[Note: “Backtalk” may be a regional term. It’s familiar to me from growing up in small-town West Virginia.]
It seems the sweetest of children eventually hit a stage when they mouth off about everything. Some parents call this “backtalk” and generally think it is to be suppressed as much as possible, or maybe just ignored. But suppressing or ignoring “backtalk” is often a mistake. The child is exposing his heart and mind. I can’t imagine why we would not want to know what he really thinks and feels. Actually, listening carefully to backtalk is a treasured opportunity. It is the pathway to friendship. And if suppressed, it harms the child’s ability to pray authentically.
Christian parents see backtalk as just simple rebellion, and they fear rebellion more than anything else, because they tend to conceive their piety in a universe that has more of an Islamic flavor than a Christian one. Not that rebellion is ok — it isn’t. But disagreement or argument is not necessarily rebellion. If you want a biblical sense of what kind of verbal honesty God can accept in a relationship, read the Psalms. David was a backtalker.
Also, we have recoiled from the secular West’s idolatry of self-expression, and especially the fetishization of childrens’ self-expression. We correctly understand that much of this is banal narcissism.
But it is also true that crushed or ignored self-expression prompts the development of an inner life that is disconnected, alternate, parallel. In an authoritarian environment, the true self is the inner one; the outer one is simply arranged to minimize interactions with the authorities. And when once the inner life is formed it tends to read as normal to the perceiving subject. The character, once bifurcated, will forever run on multiple tracks – and this alienation, it is important to repeat, is perceived by the subject as normal. When it is time to pray as an adult, there will be no inner pathways for successful self-expression to an authority figure. Questioning, or even the expression of a “negative” emotion, gets routed internally and unconsciously into the suppression mechanism, and never makes it to the outer person. Then the two choices will always be: stay silent, or exhibit a pious mask. Prayer becomes saccharine and ultimately barren – not like the Psalms.
We parents too easily fall back into the assumption that the child’s external behavior is the goal of what we do. I’ve written about the importance of physical obediance, and how parents neglect it. But in trying to overcome the neglect of obediance, let’s not fall into the ditch on the other side of the road. Let’s not elevate obediance to the goal of the relationship. It is simply groundwork, not the goal. It is ironic that parents try to dig into the thoughts and feelings of the younger child, ignoring physical obediance, then try to suppress the thoughts and feelings of the older child, while choosing to battle over obediance.
We focus on physical obediance before school age precisely because the child is not enough of a person to assimilate much else. But the goal, the end of parenting is friendship. And the better the friendship, the fewer the secrets. A true friendship — the one we are all looking for — is one where all thoughts and feelings are shared.
How and when should the focus shift from physical obediance to forming a friend? Gradually, as the child becomes self-aware. Specifically, as he becomes aware of his inner zone of privacy and starts to cultivate it. Since access to his inner life is given, not taken, parental coercion quickly loses its usefulness and becomes increasingly destructive. Self-awareness is the Fall; he knows he can choose to stay hidden behind the bush, or voluntarily come out, and he must make that choice every day of the rest of your lives together.
None of this is to say that it is ok for the individuating child to be a jerk. It is not. Nothing about being young makes conduct acceptable that would get you ostracized as an adult. So, what do we do?
We accept the growth of backtalk on its own terms: an invitation to be a friend. (Though the child does not understand it in these terms.) And we respond to the child is an adult. We speak to him as a friend.
For example: “I don’t agree.” This is what we say to friends. Spoken correctly, it is our responding invitation to the child to shoulder the adult burden of persuading another free moral agent.
We can still express issues with the child’s communications, but our issues are the same ones we would have with an adult friend: for example, we might dispute the tone and the timing of his words. We would ask him to express his views in tones likely to succeed, and to edit his stream of consciousness in a search for the optimum moment for his audience. Both, adult skills, and both, the opposite of childish self-expression.
There is no illusion that these conversations will be easy. We are not proposing a child-rearing technique here (what an awful word, “technique”) , but the acceptance of a new stage in the relationship. This new stage will have its own struggles. But it should not be the struggle to suppress “backtalk”: the child who cannot talk back becomes an adult who struggles with authenticity in prayer — an adult who censors himself to make falsely pious prayer — disconnects his inner life over and over from God — and is lonely for the God he doesn’t know how to cry out to.