Like most parents, I’ve been on the receiving end of eye rolls, rude comments (“Make me!”), and flat-out disrespect (“Whatever!”) from my otherwise adorable children. At 3, my now 10-year-old son went through a big “No!” phase. No, he wouldn’t eat his peas, put on his coat, or sit in timeout. When he didn’t get his way, he’d holler, “Stumpid cheeseman!” which roughly translated to “Meanie!” Of course, that seems downright cute compared to his current zinger of choice (“You’re a big, fat jerk!”).
Such blatant sass might make you worry that your kids are out of control, yet experts insist that back talk is a normal part of growing up — starting as early as toddlerhood. “It’s a child testing limits, practicing assertiveness, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Don’t Give Me That Attitude!
Yes, these are skills kids need to learn, but that doesn’t mean you have to silently seethe while taking lip from your kid. You can put a stop to it at any stage, without losing your cool or raising a doormat. Your age-by-age de-snarking guide starts now!
3 to 5
A preschooler’s limited verbal abilities prevent sassiness from being much more sophisticated than a whole lot of whining, endless “No's!” and impolite demands. But there are nonverbal ways little kids communicate defiance, too, like going boneless. The next time your child tries these budding forms of back talk, nip them with these strategies:
Be a mini mimic
Kids this age don’t realize that their comments are inappropriate, so you have to show them. If your child shouts, “Give it to me!,” repeat her words loudly, then ask how it made her feel. Next, suggest a better way: “I don’t like it when you shout. Let’s ask again nicely. How about, ‘Mom, may I have that book, please?’”
The same trick works on whining. Have your kid listen to the way you say “I don’t want to go to the grocery store” — once in a whiny voice, then again normally. Then ask which one she prefers. Works every time!
Try a game of tag
If role-playing alone isn’t cutting it, move on to a (friendly) game of behavior freeze tag. Tell your kid his feet are glued to the floor and he can’t take another step until he repeats what he just said in a more polite way. This way, you’ll be reinforcing the good behavior you want, rather than punishing the type you don’t.
Give ’em a say
Keep in mind that with little kids, what sounds like rudeness is often a cry for independence. In an effort to gain a little control, preschoolers tend to overassert themselves, even if parents are just asking them to put on a T-shirt. If this happens to you, limit choices to two — the blue shirt or the red — no negotiating. This gives your kid the say she craves, without undermining your authority.
6 to 7
“Children this age are figuring out who they are, so they try on different personas, copying friends or kids on TV,” says Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D., author of The Parents We Mean to Be. Tween shows are rife with characters who snark freely to adults and other kids — and get plenty of laughs for it. Try these tricks if your kid slaps you with “Whatever” or “I’m SO not doing that”:
Ask for a rewind
A big reaction sends the message that sass is a good way to get attention fast. So calmly say, “That was a very disrespectful way to talk to me. Let’s retry.” If back talk is really becoming a habit, ask for a polite redo five (yup, five) times in a row. “It’s more effective at changing problem behavior than doing it just once,” Dr. Borba assures.
Hand over pencil and paper
Sometimes, kids are so worked up that they can’t manage an immediate redo. Don’t force it. Instead, once your child has calmed down, let him jot down how he could do things differently next time.
Keep the convo going
Later it’s important to explain why barbed comments aren’t funny to you, even though your kid may hear them at school. You could say, “When you said ‘Whatever!’ to me earlier, it was rude — it felt like you were blowing off my request. A better way to say that is, ‘I’m in the middle of drawing. Is it okay if I put away my clothes after dinner?’”
Go this route if you’ve tried everything else. My husband and I finally realized that my 7-year-old’s newfound attitude was, as Weissbourd suggests many kids’ are, tied to the tween shows she watches. So in addition to requiring lots of redos and explaining why her snarkiness wasn’t clever, I made the programs off-limits until her behavior changed. Worked. Like. A. Charm.
8 to 10
Tweens know how to push your buttons, especially when they’re feeling rebellious or embarrassed or think you’re invading their space. So back talk is often meaner, more sarcastic, and more blatantly defiant than at other ages. Next time your child screams “I hate you!” or smirks or rolls his eyes at you . . .
Tweens aren’t very subtle, snapping things like “Mom, you’re sooooo annoying!” in reaction to routine reminders. Deep breath. Gently suggest a better way: “Mom, I’m kind of tired of the nagging.” (Yes, this is a lesson you’ll be repeating for years!)
Call a time-out
It’s easy to lose it when your child mocks you repeatedly. Take what Dr. Borba calls a vow of “yellibacy” and make a signal (like a time-out sign) that lets your kid know you’ll discuss this later. Then regroup. (Honor the sign if your child uses it in a heated moment, too.)
After you've both cooled down and you’ve explained why the behavior is unacceptable, ask your kid to come up with spiraled consequences that get progressively harsher each time he talks back, Dr. Borba suggests.
A second offense might mean TV is banned for the rest of the day. For a third, you might pocket his cell phone for the evening. The key is to have your kid decide what the repercussions will be, says Dr. Borba: “The consequences are usually worse than what you’d dream up.”
By not letting back talk slide, you’ll be teaching your child two lessons: to think before he speaks and how to gauge the way his remarks will be interpreted. That’s more than a crash course in Tact 101 — that’s a life skill.