Back Talk

Many of the parents I talk with these days are upset about the nasty, disrespectful way their kids sometimes talk to them.  “Where do they learn to talk like this?” some ask.  “We don’t talk that way to them!”

If you take a bit of time to tune into some of the popular TV shows for kids today, you will quickly see that sarcastic, disrespectful ways of talking to adults run rampant.  Cute kids like Zach and Cody on The Suite Life of Zach and Cody show viewers how to use sassy, talk-back language with parents. And even if your children don’t watch shows like this, they learn how to talk this way from their friends who practice with their peers what they’ve seen on TV.

Recently I noticed that my 10-year old grand daughter Alexia was talking to me and other adults with a sassy, back-talk tone of voice a lot of the time.  This bothered me.  I decided I wanted to deal with it directly.  After dinner one night, when Alexia and I were cleaning up, I said to her “We can sweep the crumbs off the table this way,” and in a curt and nasty, put-down voice with real attitude, she said, “I know.”   I quickly said, “Alexia, I feel hurt when you talk to me in that voice.  You can just say, ‘I know’ (I said this in a neutral tone of voice) and that would feel a lot better to me.”

Alexia didn’t say anything right then, but later she came up to me and spoke to me in a very kind voice.  I said, “I feel so good when you talk to me like that.  I really appreciate your using that kind voice with me;” I smiled into her face and she smiled back.  For the next two days that we were together, Alexia spoke to me only in that more positive voice and never again used the nasty, disrespectful tone she’d been using before.

Kids today see a lot of negative, anti-social models in the media that can seep into their behavior before we know it.  We can help children recognize these behaviors if we point them out directly—without judging or being critical.  We can tell kids with an ‘I-Statement’ how these behaviors make us feel.  And then, when we show children what they could do instead that would make us feel better, they almost always want to make the change we hope to see.


Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch. Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.

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