Teaching Your Child To Talk Back; or, Raising the Young Skeptic

A few years ago, my kid came out into the living room, flung herself down on the couch, and began reading her current book.  I looked up from my own work to fret at her: “Will you please turn on the light if you’re going to read?  You’re going to ruin your eyes.”

She snorted: “That’s a myth, you know.  Reading in bad light does not hurt your vision.”

I argued; she argued back, giving me sources for her data.  Finally, I got on the internet and checked her sources.  She was right.  “You’re right,” I admitted.

“Told you,” she said smugly, and returned to her reading without turning the light on.

Why would you want a kid who talks back?

Well, because you aren’t always right; and because other people aren’t always right.  A kid who just accepts what she is told, uncritically, is a kid who unequipped to deal with a world full of propaganda and urban myths and flat-out lies.

Many of my students, raised in homes where children were punished for arguing with their parents and their teachers, are passive in the face of received information, accepting almost all data uncritically so long as it comes from (what they believe) is an authority.

Thus, I have students who forward links on Facebook about the most obvious nonsense – not just about urban myths (“Gang Members Hiding in Women’s Cars!”  “Serial Killers Using Recordings of Crying Babies to Lure You From Your Home!”) but also about more important issues:

  • That Mitt Romney said his service to the nation was too important for him to be wasted fighting in Vietnam;
  • That more homicides in the US are committed with baseball bats than firearms;
  • That corporations use aborted fetuses in manufacturing their products;
  • ConTrails are chemtrails used to control the weather (or people’s minds);
  • Anti-vaxxers


A kid who doesn’t question authority, and won’t argue when she thinks people are wrong, is a kid that can be controlled – by abusive spouses, by lying bosses, by the media.  Unless you want that for your child, teach her to think critically about what she gets told (and yes, this includes by you) and teach her to object when she thinks people are wrong.

Okay, But How Do I Teach That?

Reward your child for arguing with you.

Bear with me here: I know a defiant child seems like an appalling prospect.  But when I say “reward your child for arguing,” I don’t mean reward them whenever and however they argue.  A child who defies you in unacceptable ways (screaming, pouting, disagreeing without evidence, disagreeing when they’re wrong) should not be rewarded.

But a child who argues with valid evidence and logic, without tantrums or shouting, should – if they are right – be rewarded.

An example: Suppose you want your child to do Aikido because you believe that Aikido teaches a child discipline and self-defense, not to mention the health aspects.  Suppose your child doesn’t want to learn Aikido.

If you child can provide a convincing, fact-based argument about why she should not learn Aikido, I suggest you reward her by letting her quit Aikido.  However, if she just sulks and whines about how Aikido is stupid and she’s bored, well, that’s not an argument.  Don’t reward it.

But Now I Have a Kid who argues Constantly

Yes.  Yes, you will.  Be sure you only reward them when they’re right.  You’re teaching a life-skill here, remember.  I’ll grant it’s harder for you to parent a non-compliant child, but remember you’re not raising a child: you’re raising a future adult.

But Now She’s Always In Trouble at School!

Sadly, this can be a consequence.  Good teachers, obviously, will not penalize a student who argues if that student provides evidence and turns out to be right.

But many teachers (like many of us) were raised by authoritarians.  Many teachers subscribe to the convention that students should never talk back and never argue.  So you may well find yourself being summoned to school, often.

Don’t punish your child for arguing with her teachers.  This is vital.  If you punish your child for getting in trouble at school for arguing, especially when she’s right, you’re telling her that accepting disinformation is the right action.

You can try to convince your child that arguing with an authoritarian teacher is not a profitable use of time.  But if you’ve got a smart kid, and you’ve raised her right, you probably won’t succeed.  (Me, to my kid in fourth grade, when she got in trouble yet again: “Can’t you just know Mrs. Griffin is wrong and keep that to yourself?  Maybe just not correct her every time she’s mistaken?”  The Kid, in horror: “But then she will be teaching the other kids lies, Mom!”)

Crack Down on Facts

Do insist that they support their arguments with evidence.  If they don’t have proof, from a good source (you’ll need to teach them what a reliable source is), then they’re wrong, and they should lose that fight.

Crack Down on Attitude

A child who argues in a whiny or snotty or abusive way is not what you want.  When the child starts to argue like this, don’t reward this behavior.  Tell them you won’t listen until they’re ready to speak civilly; and (this is vital) do not listen until they do speak rationally and civilly.

 Admit When You’re Wrong

This is the one that’s hard for a lot of parents.  You’re teaching them to question authority.  This means your authority too.

If your child argues against some rule or point you have made, and they show you that you’re wrong, with evidence, then you have got to back down.

You have got to say, “You’re right, and I’m wrong.  We’ll do it your way.”

If you’re not used to conceding in this way, it can feel scary.  You might think: My kid won’t respect my authority if I admit I’m wrong!

But in fact, any kid older than five or six will respect your authority much more if it’s based on evidence. That is, when you admit you’re wrong, and show them how to act when you’re wrong,  you’re showing them how real authority should act.

Might might make right when your child is five.  When your child is fifteen or seventeen or twenty, you won’t have the ability to force them to follow your authority.  (Or, let me say, unless you have done some seriously bad parenting, you won’t.)  Then, you will want a child who respects your authority because they know it’s based on the truth, on reality, on justice, and not just because you have power over them.

Teach Your Child When to Quit

This one is hard, but you need to show your child that sometimes not arguing , even when they’re right, is the way to go.  Not all authority figures respond well to a reasoning child.  (Or a reasoning adult.)

Model when to quit: that is, when you’re not going to confront some authority figure (a police officer, for instance, or your boss, for whatever reason), explain to your child why you’re not confronting this authority, even if they’re wrong.

Also, when your child comes to you with an argument they want to make, which you think won’t be useful, help them see why – sometimes – it’s better to let things go.  (I’m thinking here, specifically, of a teacher my child had who used her religion to justify her dislike of feminism.  Arguing about religion, I convinced my child, is unlikely to be successful.  Better to just let it go, unless you have a really good reason not to let it go.)

Sometimes Kids Just Have to Do What They’re Told – or, I don’t Always Have Time to Argue

This is true too.  When the child doesn’t want to get vaccinated, for instance, and is too young to evaluate evidence; or (the favorite example of authoritarian parents) when a kid is running toward a busy highway; or if the child is too upset to listen to reason; then yes, you may need to exert your authority.  But exerting your authority should not be the default.

That is, you should only use the fact that you can force the child to obey in these extreme cases. Resorting to “Do it because I say so,” should be a tool you use in emergencies only, in other words.

Won’t this make your parenting harder work?

Yes, at first: listening to the arguments and objections of a six year old or an eight year old can get wearing.  But later – when your child is sixteen or nineteen or twenty-five – your job as a parent will be made much easier by the fact that you have inculcated this habit of not trusting authority blindly.  You’ll be glad you put up with the back-talk then.


Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published short fiction in Strange Horizons and The Future Fire, as well as in the recent feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres. She blogs at delagar.

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  1. “An example: Suppose you want your child to do Aikido because you believe that Aikido teaches a child discipline and self-defense, not to mention the health aspects. Suppose your child doesn’t want to learn Aikido.”
    I consider “my child has zero interest in an extra-curricular activity” to be argument enough. My kid wanted to do ballet and it taught her a lot, too.

    But yes for the rest of it
    Whenever they want someting and I say no I tell them “give me a good argument, “I WANT TO” does not count. If they can do so I’m willing to change my mind, even if I’m not actually “convinced”, but rewarding their logical argumentation.

  2. Heh. The Aikido example comes from our actual life. (Could you tell?) We wanted her to have some sort of physical activity, and to learn self-defense. We started her at five, and she liked it at first. Later, she started liking it less, but kids do go through stages of being bored with things. I told her she had to have reasons beyond “I’m bored” to want to quit something that was teaching her useful life-skills. Eventually she came up with good arguments!

    But yes! The *main* over-arching principal here is to reward the life-skill of using logical arguments!

    1. Ah, so it was about continuing with something.
      I understood you as if you were talking about starting a kid at something they have zero interest to begin with, which I wouldn’t ever do.
      Phases of boredom happen and they are usually quickly overcome. It’s the discipline part of any sport. I ask the kid each semester when I can terminate the contract if she wants to continue and tell her that if she says “yes” she’ll go there because I’m not paying all that money for her watching TV at home…
      But that’s a derail, really…

  3. “Tell them you won’t listen until they’re ready to speak civilly; and (this is vital) do not listen until they do speak rationally and civilly.”

    This is problematic. I can get behind not accepting abusive language. But not listening to someone just because they are angry and/or hurt? That’s invalidating the person’s emotions and using their rightful anger against them. It’s a way of silencing people.
    As long as they don’t call you names, what does it matter if they yell or cry? If their arguments are sound, demanding ‘civility’ is merely tone trolling.
    And this teaches your child that being hurt and angry means being wrong. You might make them a smug argumentative person, but you won’t make them compassionate and you won’t teach them to listen without prejudice.

  4. I study and teach rhetoric. My husband is a lawyer. We literally make our livings by arguing. I can’t imagine my daughter would feel like a very participatory member of our household without the ability and freedom to dispute things with logic and experience. Thanks for this post!

  5. You have a valid point there, chicken. And certainly I’m not advocating ignoring a child in pain or distress.

    What I’m advocating, however, is teaching a child that civility (and not yelling), like reason and the use of evidence, is a better *tactic* for questioning authority successfully, and for winning arguments.

    You’re right, this is a tone argument. And I agree that there will come times when shouting and cussing are tactics your child (and you) will want to use. But self-control (and its effectiveness) is a tool every child should learn young.

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