One of the big challenges I’ve faced as a father is back talk and arguing from my children. It’s disrespectful, it’s rude, and it can sometimes really get under my skin. I am a very imperfect person. I am not the most patient man, so the immediate impulse is to blow my stack when my kids are talking back, interrupting, whining, or arguing with me over simple requests (please feed the dog, please take out the garbage, no you may not put on a 4th temporary tattoo, ice cream is not an appropriate dinner, stop putting tape on your sister’s face, etc.). In these situations, I’ve found it valuable to remember that I’m the parent. It seems simplistic, but in simplicity comes wisdom. I am a parent for a reason. I have life experiences, I’ve matured beyond simple childhood impulses, and I’ve learned self control. It’s been said many times, but it still rings true. No matter how tempting, no matter how much easier it may be, you cannot be their best friend. You must set the example.
Sometimes that means not simply exerting my position as alpha dog, but finding effective ways to defuse the situation and deal with the problems in a way that influences them to learn impulse control and find more constructive ways to resolve conflicts. Easier said than done, of course, when a first grader and sixth grader choose the exact moment when you’re on the phone with a client to start arguing with each other about something trivial and won’t let you get a word in edgewise.
Adulting can be hard, but as a parent, I realize that I am 100% in control of my reactions. I choose to rise to the bait or not. So, in no particular order, here are some methods I’ve found useful in dealing with arguing and back talk from my children.
1. Understand that arguing is a normal aspect of development
Kids test their boundaries. They’re supposed to. Parenting is not a cage, it’s guidance. I’ve had to tap into reserves of patience I didn’t know I had. I remind myself that I might have already figured this out, but they have never experienced any of this before. They’re still fumbling their way with trial and error, and they need the freedom to make the mistakes from which they will learn. This is all fresh and new and the most serious problem in the world to them. If your daughter bites your son because he stole the TV remote and they then start yelling at you simultaneously that it’s the other one’s fault, don’t wonder why they both would engage in such a pointless confrontation. Don’t wonder why they can’t always share perfectly. Use every challenge to teach a lesson.
2. Set firm but fair rules
The primary method of not being their best friend is to set the rules. Make sure that they’re simple, fair, and easily understood. I also find it instructive to explain why the rules exist. For instance, I have a strict “no back talk” rule in my house. There are others, but this one is a good example. I explain to my children that it is important to show proper respect to everyone—not simply because I’m the parent, but because I’m a human being. They should treat everyone with the same amount of respect—their friends, their classmates, their fellow Scouts, everyone. That said, listening to and respecting adults in authority is important to the way they develop their worldview.
3. Be proactive
Nip crises in the bud. If I see an approaching storm, I try to deal with it early. If a squall breaks out, deal with the initial crisis first—get the tears to stop, make the scene calm first, and then deal with the source of the conflict. It’s impossible to have a conversation with a sobbing first-grader when she can’t form words. The first step for me is always to calm the situation down.
4. Utilize the spousal partnership
Many years ago, I was a professional credit and collections rep. I spent years in this field, finding new ways to communicate in hostile situations. It’s not easy to get someone who’s angry about his circumstances to calm down and agree to pay back a bill. One effective technique is to bring a second voice into the conversation. It almost always is the case that the second person to come on the line gets yelled at less. My wife and I have found ways to use this same technique when laying out the rules and consequences for the kids. I’m not too proud to admit that I need help solving something. Call it Good Cop / Bad Cop if you like. Of course, this requires a strong partnership with your spouse. You have to know and agree to the rules ahead of time, and agree to enforce them consistently. Don’t give the kids the room to play one off the other—they’ll constantly probe for inconsistencies. Your kids will also be watching how you and your spouse interact. Make sure they always see you being respectful, loving, and uplifting with each other. They’ll notice.
As I said earlier, whatever this fight or back talk is about, it is the most important thing in their world at this moment. Once I’ve defused the crisis, I think it’s important that I understand the root problem and help them find constructive solutions. The more I can understand where they’re coming from, the better equipped I am to help them avoid tantrums and arguing. If they have a legitimate concern, I’m willing to listen to it. If they’re talking back just to argue, I remind them of the consistency with which I try to apply the rules.
6. (Almost) never let them stomp their way upstairs and slam their door
Not only is it annoying, but it’s disrespectful, and it gives them the impression that you only enforce some of the rules. I’ll make my first-grader come back downstairs and walk gently upstairs and close her door quietly. Children need to know that they are expected to behave well all the time. That said, it’s important to develop a sense of when to let things go. Creating an extra, unnecessary fight isn’t helpful. If my sixth-grader is mumbling something under his breath, I’ll often ask him to speak up so I can hear him—but not always. Know when the point has been made.
7. When they’re at their worst, be at your best
Kids are going to throw tantrums for no reason, complain about silly things, talk back just to talk back, and get into confrontations with their siblings. They’re new little vessels filled with all these emotions they need to take for a test drive. They’re also given the ability to learn to cope, but not the experience to do so. As the parent, I’ve already been through this. I have lots of flaws, but I also have the ability to set a good example. Using my experience, I do my best to guide them. It does no good for anyone if I react with the same level of immature emotion they do.