Award-winning author, L.R.Knost

Backtalk is Communication…LISTEN

[Reprinted from Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline also available through Amazon and other major retailers.]

balktalk is a cry for helpWith more than 90% of parents admitting to spanking or otherwise physically punishing their children at least occasionally, mainstream American parenting can certainly be defined as punitive. If you go to the library or browse the shelves at Barnes & Noble or check out Amazon’s best sellers in the parenting genre, you will find a predominance of popular, punishment-based, obedience-focused parenting guides. Whether its spanking or time outs or removal of privileges or time confined in their room, the vast majority of children in the United States are raised with punitive parenting.

When it comes to children talking back to parents, many of these punitive parenting guides dictate a zero-tolerance policy. By their definition, backtalk is often characterized as verbal or emotional abuse of parents, defiance, rudeness, or threats:

  • Verbal or emotional abuse of parents is considered any statement that insults or hurts a parent such as, “You’re so mean!” or “I wish I didn’t even have parents!” or “I hate you!”
  • Defiance is any statement containing the word “No” in response to a parental      command.
  • Rudeness is defined as anything from deep sighs to rolled eyes to stomped feet.
  • Threats are any statements that give conditions such as, “If you take away my cell phone, I’ll just go get a new one!” or “If you don’t drive me to my friend’s house, I’m walking there!”

These parenting guides direct parents to decide which punishment to mete out when their child talks back to them, specifying that the deciding factor should be whichever punishment would be the most unpleasant, painful, and distressing for the child. Punishments are to be carried out swiftly and without discussion. When the retribution for the child’s actions is over, it is to be followed with a lecture laying down the laws of the family. Again, no discussion is allowed, but if the child expresses appropriate penitence, love and hugs can then be offered.

In addition to the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach at the thought of children being subjected to this kind of harsh, punitive parenting, I’m saddened by the upside-down reasoning that shuts communication down instead of utilizing it to bring healing, understanding, and restoration to the parent/child relationship.

Take a look at the order of parenting prescribed: First, punishment meted out by the parent. Second, lecture delivered by the parent. Third, conditional reconnection based on a proper expression of remorse to the parent from the child.

In gentle parenting, the order and intent of parenting would be the polar opposite: First would come listening for the need behind the behavior and reconnecting with the child at the point of need. Second, would be initiating a two-way communication about the problem and brainstorming about how to address the issue in ways that will meet everyone’s needs. Third, would be offering guidance and equipping the child with better ways to express needs in the future.

The punitive parenting approach focuses on the child as the problem and attempts to solve the problem by ‘fixing’ the child through intentionally unpleasant external forces.

The gentle parenting approach focuses on the child having a problem and attempts to help the child solve the problem through connection, communication, and inviting cooperation.

Now look at the definitions of backtalk–verbal and emotional abuse of parents, defiance, rudeness, and threats. The questions that immediately arise are: What about the parents? Are they held to the same standards as the children? Or do they threaten? Do they say ‘No’? Do they sigh? Do they hurt their children?

As parents, our actions will always be reflected in our children’s behavior. Children learn what they live. No amount of lecturing can undo the powerful impact on a child of their parent’s own behavior and choices.

When a child backtalks, sometimes also referred to as mouthing-off or sassing, they are in the throes of a huge, internal maelstrom of emotion. Whatever they are reacting to in the moment, whether it’s being told ‘no’ about something or being asked to do or not do something, it is rarely those issues that are at the root of the problem. The moment at hand is just the tipping point causing a fissure in the child’s heart that lets out a bit of the steam inside. The real concern should be that there is, metaphorically, steam in the child’s heart to begin with.

It is at this point that parents have the opportunity to model self-control and self-regulation by controlling their own knee-jerk reaction to their child’s backtalk. Instead of meeting fire with fire, childish outburst with childish parental outburst, child’s tantrum with adult tantrum, parents can slow down, breathe through their own emotions, and then listen through the fiery storm of their child’s words to the hurt, fear, and anger behind the words.

In the same way that “a gentle answer turns away wrath,” a soft-voiced, “Let’s take a minute and calm down so we can work through this together, okay?” from a parent is a magical, healing balm that immediately begins to diffuse tough situations and creates an atmosphere in which connection and communication can bring effective, peaceful solutions not only to the issue at hand, but to the inner turmoil that prompted the outburst in the first place.

Meeting a child at their point of need when that need is expressed through meltdowns, yelling, disrespect, or defiance takes patience, self-control, and empathy on the part of a parent, which can be a huge growth experience for the parent if they, themselves, were not parented that way. But the impact of living those positive life skills in front of our children is immeasurable.

Parenting isn’t a perfect science and parents aren’t perfect people, but creating an overall atmosphere of respect in a home starts with the parents modeling respect in their own tone of voice, in their own reactions to stressful situations, in their own interactions with their children.

It’s not easy, for sure. But the best things, the most valuable things, in life rarely are. Working toward being understanding, available, and responsive to our children’s needs yields a priceless return in our relationship as the years fly by and adulthood looms. Not meeting those needs, though, may have serious negative consequences…

Dear Daughter,

You entered your teen years with a bang a few years ago, and the explosions have been shattering our home ever since. I’ve begged, threatened, bribed, and punished; cried, shouted, and bargained; but I just can’t find a way to reach you anymore. You constantly say I don’t listen to you, but how can I when you won’t talk to me? You say I don’t understand you, but how can I when you push me away? You say we aren’t a family, but then spend every day with earphones in your ears, blocking us out. You ask me why I hate you, then roll your eyes when I tell you I love you. How did it come to this? We used to be such a happy family. Please, let me be there for you during this huge transition in your life. Let’s really try to communicate with each other. I’m just lost here, honey, and I need you to reach out and help me reconnect with you. I love you.

Your Dad 


‘Dear’ Dad,

Happy family? Are you kidding me? No, I guess not. You never did get it. Okay, you asked, so I’ll tell you. You were always happy because you were always in control. Want to know why I don’t talk to you now? Because you never listened when I was little. When I was scared in my room at night and called you, you either ignored me or threatened to spank me if I didn’t go to sleep. I’d lay there, crying so hard I’d almost throw up, terrified of the sounds and shadows in my room, but even more terrified of you. So, sorry, but I don’t buy that you’re ‘there for me’ when it’s only ever been at your own convenience. When you were mad at something I’d done and I tried to explain myself, you’d call it backtalk and smack me in the mouth. So forgive me if I don’t really believe you when you say you want to ‘communicate’ with me now. When I’d try to show you a dance I’d made up or tell you about how someone had pushed me on the playground, you couldn’t even be bothered to look away from your stupid computer while I was talking, so if I’m wrapped up in my electronics, I learned that little trick from you, Father Dear. Oh, and reconnect? Really? That implies that we were once connected. But when I was a little girl and invited you into my world and asked you to play with me, you were always too busy. So if you don’t understand me, sorry, but that invitation expired years ago. Want to know why I think you hate me? Because your actions told me so. Your ‘love’ is just words.

‘Your’ Daughter


Not all children react this way to harsh, punitive, control-based parenting, of course. Some children, due to personality, other influences and mentors in their lives, or simply as a survival instinct, will turn out okay despite how they are parented.

But ‘okay’ is too mediocre a goal when it comes to growing our children into the adults who will one day lead our world. Instead of raising children who turn out okay despite their childhood, let’s raise children who turn out extraordinary because of their childhood. Let’s grow excellent, outstanding, remarkable adults who will be world changers for the next generation and the generations to come.

Related posts:

When Children Act Out ~ Reflecting Our Emotions

The Problem with Punishment

Changing the World, One Little Heart at a Time

12 Steps to Gentle Parenting

Practical, Gentle, Effective Discipline

The Color of Change

Children of Violence

Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.

35 Responses

  1. tbdora

    I really find myself in this post, I presume that I m one of those children who turn out okay despite their childhood. It took 21 years to start to communicate with my parents, and yet I’m the one who always has to start conversation, and always will be, and probably the only one who listen, and now I am looking that they are doing the same thing with my 12yrs younger sister, even I told them many times to listen to her …I suppose that this is the main reason why I am trying so hard to be a better parent to my daughter…thank you for this instructive post, and thank you for encouraging us every day to be a better persons and parents at the same time. You are a truly heroin of our time!!!

    July 10, 2013 at 3:13 am

    • This is so true. I feel the same way. We were always told to listen. But I never felt like they really listened to us. I was suicidal at 14, my mom almost saw me jump off a balcony, but she wasn’t paying attention. She was wondering what I was doing, but I said- “Nothing” That was a good enough answer for her. She loved talking about her day, and herself, but what I always wanted was a real conversation about how I feel. But I wonder, if I even tried to explain how I feel if she had the capacity to understand it, or would she just be too blind or deaf to my emotions to really see me or hear me.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:51 pm

      • Oh, mama, I’m so sorry. What a traumatic memory, and it sounds like you still need some closure. Do you have a church with a counselor on staff or maybe a local community center that offers an outreach? Having someone to walk through those hard and hurtful experiences with will help you to work toward finding peace with your past and forgiving the people who hurt you. It’s amazing the freedom the FORGIVER finds in the forgiveness they give. Even if the person they are forgiving doesn’t care or isn’t around anymore, the person doing the forgiving is walking around with hurt in their heart that will continue to poison their life until they let it go through forgiveness. I hope you find the peace you need to have a happier present and future. <3

        July 16, 2013 at 1:52 pm

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  3. I hope I have found the right place to enter to win. If not that’s OK too. I love the good reading material I have found!

    August 7, 2013 at 8:05 pm

  4. Carrie C

    Thank you for your work!!!

    August 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm

  5. Roberta Ferguson

    Looking to learn from your book. Would like to win one, but I’ll buy it if I have to. 😉

    August 7, 2013 at 8:39 pm

  6. I can truly relate to your post. I had a very traumatic childhood, one that no child should ever have to go through. I moved far away from my hometown so that I would never have to see the people who made my childhood a living nightmare. I would never treat my children the way that I was raised. Instead I have worked tirelessly in making a beautiful life for my own family. Being a parent is never an easy task however with teaching your children about true morals and values respect and courage is so important. Communication is the key to creating a happy home. In our family You are to be seen and Heard,,,everyone has something valuable to offer, and listening to each other makes home life a happy place to grow up.

    August 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm

  7. Kelly

    So glad to have found your work so that I don’t parent the way I was parented. Thank you for making me a better, gentler parent.

    August 7, 2013 at 9:32 pm

  8. Laura Merrigan (peters)

    thanks so much for sharing all these!!

    August 7, 2013 at 10:54 pm

  9. Pati Mattison

    I was raised in you do it no matter what. So this is a wonderful learning experience for me.

    August 7, 2013 at 11:44 pm

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  11. Thank you for this. I work so hard to keep my yelling at bay that when my children yell I feel compelled to listen to them. I don’t like being yelled at anymore than they do, so I tend to ask them to come back when they’re calm enough to say what they need to say respectfully. While I don’t necessarily disagree with consequences for rudeness or other such behavior, talking back IS talking. We as parents can’t simply take it as disobedience or insolence and punish the behavior. What happens when the child then decides that talking isn’t worth the punishment? Sure, some parents may say that talking back is worth punishment, but talking is different. I disagree. And I’m starting to feel like “punish” is a term I do NOT want to use.

    Life be hard, yo.

    August 23, 2013 at 1:19 pm

  12. jenn

    Oh wow…those letters really spoke to me. And I hate to think that I am the dad right now with the little children and the head in the laptop and the sigh and slight eye roll because my 6 year old who NEVER stops talking is STILL talking and I can’t even hear my own thoughts. My three year old is so….three…and he can’t be reasoned with…and my one year old is so …one and feisty and into everything and their mom is just so…tired. I really thought I would be a better parent! I am only 6 years and 3 kids in and I feel like I am not even close to doing what I thought I could. Because I don’t know where to start and I don’t know how to set the limits between hearing them and trying to compromise and setting the limits because I am at the end of the day their parent (and because with a three year old..there are limits. And when he is screaming at 4:30 am that he wants TOAST NOW NOW NOW NOW NOOOOOOOOOW!!!! and the baby is awake now and I have to be up in 2 hours and NO! I will not be making toast right now…I really kind of feel like just smacking him (…I have never hit my children but wow I can see how it comes to that!) and I just don’t know if I am coming or going some days. I really like your writing and insight so far and I am wondering if you could direct me to which of your resources to start with?

    September 20, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    • I hear you! It sure isn’t easy being a parent, and when you’re a parent three times over with little ones so close in age it can get overwhelming fast! If you have a specific issue or question, pop over to the Little Hearts Facebook page where we’ve well over ten thousand mamas (and daddies!) who are always happy to share their experiences and offer support and suggestions. If you’re new to gentle parenting, ‘Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages’ gives an overview of how gentle parenting applies at each stage of development along with specific examples of how to implement it. If you’re struggling with understanding why your little ones behave the way they do and how to respond, ‘Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood’ offers insights into why children do the things they do and how to effectively communicate with them at each stage of development. Also, check out ’12 Steps to Gentle Parenting’ for some ideas about how to get started and set yourself up for success. Hope that helps, daddy! 🙂

      September 20, 2013 at 11:52 pm

      • April

        Hi, Thank you for this post, for your insight, and for the above resources. I will check out your books as well as your fb page, but I wanted to ask you a question here personally because I’d rather have your answer than a lot of people on fb.

        I was a strong-willed child, and it was not celebrated. My family also yelled a LOT, and I was infamous for “talking back” to my mother. I was and still am told (as an adult) how disrespectful I am to her. I still have anger issues.

        Now, I struggle SO much with yelling, anger, and patience with my own 3 (almost 4) children. I want to parent the way you are describing. I want a connection and a relationship with my kids now that will continue when they reach teenage and then adulthood. But I am short-fused, impatient, and yell so much more than I care to admit.

        I’ve prayed for years about my anger/yelling problem, but I can’t seem to break free of it. I know my children are yelling and talking back because they have watched and learned from me!

        My question…how do “I” change myself?! How, if one comes from so much dysfunction, can you just turn off the yelling and become the example you want your children to follow? Even with a relationship with God, I can’t seem to get there. I know I’ll never be perfect; but I’m also NOT a gentle parent and I don’t know how to be.

        If you have any ideas/advice/books/words of wisdom, etc about how to first become the person I’d like my children to emulate, I would very much appreciate it. Because if I could get myself under control, then I think the rest would fall into place.

        Blessings to you,

        December 4, 2013 at 11:25 pm

        • I hear you, mama. It’s so hard to parent gently when we’re carrying around baggage from our own childhood. In ‘The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline’ I have a chapter called ‘Hurting Parents, Hurting Children’ that addresses that issue. Here’s an excerpt:

          When we find ourselves reacting to our children’s normal childhood behavior with childish outbursts of our own—hitting, demanding our own way, name calling, etc.—that reveals areas we need to grow in our own lives so that we can respond with the true nature of an adult…with maturity, wisdom, confidence, and compassion.
          Examining our negative reactions to our children and identifying where they come from can be difficult because they are so often rooted in our own negative childhood experiences and unmet needs.
          A difficult childhood can leave us as adults with a lack of self-regulation skills that cause a constant, underlying stress. If as a child we were trained to be controlled by others, we may always feel a bit out-of-control when there’s no one to control us except ourselves. If we were abused or neglected, we may have buried hurts so deeply that we don’t even realize they are still there. The result may be that we became an adult who is constantly angry without knowing why or who is a control freak or who can’t handle change or even an adult who has no self-control at all. Unfortunately, it often isn’t until we become a parent ourselves that these hurts begin to surface unexpectedly in outbursts of anger toward our children or an inability to bond with our children or a myriad of other subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
          Seeing our childhood hurts reflected in our children often has the unexpected result of creating anger toward our children in us as well as a resistance to changing the cause of the hurt. That is the hurt child in us lashing out, as children often do when they are in pain.
          Working toward forgiveness and peace with our past in those areas is essential so that we can stop the cycle and not pass along that baggage to our children. Recognizing our childhood hurts and unmet needs, isolating those feelings, and dealing with them with the adult emotional maturity that we now have allows us to process, forgive, and move on so that we don’t repeat the past with our own children.
          That is easier said than done, but it is doable, and it is well worth the emotional investment. Working through our childhood hurts is about forgiving so we can unload our baggage into the past where it belongs instead of unloading it onto our children. Forgiving doesn’t mean trying to convince ourselves that the person or persons who hurt us weren’t at fault or were right to do (or not do) what they did. It means honestly acknowledging their faults and flaws and honestly acknowledging the hurt that resulted. It also means examining our own humanness and failings so we can acknowledge that we, too, aren’t perfect. And it means consciously, intentionally, and consistently choosing to let go of the hurt, put down the baggage, and walk away into a brighter, healthier future.

          In January I also have another Gentle Parenting Workshop coming out for Kindle that will offer step-by-step help for parents struggling with anger. It will only be .99 cents, but I’ll also have several free days where you’ll be able to download it at no cost. If you follow Little Hearts on Facebook you’ll get the updates about when it’s released and when the free days will be available. In the meantime, just being aware of the issues you are facing and wanting to work through them is a major first step, so give yourself a big pat on the back for that, mama. Here’s a link to an article that may help you to start taking more steps in the direction of being the gentle parent you want to be. <3

          December 4, 2013 at 11:41 pm

        • Carrie

          Hi. You are not alone. I identified strongly with your story. My will however was broken and I never rebelled or back talked. Although I don’t regret what it saved me from (bad choices), I am now, at 40 and the mother of 3 littles, one emotional wreck. It’s like a tug-of-war and I would always lose out and get pulled into the messy mud pile of emotional outbursts. This morning was my epiphany and I’ve been finding excellent material to equip me me for positive change. I see it was some time ago when this was posted but I hope you were able to make wonderful use of this valuable info. 🙂
          L.R., I hope and pray that all the parents who do parent this way will be able to inspire and teach other hurting parents how to heal in the same loving and gentle manner God has so graciously equipped you with. I am so encouraged and my hope is restored where the enemy tried so hard to steal it. May God bless and keep each of you and your families!

          February 20, 2015 at 12:01 am

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  19. Those letters brought tears to my eyes! Such a relevant post! Thank you!

    January 31, 2014 at 3:45 am

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  21. Andrea

    Hi — just found this post at an opportune time, as we’re dealing with two major levels of backtalking (10 yr old moving into tweens and 5 yr old moving out of preschool “obedience”), both of which I recognize as age-appropriate, yet it remains hard. You’ve offered an excellent perspective and I appreciate the comments of other respondents. Having researched a great deal into giftedness, I also recognize that these particular kids have less of a filter when it comes to talking with “authority” figures (parents, teachers, etc.) that other kids may more naturally defer to. So I truly *get* the logic behind less punitive parenting measures. And when I’m rested, relaxed, non-stressed, etc., I can keep all this stuff in mind and help our family ship sail more smoothly.

    But what suggestions can you offer when we’re all at the end of our rope — tired/sick, stressed, busy at work, etc.? It seems no matter how hard I try, when things are rocky, my parenting hits the rocks as well, and then the “backtalk” — even if communication — just becomes intolerable! Any suggestions for when OUR resources are low so that we can avoid escalating a situation? Thanks!

    February 17, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    • I hear you, mama! Doing frequent ‘heart-checks’ to make sure we are meeting our own needs is one of the best ways to avoid those parental meltdowns. If you do find yourself in a situation where your “parenting hits the rocks” that’s a good time for an adult time-out. Let your children know that you need a break to calm down and then take a walk or a shower or grab some coffee and sit on the porch for a few minutes, anything to give yourself a few minutes to settle your own big emotions so you can be better situated to help your children process their big emotions. If you find that your parenting ‘hits the rocks’ far too often, then you might want to dig a little deeper and see if you are dealing with some hurts from your own past that you need to heal so you don’t inadvertently pass them along to your children. Here is the link to a self-paced workshop I just released (‘Healing from your Past so you don’t Pass them along to your Children’ – .99 cents on Amazon) that can help you with that: Hope that helps, mama! 🙂

      February 25, 2014 at 9:42 pm

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