May 4, 2013


In Australia, when a child answers back to an adult it’s called “backchatting” and is regarded as insolent and rude. I am at odds with many parents because I encourage children to put their opinions forward and 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 they say something to defend themselves 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, we have been embroiled in a complaints process at the local soccer club because I believe the coach was punitive 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 antiquated 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 teaches it and to run extra laps for the backchatting. There were other aspects to this complaint, so much more.

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, and he also knows how hard it is to play defence undermanned.

Starting to see how this works?

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 at the soccer 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”. To which I replied “and you will have to do it over and over and over, it’s all normal”.


“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



Related Articles

Disapprove – Affirm – Discover – Do Over   Kim John Payne

Gleeful ethics    Hakea

What to do when your kids talk back    Dr Laura Markham


About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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8 Comments on “backchatting”

  1. phrogmom Says:

    in the u.s. we call that “back talk.” i am so sorry you are still having the stress with the soccer/football league. it sounds hard on so many levels and i hope you get some resolution soon! ((hugs))


    • hakea Says:

      Thanks for that phroggie. I couldn’t figure out what you called backchatting over there.

      It’s always interesting when you make a complaint because something needs to improve. What happens here, is that everyone runs around trying to figure out how they can discredit the child and the parent, rather than looking at what needs to change. We are looking to change clubs for this boy as he is super frustrated. The coaches for our other boys are amazing and they want to stay where they are.


      • phrogmom Says:

        sometimes a fresh start is better than continuing in conflict. it is disappointing that some people who work with kids are so closed to improving at what they do.

  2. Hazel M. Wheeler Says:

    Phrogmom is correct…. and I don’t know how many times I have heard parents of kids precisely this age complain “my kid is giving me such attitude”.

    This post is beautifully written; I loved the explanation of *why* this happens and I will be suggesting the ‘do-over’ prompt to parents who complain of this. I do think we adults tend to want to shut it down immediately instead of exploring why the child is answering back.

    I don’t know if you have the strange ‘respect’ phenomenon there in Australia that we do here; it’s unfortunate, really. I hear adults talking to children (even toddlers at times!) with phrases like “You’re being disrespectful” or admonishments to ‘respect’ others, esp. adults. This makes me cringe inside– it’s so disconnected and disrespectful (ha!) to the child to expect them to understand such an abstract concept, all the time without modeling it. Some parents seem to feel that ‘respect’ is owed to them instead of something we model and teach to them in small and manageable bits (saying ‘thank you’ or asking before using something or keeping a calm voice when we are upset). Ive come to the point that I am really trying to erase that word from my vocabulary when I’m around anyone under the age of 8 or so. When I hear it from my own mouth, I have to take myself for a time out because I’m obviously upset and not speaking sensibly to my son. There’s nothing constructive in speaking in abstract concepts– he still needs concrete suggestions and direction.

    Thanks thanks thanks!


    • hakea Says:

      Ah Hazel, how would you like to come over to coach my kid’s soccer team?

      Oh yes, we have the ‘respect’ phenomena here too. I started to include it in this post but it would have got rambly and preachy, and I thought ‘another time’. You’re right, it is such an abstract term. Thinking about it some more, ‘polite’ is a bit more approachable.

      When I think about this stuff, I remember the scene in the Sidney Poitier movie Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner where he admonishes his father for saying that as a son he ‘owes’ him. It’s a powerful scene, and I remember it resonating with me when I was a young person.

      My problem with ‘respect’ is that it is never deconstructed for kids. In the schools here, the school motto is frequently “We are safe and respectful learners” or some variation on that theme. When I ask kids what they think that means they don’t have a clue. I wrote about it here

      As always, thank you for your insights.


  3. Artful abuela Says:

    good post. we often confuse respect with submit. respectful children/adults need not be submissive.


  4. InsideJourneys (@InsideJourneys) Says:

    Backchatting was never tolerated in my house!
    I have a lot of empathy for parents because no one gives them a rule book and says go learn how to parent before you think of having kids. This on-the-job training just doesn’t work. More and more we’re learning that children are people too and they need guidance as well as respect. I’m reminded of that each time I read your blog. Your kids are so lucky to have you as their mom!


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