Dear Dr. Ray,
My five children are ages fifteen, fourteen, eleven, nine, and six. Their personalities are all very different. One thing they all do, though, is talk back. It’s the source of most of our arguments. ―Never the Last Word

Backtalk―the universal misbehavior. Where children are, it is. Unless, of course, the children absolutely never need limits or discipline, you know, unreasonable things like going to bed before the birds wake up, eating supper with the family, and putting their shoes away before the smoke alarm goes off.

Since your youngsters fall into two age groups―the preteen and the teen, let’s talk backtalk for two visits-this time for younger kids, next time for older kids, maybe spouses.

Basic backtalk comes in two types: grumble talk and nasty talk. Grumble talk is clearly the more benign. It is essentially Polly’s editorial comment about the way you’re raising her or running the house: I’m just a slave around here. How’d you keep the house clean before I was born? This is the fourth time this week I’ve had to hang up my coat. You never let me look at you like that when I was two―how come he gets away with it?

Grumble talk isn’t usually disrespectful. It’s more of a whiney, maybe feebly provocative, attempt to pull you into an argument. Since it takes two to tangle, if you ignore it, most grumble talk will die out from lack of fuel. Quietly shrug off Polly’s complaining, so long as she is hanging up her coat for the fourth time this week or is doing the slavish work you ask of her. Fill the dog’s water bowl again―how can you drive her so hard? Sometimes, what can you really say? Maybe she is the only ninth grader in school who has to do her homework before she does her nails.

Grumble talk doesn’t typically escalate into verbal warfare if you can develop an attitude of, “You may express your opinion, so long as it’s not disrespectful or nasty and so long as you meet your responsibility.” In other words, if Polly is doing what you ask, you can’t always expect her to be happy about it.

Whereas grumble talk generally can be soothed with little response, nasty talk requires action. Nasty talk is abusive and disrespectful, or it directly challenges your rights and authority: Don’t tell me what to do; You’re stupid if you think I’m going to do that; Get off my back; I don’t have to listen to you; Just shut up.

One good way to discriminate between nasty talk and grumble talk is to ask yourself: How would I react to this if it came from another grownup? Nasty talk is talk that doesn’t keep people friends very long. Nasty talk is not expressing feelings. It is verbal meanness. And the younger a child is when he learns to control it, the better for him and others. All kids misbehave. But nasty talk, if left uncurbed, feeds on itself and can become a chronic challenge to your right to discipline in your child’s best interests.

Consequences for nasty talk need to be firm and certain. Here are suggestions for kids between ages three and twelve.

1. Each bout of nastiness leads to standing in a corner, sitting at the table with head down, or heading for your room for anywhere from five minutes to a half hour or more, depending upon a child’s age. Time doesn’t begin until all is quiet, and time starts over if trouble starts over. When choosing a corner, you might want it to be in a room other than the one you’re in. You won’t be so likely to hear: Am I done yet? I promise I’ll be good forever. I have to potty. I wish Daddy were my mommy. I hate this house, and the garage, too.

2. For nasty talk, Gabby will: (a) write 25 times (or some chosen amount) a sentence of your choosing; or( b) copy a 100-word or more paragraph, which you’ve composed, on self-control, respect for others, controlling anger, etc.; or (c) compose his own paragraph, with the length depending upon the severity of the outburst. My father claims he should have assigned me a few one-million-word essays when I was a kid.

3. Disrespect leads to work. For instance, John Henry owes you fifteen minutes worth of chores, or a job from your “job jar,” especially compiled for such occasions. Maybe he needs to burn off some energy.

4. If you want to teach respect all around, how about holding yourself answerable to the same standards? We grown-ups really have no more right to talk mean to the kids than they do to us. We have the right to discipline, but not to be nasty about it. How about a 150-word written apology to your son for verbally blistering him last night? Do this a few times, and, if nothing else, your kids will think you’ve slipped over the edge. Maybe they’ll feel sorry for you and out of mercy talk back less.

Which consequences you use depend upon your child’s age and your preference. The content of your sentences or whether you choose a dining room chair over a corner is not nearly as important as your predictability. Your consequences are automatic. Last, remember, what is nasty talk is your judgment, not Gabby’s. Debate it with him, and he’ll give you that dumbfounded look that says, “What? I didn’t say anything. What tone of voice? My lips never moved.”

Dr. Ray