Why I Taught My Children To Talk Back
photo courtesy of Mike Baird
When my kids were kids, as young as 3 to 5, it bugged the hell out of me when they would do what I said. Ok, go ahead and read that again.
Oh sure, I was happy enough when we’d all finish eating, for example, and I’d say please bring your plates to the sink and they would do it. The easy stuff. What really got to me was when I would ask them to do something, like clean up their toys or their room or help me with a chore or go brush their teeth and … I could sense immediately that they did not want to do what I had asked them to do … and they would begin to do it anyway, despite what their feelings were about it. THIS is what bugged me. It felt like abuse to me. I know how I feel when someone asks me to do something I don’t want to do … and I certainly don’t want to do it just to please them (doing things to please others because it feels good is a completely different type of act).
So, I had to rectify my discomfort and dissonance in such situations, so… I taught my kids to argue with me, a.k.a. talking back. When I could tell they didn’t want to do the thing I had asked them to do, before they started doing it (against their will), I would say wait a second, why don’t you want to do it? … I can tell you don’t really want to do this thing … why? And then they would tell me: because I am in the middle of something, because I don’t care if my room is clean, because I am going to do it later, because I just don’t feel like it now. Oh! Of course! I get that, I feel like that too sometimes and I would love the freedom to choose when and how I will do that. Ok then. I didn’t mean to interrupt you or tell you what to do or second guess your plans for this or…. Easy.
While many parents feel powerful when their kids hop to whatever they ask or demand of them, I was just the opposite. I feel powerful when my children are powerful. I can deal with my own power issues all by myself, thank you very much. I don’t need to boss my kids around to feel powerful.
I know exactly what you’re saying here but I can’t say I’ve exercised this as consciously. ‘Talking back’ can easily be reframed when we consider children as equally important individuals. It’s called open, honest communication. What is deemed ‘fresh,’ ‘sass,’ or ‘talking back,’ is an adult’s perception in our struggle to achieve and maintain the power that was taken from us as children. This came up at a mom’s night out recently, actually. Another mom brought up the thought that we- as traditionally parented adults attempting to raise children in an egalitarian household- need to come to terms with the fact that we will never get ‘our turn.’ When we are kids we’re told that we’ll be able to make this decision, do that, or talk this way when we’re adults. Well, now we’re adults attempting to be cognizant enough in our interactions with our children such that we don’t perpetuate the power struggle. We won’t get our turn to oppress or be worshipped. We do, however, get to know something even better.
When I ask my children if they can help me with something and they say ‘no,’ I have the pause to understand what is the most important in their lives in that moment. When I give them room to say ‘no,’ they more often say ‘yes.’ I know that when they are doing something, it is because they find value in it. They are not doing it for my praise, to live up to an expectation, or because they will get in trouble if they don’t.
And yet, as I think it about it, this is really a byproduct of a much bigger picture in our household. The respect and constant, open communication supports an environment in which we really understand each other and honor the things that are important to each of us. If I’m asking for help, it’s not a power play. I really would like help. And vice versa! If we cannot help or just don’t want to for some reason, we are open with that. Family and friends are awed by my children’s genuine desire to be helpful. “Boy, I wish my kids were….” But, you know what? It’s behavior. And behavior is governed by 1) intrinsic desires which propel us toward what feels good, 2) external manipulation which causes aversion, and 3) mentorship. Attempting to change behavior through manipulation may yield temporary results but long-term inter- and intra- personal disconnect for the child.
I don’t think kids necessarily need to be encouraged to evaluate their decision making unless they are accustomed to acting under duress. Much of the process (if not all) is for us, as parents, to accept that we are only in control of ourselves and that our self worth is not contingent on being ‘the adult.’
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