I can still hear the frustration in her voice as she asked why "once, just once, I couldn't accept (well-earned) correction without justification or excuses or saying something back." It was a familiar complaint. She saw it as excuses and justification, and perhaps as trying to wiggle out of punishment. I saw it quite differently. To me, it was a matter of truth and justice and knowing all the facts. Sometimes I would try (a little) to not respond. It usually lasted about three seconds, if that. It was like trying to contain a fire hose. Regardless of any punishment (including soap in the mouth or even a slap, which was rare for my mom--she was at her wit's end), it just gushed out of me.
"Ah, teenagers," some of you may think. No, this was all old hat by the time I was four. It peaked around age six, I think.
This was not a sign of disrespect, although it was frequently interpreted that way. On the contrary, if I had truly not cared about her opinion, I wouldn't have bothered to engage as much. I had enough respect for her character to assume that she wanted the full story and that in the interest of justice, she would appreciate a full knowledge of the facts, despite her protestations.
30 some years later, I have come to believe that this is part of the way that God created me, and many of the other kids who do the same thing, because as an adult, I am grateful for the gifts these traits have brought into my life. See, while it would have been much more convenient from a parent's point of view to just tell me something and have me do it, mine were forced into explaining things far more than some parents. The result was that I internalized values and acted from my own convictions rather than for whatever little carrot or stick was present. It was a lot more work when I was younger, but when I was older, I was remarkably resistant to peer pressure. Being able to follow my own conscience is a gift, and I am thankful that my parents nurtured it by taking the time to persuade rather than coerce.
Another thing? I still speak up, and I still want to look at all the possible viewpoints of any argument. It has helped me to research and learn about all kinds of topics. It has encouraged me to grow in creativity and compassion. It has increased my ability to empathize with others, and made me a better person.
As a parent, I have also learned that what most people would consider to be backtalk is a signal. It means that I need to do one of two things: collaborate or get off my butt. In the first case, it is about the relationship. Am I trying to be controlling? Am I slipping into the whole children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard/because-I-say-so mindset? If that is the case, then I need to step out of that and invite them in to solve problems. Collaboration, not coercion. And yes, even small children can help come up with solutions for everyone! If it is a safety boundary or something that must be enforced, collaboration still helps, but I also need to do more than just
Wait! Isn't this really defiance, and therefore deserving of punishment? Probably not, and definitely not. I hate that so many minds have been poisoned to the point of seeing defiance under every doily. Questions, and even disagreement are not the same thing as defiance. For a kid like I was, they are more accurately a prelude to whole-hearted obedience. We don't do things "just because", and questioning or at times even arguing is a necessary part of the process of understanding for us, so that when we do follow through with the instructions, it won't just be surface compliance that is "still standing up on the inside", but unreserved obedience to the spirit behind the request. Don't underestimate the value of that, and don't try to squash that out of your child's spirit. If by chance you succeed, you have lost your greatest ally in what you were trying to teach to begin with.
And as far as punishing it, even if it were "defiance"? Take a look at the Bible. Read the stories about Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and others. They "talked back" to God. And He didn't punish them. In fact, there were times when He counted it as righteousness.
So now, when my own children "talk back", I hear echoes of myself. Sometimes I need to give them a more courteous way to express themselves. But I always want to listen and take their words seriously. Most Hebrew scholars say that the verse in Proverbs about "Train up a child in the way he should go" speaks to guiding the children according to their bent, or God-given nature. I think that what most people see as backtalk is actually a part of that, and that the fruit is a good and healthy thing.