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If you’re anything like me you might initially get a bit (read: explosively) triggered by… Back Talk. I grew up in a hierarchical, patriarchal, conservative, British, environment A culture that invented “children should be seen and not heard” and in a religion “honor thy mother and they father” = lots of emphasis on respecting our elders, which I love by the way.
I do, I believe deeply in respecting elders. I just need to say that, loud and clear. And… I’ve rounded out that belief with some amendments: Respecting Youngers. Respecting nature. Respecting all sentient beings.
This idea that many of us have learned that respect is a one way street – that runs from younger to elder, but not vice versa, can be traced as the source of endless childhood wounds and disconnected families. It doesn’t make sense (why would age classify some for respect and not others? Is it like a sliding scale? Or is there a particular age threshold – say 18, or 21 in some countries – where you suddenly “ qualify” for respect?). But it is nonetheless perpetuated by the intergenerational repetition of patterns, defended by such cliches as “My parents did it to me, and I turned out fine”.
The idea that children should “do as we say, not as we do” – means that we entertain the fantasy, and the delusion, that we can raise them to be respectful of us, without extending them that same basic decency.
When parents resort to disrespectful communication (character assassinations, shaming, blaming, yelling, emotional manipulations, punishments, demands, criticism or bribing) – children may “buckle down” and cough up their “pleases and thankyous”, they may “Yes Sir”, “Yes Ma’am” us – and we will have created the illusion of success. Voila! We’ve produces a respectful child.
But when that same child grows up and repeats this pattern of powering over younger, weaker people – resorting to the same violent forms of communication to finally cash in on the respect they’ve now earned (by mere calculations of age) – this theory might begin to crack.
Here’s the thing: unless they’re mired in fear of us, children treat us the way we treat them. The way they talk to us is usually an uncanny replica of our own communication style. Plus outside influences of TV shows and other kids they watch and learn from.
In other words: BACK TALK IS A MIRROR.
Why is it that when we adopt these tones and words with our children we’re “parenting”, but when they return them to us they’re being “rude”? Doesn’t this remind us of some other double standards we’ve held in society?
Throughout history humans have played out many dynamics of “powering over” and one-way respect streets. “Respect me because… I’m white! I’m a man! I’m a Doctor! I’m rich! I’m Big! I’m Strong! I’m powerful”… is no less corrupt, to me, than “Respect me because I’m older!”
And here’s another question: Doesn’t respecting someone else reflect more on the individual doing the respecting rather than on the individual being respected? In other words: when a (big, white, strong, male) person, respects a (black, small, weak, female) person – what does this say about the respecter, and the respected? Surely it’s our right and duty to be respectful to all people, regardless of who they are. Surely the act of respecting is completely independent of the need for earned respect?
My belief is that just like men and women, people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, nationalities and income status – should all be spoken to respectfully.
So when my child talks back here’s what I can do:
1. Center Myself.
Take a deep breath in. This is not an emergency.
The first step to conscious parenting is to practice non reactivity.
Instead of reacting, I’m going to try responding.
2. Take ownership.
I know I just spoke harshly.
I asked that in an unkind tone.
I shouldn’t have said it that way.
3. State my feelings.
I don’t like being spoken to like that.
That tone of voice doesn’t sound good to my ears.
These words don’t feel good to me.
I get upset when you use those words.
4. Ask for a restart.
Can we start over?
Would you mind phrasing it differently?
Is there a different way you could say that?
5. React playfully.
“You think I should clean your mess?!
Ohhhhhh! Right I forgot! I’m the Big Mess Cleaning Machine!
HELLO, MY NAME IS MESSGONEMISSION.
Uh. Oh. My battery is 2%.”