Back-Talk Boot Camp: Stop the Sass

Listening to my three kids' fresh talk was getting stale in a hurry. I was ready to try anything—and did. Find out which methods worked best. 
Priscilla Gragg

It startedwith a reasonable, motherly request: I asked my 7-year-old daughter, Drew, to put away the matching game she'd been playing with. Her response caught me off guard. With one hand on her hip and a cock of her head, she snapped, "I am SO not doing that!" I tried to keep my cool (i.e., not scream, "I brought you into this world, child, and I can take you out of it!"). I explained evenly and parentally, "You made the mess. You clean it up." Her response? "No way." I was flummoxed. Should I give her a time-out? Try reasoning ("It's disrespectful to talk to your mom that way")? Wash her mouth out with soap? I ended up pointing to the floor, commanded her to "clean it up," and left the room, because I was either going to tackle her or cry.

This was hardly the first time I had been subjected to Drew's back talk. My husband, Thad, and I had noticed her fresh attitude for months. Then a few hours later, I got a similarly rude response from her 3-year-old sister, Camille. Me: "Please eat your snack in the kitchen." Camille: "No. Go away!" Perhaps they had merely both hit a "boundary-pushing" stage. Maybe they were mimicking their friends, characters on TV, or—heaven forbid—me. Or could sass mouth simply be spreading around our house like the flu? Whatever the case, I needed to put a stop to the back talk, and fast, since my 9-year-old, Blair, had jumped into the fray with a particularly snotty "You're not the boss of me." I set off in search of strategies, then tried each one out on my girls. Some worked well with one kid but were a big fat fail with the others. I rated them, based on my personal Sass-Blast-O-Meter, on a scale of 1 to 4, awarding a 4 for the method that countered everyone's cheekiness

Set Ground Rules

When Joan Munson, Ph.D., a psychologist in Boulder, Colorado, suggested I make a chart, I wanted to sass back at her, "No. Go away!" Putting stars on a "nice-talk sticker board" was too much work, what with also having to, you know, feed my kids and take them places and stuff. Dr. Munson understood. "This isn't a behavior chart," she reassured me. "It's an expectation chart."

So I tried it. On the top I wrote "House Rules" and under it "No Mouthing Off to Mom and Dad." I included a consequence for each kid. My 9-year-old would lose Minecraft for a day; my 7-year-old would lose her next karate class; and my 3-year- old would lose dessert (I drew an ice-cream cone with an X through it, since she can't read). I read it aloud, then posted it on the fridge. "That way, when a child mouths off, all you have to do is point at the chart," says Dr. Munson.

DID IT WORK? This approach was most successful with Blair. At 9, she grasps cause and effect, so the threat of having a privilege docked helped tame her tongue. Drew, by contrast, engaged in a debate about what, exactly, constituted sass mouth whenever I pointed to the sign, while Camille was too young to get the connection between a nasty tone and no ice cream. Still, having a plan in place helped me stop spitting out heat-of-the-moment punishments that I'd never be able to carry out ("Take your sassy self and go sit in the empty bathtub for the rest of your entire living life").

Sass-Blasting Rating: 2/4

Keep Your Emotions in Check

I realize a kid's job is to push boundaries, but it's tough not to take it personally when a 3-year-old calls you Bad Mommy because you won't give her a piggyback ride (particularly when Bad Mommy just took her to a playdate, where she wore the cute tutu that Bad Mommy had bought for her). But pushing back signals to your child that she's getting a rise out of you. Instead, I should simply point out that her words aren't working, advises Jay Heinrichs, author of the best-seller Thank You for Arguing. He used this script with his kids: "You're going to have to do better than that to get what you want." His goal was to get them to replace back talk by learning how to make a persuasive argument, a skill they'd use all the time as grown-ups.

DID IT WORK? All three of my girls' behavior benefited, to different degrees, from this method. Camille only responded in relation to getting food items ("If you want someone to give you a snack, you have to ask in a different way"). Blair didn't need much prompting; as soon as I replied, "Really?" she switched her tune. And it was a game changer for Drew. When I asked her to do her math homework and she screamed, "You can't make me!" I didn't slam my hand onto the table like I wanted to. Rather, I said: "Hold on there, sister. Do you think that when you yell at me like that, I'm going to say, 'Okay, you don't have to do it?' Or do you think there might be a better way to talk to me to get what you want?" She stared at me for a minute or more, thinking it through. I said nothing. Then she tried again: "Mom, would it be okay if I do my homework after I have a snack?" Yes, you little sweet-talker, that would be fine.

Sass-Blasting Rating: 2.5/4

Follow Through

I had to let go of another one of my failed back-talk methods: the second chance. "It isn't effective to tell a kid, 'If you talk to me like that one more time, you won't get to...'" says teacher-turned-therapist Audrey Ricker, Ph.D., who cowrote Back Talk: 4 Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids. The way to let your child know that you mean what you say is by enforcing it. "You only have to carry out a consequence once or twice before she changes her behavior," Dr. Ricker claims.

DID IT WORK? I can't deny it: Following through is about as much fun as stepping on a Lego barefoot at 3 a.m. The moment I enforced a consequence for freshness—like the night when everyone except Drew got dessert—my kids transformed into feral back-talking heathens: "Are you kidding me? You are so mean!" I literally had to bite my tongue to keep from snapping back. But each time I carried out a punishment for sassing, the child in question ceased doing it... at least until the next day.

Sass-Blasting Rating: 3/4

Try a Little Tenderness

Megan Oesterreich, director of parenting education at the Center for Connection, in Pasadena, California, says the way I respond to my kids' cheeky rejoinders can have a huge impact on their emotional intelligence. Her solution: Disarm their rudeness with kindness. "You have to take the power struggle out of these moments," she says. When my girls give me lip, I should take three breaths to chill out, then sit at their level, get close, and say, "Wow. I can hear in your voice that you're frustrated. Can you tell me what's going on?" "This will help calm your child down," Oesterreich says.

DID IT WORK? It amazed me how completely this strategy sucked the sass right out of the room. It even led Blair and me to have a serious heart-to-heart one time. Drew was more stubborn but usually ended up apologizing ("I'm sorry for the way I talked to you, Mommy"). And little Camille benefited the most. She'd been calling me a "poop" whenever I told her she couldn't do something. As Oesterreich explained, that's because she doesn't possess the vocabulary to pinpoint what she's feeling and why. When I tried kneeling down and tossing out sympathetic words—"Are you feeling frustrated, honey? Are you mad? Are you hungry?"—I was able to defuse the situation (and the back talk) almost every time. Bonus: I discovered that when I take even one deep breath before reacting, the fire inside me flickers out. That's true of any situation: With the kids. With Thad. With the meathead who cut me off at school drop-off.

Sass-Blasting Rating: 3.5/4

Give Props for Nice Talk

My kids actually do behave lovingly and respectfully a lot of the time. But I rarely point it out. "Parents tend to pay attention to the negative things and ignore the good ones," says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Yale Parenting Center. I need to focus on how I want my girls to talk to me, rather than on their back talk. When one responds to a request in an appropriate way, I should say, "The way you answered me was very nice," and then touch her gently on her arm.

DID IT WORK? Catching my kids in the act of speaking nicely was surprisingly challenging because, as Dr. Kazdin explained, my receiver is tuned to bad behavior. So Thad and I looked harder. And whenever either of us praised our girls, even for the littlest thing ("The way you said 'yes' when I asked if you had to go potty was so pleasant!"), they beamed. When I punctuated the compliment with a shoulder squeeze—especially with Drew— you would have thought I'd handed out a golden ticket. It was so effective that I almost wondered if we were being pranked.

Sass-Blasting Rating: 4/4

To be sure, the back talk hasn't ceased entirely. But the general tone of our household has become far more tranquil. All five of us seem happier. And saner. Best of all, I haven't been called "a poop" since I began this project. Not even once. 

Dealing with your child's rude tone can be frustrating. Here’s how to handle back talk and get her to speak to you more respectfully.

Parents Magazine

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