Let's talk backtalk

When your children were young, you spoke words of life into their little beings. They cooed and you cooed back. You whispered blessings over them as they slept and told them “you are SO BIG” when they were so tiny. You had no intention of ever berating your babies. Even if you yourself were raised in a home full of heated arguments, explosive and loud, you never intended to pass that legacy down. And so you sang Scripture promises and memorized the golden rule. You were proactive in using tender words and shared the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” And through it all you held great hope that your family would build each other up with lips dripping honey. But before long, the honey grew rancid, and began tasting more like vinegar on your tongue. Within only a few short years, your toddler proved defiant, difficult, and demanding—as is their job at two. And you grew angry.




Since the start of those “terrible twos,” a battle of words has raged between you and them; amongst siblings in backseats, and teenagers with backtalk. It started with simple “No, Mommy, no…” when changing diapers or serving peas, but before long, toddler lips pursed in negative words grew into loud yelling matches. And you’re plain worn out from the warring and the shame. You want to retreat, but their constant bantering sets you off faster than anything else. It’s your trigger —Kaboom! You bring out the big guns and end the skirmish with a few choice words, because your voice is the loudest.

The problem with this battle strategy is that when we attempt to discipline them with our own aggressive voices, we usurp the teachable moments. In other words, we steal the show with our own fit throwing. Think of it this way: When our children do wrong and we stay calm and controlled, they know that they’ve done wrong. They do! They know it down to their convicted little cores! There is power when we bend down, touch their shoulders, and look them in the eyes. “That wasn’t a nice thing to say; can you try again?” However, when we exchange angry words for angry words, nasty face for nasty face, slamming door for slamming door, and tear them down with our words because they tore us down with theirs, they will never feel remorse for their own actions. We have hijacked that teachable moment. It’s simple, but it’s true!

I think this is what God means in Romans 2:4: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” When we learn to parent like God parents us, out of a calm and stable sense of our own authority, our children have the holy opportunity to experience true repentance. They feel a healthy heartache over it and take ownership of their sin in the quiet spaces that we don’t demolish with our loud and constant nagging. What a gift we give them when we stay in control. What a gift they forfeit when we blow up and talk back to their backtalk.


Everyone enjoys a fitting reply; it is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time! (Proverbs 15:23 NLT)


Yelling back at them when they yell is never the right thing at the right time. And so today we are slowing down in the quiet of these words to make a plan, that we might see the moments when they backtalk not as invitations to fight, but as opportunities to lead them kindly to repentance.


Before you react, consider the right response.

I have chosen, in moments void of conflict, a few phrases to use when their words are full of venom. Words like, “Son, I know that you don’t want to fight with me. When you are ready to talk, I am ready to listen.” Of course, this doesn’t immediately quench their anger, so often I firmly tell them, “I need you to spend some time in your room so that you don’t hurt our relationship with your words. Please stay there until I come to you. Then you will have a chance to tell me what’s on your mind in a kind way.”


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Of course, because they’re all amped up and ready for a fight, they often push through our gentle firewall with more back-talking reasons why they won’t go to their room. Or they go and come immediately out with equally loud reasons why they are right and I’m an ogre! But I’ve made a commitment to The Lord, to myself, and to my family to not engage in the battle any more. So I walk them back to their room and repeat myself, “I will not fight you. I will talk with you in a little bit. Please wait for me.”

In the quiet that follows, I remind myself that my children are allowed to make wrong choices; God calls this freewill. It is not my job to strangle them into submission. I am responsible to navigate my own free choices, not control theirs. I can only hold captive my own tongue, leading by example, training them to do likewise, but I cannot badger them into repentance. Lord knows I’ve tried!

Which leads me to prayer. Only the Holy Spirit can meet my children in these quiet times, convicting their hearts, and in His kindness lead them to repentance and lasting change. Moms and dads, we have the awesome privilege to pray for our children. Pray for their hearts and their words.

I have received letters from exasperated moms, confessing to actually cussing at their young children and teenagers. They are shocked by their anger and the ease with which curse words and shaming blows flow out of their hearts. Parents are desperate for change—more desperate to change their own hearts than to change their children.

Do we want to see our children obey? Of course! Are we prayerful that their words will be gentle and honoring? Absolutely. But we can’t force peace to well up within them and spill out over their lips. That’s not our job. We can only control our own tongues, as we yield to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us.



Today’s post is an except from the new book Triggers: Exchanging Parent’s Angry Reactions for Gentle Biblical Responses. If you struggle with anger in your home from the sheer effort of it all, if you find yourself yelling at your children, I want you to know you're not alone. There's a whole army of moms and dads pursuing better, more Christlike ways to respond to their children. Join us.