Saturday, January 15, 2011

Backtalk

As a child, I was, to put it mildly, a handful.  Not only was I strong willed, but typical rewards and punishments didn't work very well.  My intrinsic motivation was strong enough that if it conflicted with any external motivation, I would do it (or say it) anyway.   My poor mom.  I always knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she loved me dearly, but it is only now that my own children demonstrate some of my traits that I see what she was up against.  For her, the most exasperating thing of all was my constant backtalk.

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 yell state what they need to do.  I have to get up, interrupt whatever I am doing, pay attention and physically maintain the necessary boundary.  Is it fun and convenient?  Not really.  Is it necessary and better in the long run?  Absolutely.

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.

11 comments:

Jen said...

Woo Hoo!!! There *IS* hope!!! Thank you for this, Dulce. Much love to you and yours.

granny2five said...

Hmmmmm. You're such a sweetheart. Always looking for the positive. That's a good thing.

Brenda said...

I so needed to read something like this! My oldest is a back talker. Your description of how you were as a child is almost as if you are talking about her. She is a see it to believe it kind of kid and demands an explanation for almost everything. I really really hope that this trait will help her with peer pressure as she is older because I already see it. She has a mind of her own!

Staci said...

Love this!

Nicole said...

I recognize my oldest in the description of your younger self as well. I've asked the same question to him as your mom asked to you. He's almost 11 and I do see that he'll be more resistant to peer pressure than his sister might be. There are positives if we can make sure to look for them and not dwell on the negatives.

Maria said...

Great post Dulce! It really helped me to re-think the "why" of my son's current behavior. :)

Rachel and Brennan said...

This was wonderful! It's so nice to get a new perspective on things that *I* for one have been ingrained with as being "bad". I have said several times about my firstborn daughter (only 2 1/5 now) that no one will ever be able to MAKE her do anything! :) In saying that, I was thinking down the road. This was very helpful because we are just starting in the so-called sass / backtalk stage, so this gave me a head start on ideas to handle it. Just today, I told her that if she wanted to tell me something (her tone came across very sassy after I asked her not to climb on the table lol), she just needed to use a "gentle voice" and that helped tremendously. ;) Thanks again!!

Mike and Christie said...

What a good post! Thanks. I am really enjoying your blog. :)
"finding defiance under every doily".
ROFL....

Libby Anne said...

I LOVE this! It's so true! The thing about acting from internalized values rather than for the carrot or stick - that was SO me! And isn't that how parents should prefer it? Yay back talk!

TealRose said...

I agree ... a lot of 'backtalk' isn't at all. It's stretching the child's mind, trying to find out what is REALLY going on .. ! And my own daughter ... used to use a terrible tone of voice quite often, throughout her childhood - and I often found myself saying .. ' V, could you say that again .. it isn't so much WHAT you are saying ...as HOW you are saying it! ' ... She quite often couldn't understand 'whatever you mean mum' ... I actually asked her one day ..'Do you speak to your FRIENDS like that ???' and she stared at me for a second .. and said with a perplexed look on her face .. 'Yes' ... I discovered on listening to them in a group that they did indeed use what WE would call 'hurtful' tones .. and it rolled off them like water on a duck's back. It was just the way they talked together. I didn't like it .. butI did understand ... but still asked her to say things in a 'nicer' manner when addressing us! Even now, there are times I cringe when she says something ... but remember that .... she is in a different age group, and a different area than I grew up in ... And she is now 31 !!!

Pippi said...

I needed to read this. Andy must be just like you....