In Australia, when a child answers back to an adult it’s called “backchatting” and is regarded as insolent and rude. I see backchatting as a defence mechanism. We have such a strong culture of suppressing children.
‘Backchatting’ is something that happens a lot beginning around age 9. There are big changes at the age of 9. At this age, children start peeking from behind the curtain of their family to view what is happening on the world stage. They start assessing whether things are fair or unfair. As they start to get out and about more with other kids and other families they start to see difference. They become more interested in laws and justice and conflict. They become more interested in world affairs and ask lots of questions about politics. It all aligns very nicely with Dr Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.
This is the age when you start to hear things like “you never let me do that when I was that age” in reference to what their younger siblings may be allowed to do. Or “you treat me differently to the others.” They start giving their opinions, solicited or otherwise, on every matter at hand. They love information, they sense the power of it. They make you account for every perceived injustice or inequity. The process of separating from parents and developing independent thought has begun!
Parents are often not consciously aware of these changes in their kids. They continue to parent their 9 to 12 year-olds as they did when they were five year-olds. The frustration builds in the child and they become more reactive to their parents’ requests, which is perceived as “attitude”. When the child says something to defend herself it is viewed as “backchatting”.
I enjoy working with kids in this age group because I find that their developing confidence, creativity, and reasoning is exciting. I don’t have to work as hard when I am with children in this age group than when I am with younger children (whom I also adore for lots of other reasons). When I’m facilitating a programme with 9 to 12 year-old children, I often find myself handing the creative control and direction of the session over to the children. I act as the anchor, keeping everything physically and emotionally safe, but they are at the helm and the wind is in their sails. A lot of adults find this confronting. They feel they have to defend their position as the expert.
Recently, I made a complaint at the local soccer club, because I believed the coach was being unfair towards my son. My son (age 11) is a fairly good player. He loves the game and he loves pushing himself physically and learning new skills. So, when we can afford it we send him to soccer clinics to release some of his abundant energy and increase his skills. The coach of the team has never attended any coaching clinics and teaches the boys outdated techniques and strategy. When my son told the coach he learnt a new skill at the soccer clinic he had been to that day, the coach told him to do everything the way he taught it and to run extra laps for the backchatting.
When the club management attended the start of a game to observe the interaction between coach and players, they told my son he was backchatting because he politely asked the coach if he could put more players in defence. My son knows that the Football Federation recommends four players for defence and the coach always plays two, but he also knows how hard it is to play defence undermanned.
Starting to see how this works? More often than not, I find that the adults who accuse children of backchatting are those that speak very poorly to children (angry, rude, and impatient), think that children are inferior, show very little respect to children, and don’t listen very well themselves. Respect is a two-way street, and aren’t adults supposed to set a good example?
I don’t advocate anarchy. Clearly, our kids need our support and guidance for a very long time. The logical and rational part of their brain does not finish developing until the age of 25 years, and it hibernates for a bit during adolescence. They need age appropriate limits and boundaries. But I am very wary of the old adage “respect your elders”. I worked in child protection for quite some years and I saw a lot of child abuse occur within cultures where respecting elders was held above child safety and welfare.
Kids these days are very smart. They have access to far more information than any previous generation of 9 to 12 year olds. It is the age of satisfying curiosity without delay. I know that the kids I work with are much smarter than me. I am older and wiser and can see certain things play out due to making many mistakes over many years, and sometimes learning from them. But when a child comes to me with different information or a different opinion I embrace it. I thank him or her for bringing it to my attention. I want to hear what they have to say. If a child becomes reactive I start to listen to what I am saying and how I am saying it. Adults find it very easy to put the blame on the child to cover up their own errors in thinking and behaving. And that’s why the term ‘backchatting’ bothers me so very much. When I hear an adult saying that a child is a ‘backchatter’ I hear that there is an angry or resentful child who is not being listened to.
Sure, kids of this age get frustrated and tired and exacerbated, and they don’t always engage their brain before they say something or it all comes out a bit wrong. They’re still learning how to manage all of this thinking, feeling, and doing in a coordinated fashion. That’s when I give them a chance to do a “do-over”. I ask my child to stop, breathe, and think about how he just spoke to me, and then I ask him how he might do it over. By using this technique my kids have learnt, at times, to stop themselves before reacting, locate the emotion, breathe into it, and then speak.
I was talking to a dad a few weeks ago. At one point there was a heated exchange between him and his 11 year-old son, and he turned to me and asked “was that alright? that boy gives me nothing but mouth at the moment”. I told him that I ask the child for a do-over, and the dad said “I’ve done that”. But all I observed from the parent was anger. When you approach things in a calm way, your child will also learn to be calm.
“Empathic listening takes time, but it doesn’t take anywhere near as much time as it takes to back up and correct misunderstandings when you’re already miles down the road; to redo; to live with unexpressed and unsolved problems; to deal with the results of not giving people psychological air.” Stephen Covey
Disapprove – Affirm – Discover – Do Over Kim John Payne
What to do when your kid talks back Dr Laura Markham
Backtalk is communication – LISTEN L R Knost
Taking back their right to talk back Live with Purpose
Categories: Managing Mistaken Behaviour