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Arguing and Back-Talk

by Elizabeth Pantley, Author of Perfect Parenting and Kid Cooperation

Question: I know my kid’s going to grow up to be a lawyer! He argues whenever he’s asked to do something. He debates his rights when he’s asked to stop doing something. He pleads his case when I tell him he can’t do something. He disputes every rule I create. How can I put an end to this?

Think about it:
It takes two to argue. Your child cannot “argue” by himself. That’s called “mumbling.”

Say it once:
Practice stating your case, then being quiet. Ignore your child’s argumentative comments, and walk away if you must. Let your child get used to your word being “final.”

Let ‘em complain a bit:
As long as it’s respectful, sometimes let your child have the last word. Often a statement, such as, “Why do I have to do it?” doesn’t require an answer, nor deserve one. Often, a child’s mutterings really mean, “I’ll do it ‘cus I have to, but I don’t like it.”

Set rules for debating:
Some children really do enjoy debating an issue. If your child is like this, set ground rules for when and how issues can be debated. For instance: no raising of voices, no name calling, quiet listening to the other person’s point of view. This behavior provides excellent practice for learning how to negotiate in life. In addition, your child must understand that some things cannot be argued, that there are some things the parents must decide. Have a standard reply for when an issue cannot be debated, such as, “This is not open for discussion.”

Offer choices:
Get in the habit of offering your child choices, instead of issuing commands. Children who are argumentative will have less opportunity to practice the skill if you offer a choice. For example, instead of saying, “Do your homework, right now,” offer a choice, such as, “What would you like to do first, your homework or the dishes?” (If the response is, “neither,” you can smile sweetly and say, “That wasn’t one of the choices. Homework or dishes?”)

My child talks back to me in such a disrespectful way it leaves me speechless. How do I put a stop to this?

Think about it:
Back-talk is addictive, so must be handled as a serious offense. A child who talks rudely to a parent once or twice and gets away with it will continue the behavior, and it will progressively get worse. Most children will attempt back-talk at some point. When a parent responds calmly and with authority the behavior will stop.

Announce your expectations:
If a child has developed a habit of back-talk it will take firm action to stop the behavior. Have a meeting with your child to announce that back-talk will no longer be tolerated. Decide on a series of consequences that will occur each time back-talk occurs. Consequences may involve losing a privilege, such as telephone use, television watching, or visits with friends. They may be an additional chore, or an earlier bedtime. Then announce the sequence in which the consequences will occur. “When you talk back in a disrespectful way you will lose your telephone privileges for the day. The second offense will cause you to lose your TV show for the night. The third will . . . Each day will start with a clean slate.” After the meeting, calmly and firmly follow through.

Don’t empower it:
Whenever a child talks back, immediately stop the conversation and walk out of the room or walk away from the child. If the child follows you, calmly and firmly announce that you will not tolerate disrespect, then pointedly ignore the child. Later, when you have calmed down, decide on an appropriate consequence for the back-talk.

Use a quarter-board:
Tape your child’s allowance, in quarters, to a piece of cardboard. Tell your child that each time he talks back to you he will lose a quarter from his allowance as a “fine.” He’ll get what’s left at the end of the week. If your child uses up all the quarters, begin to add a chore, or eliminate a privilege for each offense. Start fresh with each new week. This series of events is meant to be a temporary “training” situation. When the problem seems under control, let your child know that you appreciate his efforts to control the back-talk, and that you’ll no longer be charging the fine. However, make it clear that if the behavior ever becomes a problem again, you’d be happy to head to the bank for a roll of quarters.

If a normally respectful child makes a disrespectful comment, look him in the eye and make a serious, firm comment such as, “That is back-talk and is not allowed.” Continue the conversation as if the back-talk did not occur, expecting the child to comply with your request. Do not empower the back-talk by arguing the issue that triggered it.

Copyright Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)

About the author:
Elizabeth Pantley is the author of several books, including
Gentle Baby Care : No-cry, No-fuss, No-worry — Essential Tips for Raising Your Baby, The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night, Kid Cooperation (with an introduction by William Sears, MD), Perfect Parenting, as well as her latest The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers and is also president of Better Beginnings, Inc. She is a popular speaker on family issues, and her newsletter, Parent Tips, is seen in schools nationwide. She appears as a regular radio show guest, and has been quoted in Parents, Parenting, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, American Baby, Working Mother, and Woman’s Day magazines. Visit Elizabeth’s web site

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