assertive adults.
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“We have ten minutes before we need to leave – put on a dress now!” I shouted from the bathroom.
“No! You’re not the boss of me.” my daughter yelled back as she slammed her bedroom door.
Ugh. How could this be happening now? I thought.
Here we were getting ready for her choir concert and my daughter was being disrespectful and talking back.
All I wanted was for her to get dressed and hop in the car so we could get to the performance on time.
Her back talk felt like a slap in the face. How dare she be disrespectful to me after all the early mornings I’d put in getting her to choir on time? Not to mention the effort I’d gone to help her pick out a dress for the occasion.
My primal instinct wanted to barge into her room, tell her how ungrateful she was, and demand she put on her dress NOW.
So many times in the past I’ve just blasted back but this time I tried to calm myself down and change my approach.
Why every kid should talk back to their parents
Whether we like it or not, when our kids talk back to us, it’s actually a good thing.
But to understand why, we’ve first got to understand that when kids talk back, their main intent isn’t to be disrespectful. It’s actually a lot more complicated.
Hearing a snarky attitude or disrespect from our kids isn’t easy to put up with.
But underneath those biting words, kids are exercising an important skill – what experts call a positive-assertion of self. In other words, kids are proving they have an opinion and are willing to share it.
And isn’t this something most parents want for their kids? To know how to speak up to peers, strangers, adults or even employers as opposed to shrinking away from confrontation and taking whatever is dished out?
Kids may or may not get a chance to practice a positive-assertion of self in school or even among friends. But it’s in the safety of their own home – where they are unconditionally loved – that children will really be able to hone these skills: speaking up, stating their opinions, letting their voice be heard.
All these skills take practice and lots of it.
Parents can create an environment of trust where kids can practice stating their opinions by:
- Taking the time to listen and acknowledge kids’ thoughts and ideas
- Involving kids in discussions and debates about world and local affairs
- Showing kids respect by resisting the urge to tell them to “just be quiet” or laugh off their questions as silly
- Acknowledging when kids have made a good point even if it’s contrary to our own
- Asking kids to take part in family decisions – where to go on vacation, which restaurant to eat at, which game to play on family game night.
While both boys and girls benefit from this environment of trust, adolescent girls especially need it.
As they head into adolescence, girls receive a tremendous amount of pressure from society and the media to adhere to a quiet, submissive female role. Letting girls know that their opinion matters at home is one step towards helping them hold on to their voice.
But what about the disrespect?
Just because we demonstrate to our kids that we’re willing to listen to their opinions doesn’t mean we have to roll over and put up with a disrespectful attitude.
While parents should let their kids talk back to them – in effect, let kids express how they really feel – possibly even more important is that parents coach their kids on the right way to be assertive.
But before delving into how to teach kids the right way to behave, know that most of the disrespect kids voice is usually coming from a place of feeling hurt, fearful, frustrated, not feeling a connection with others or simply being hungry or tired.
Taking a step back and recognizing that kids’ disrespect usually isn’t intended to be an attack against you personally can begin to calm that urge we feel to put kids in their place.
Being your child’s coach instead of just an adversary
Modeling the best way to share strong emotions is certainly one way to teach kids the most appropriate way to get a point across. Research shows that modeling can affect behavior far more than telling your children what to do.
But parents aren’t the only models in a child’s life and often the impulse to simply lash out with emotionally hurtful statements is strong.
This is when parents can act as coaches. By letting kids know how their words make us feel we can help them begin to see the impact their words have on us and others:
- “I realize you think it’s unjust that you only get to watch one hour of TV but please try to say it to me again in a calm voice.”
- “I understand that you don’t feel like cleaning your room but I do not appreciate you yelling at me. I don’t tend to listen to people who yell at me.”
- “It’s pretty hurtful to hear you say you no longer love me because I won’t let you go to your friend’s house.”
Getting kids to speak and articulate their own opinions and beliefs is the first step, but no one gets far in life without also delivering their message with respect.
To be clear: allowing kids to speak their mind and to let their voice be heard doesn’t mean they automatically get their way. Just because a child feels strongly that they should be allowed to stay out till 2 AM as their friends are, doesn’t mean a parent should automatically cave to their beliefs.
Getting to the heart of the matter
After calming down a bit and reminding myself that my daughter’s outburst was probably unrelated to me, I knocked on her door.
“What?!” she replied.
“Can we talk for a moment about why you don’t want to put your choir dress on?”
Still defensive, my daughters’ answers were anything but helpful: “I just don’t want to.” “I hate that dress.”
“So it’s just that you hate your dress – that’s the reason why you don’t want to get ready to go to choir?”
And then it came out: she was tired, there was too much going on in her life at the moment and she didn’t feel like driving back to school.
“I’m sorry you feel that way. But won’t your friends and choir director miss you if you’re not a part of the performance?”
Later, I added: “Next time when you’re feeling frustrated like this could you please try to communicate these feelings in a calmer way? It’s easier to work together if we speak calmly to each other.”
Slowly but surely my daughter came around to getting dressed. Instead of putting on a dress she wore pants – which were also acceptable for the performance.
We arrived on time and with a smile on her face, she sang and danced. Like so many similar instances, it was as if the earlier lashing out had never happened.
It isn’t every time that I’m able to hold my composure and not raise my voice. But when I do take a step back and resist the urge to lash out, more often than not we reach a resolution more easily and peacefully. Plus, everyone gets dressed on time.
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