Talking Back Makes Kids Smart

Talking Back

Once again, I’m going to depart from marketing for one post for another neuroparenting topic. This time, it’s about kids “talking back” to their parents and how that interaction can actually enhance cognitive development.

New research shows that simply telling kids what to do, rather than explaining why they should do it, may impair cognitive growth:

Fuller and colleagues found that parenting by declaration rather then explanation could undermine early childhood advantages within minority cultures. The work, due to be published this week in Maternal and Child Health Journal, tracked cognitive development among 8,000 children born in 2001, and found that Latino babies start life with significant benefits over other groups—including higher birth weights and lower mortality rates (two key factors in predicting brain performance). They also have mothers who eat better, and smoke and drink less than white or black peers, regardless of socioeconomic status. And they enter school with strong social skills and emotional stability. But despite being primed for success at birth, they soon lose ground when it comes to intellectual development: Latino kids fall up to six months behind their white counterparts in basic language and thinking skills by the time they are 2 or 3 years old, the study reports. [From Newsweek - The Human Condition: In Defense of Permissive Parenting: Why Talking Back May Lead to Smarter Kids by Tony Dokoupil.]

It seems that, at least up to a point, arguing with a child to justify a request is better for his brain than saying, “Because Mommy said so, that’s why!”

(Image by Shutterstock)


This post was written by:

— who has written 985 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

Contact the author

Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing Get 100 amazing brain-based marketing strategies! Brainfluence is recommended for any size business, even startups and nonprofits!
Guy KawasakiRead this book to learn even more ways to change people's hearts, minds, and actions.   — Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment and former chief evangelist of Apple
Brainfluence Info


12 responses to "Talking Back Makes Kids Smart" — Your Turn


Chris 23. October 2009 at 11:34 am

Interesting, and I can certainly see why this would be the case. Unfortunately, the other side of the equation is giving kids a false sense of authority (though, in reality the sense is not false if the parents let them have it.) This undermines parental authority and causes misbehavior and social ineptitude.

Regardless of what studies say, I’d personally err on the side of too much dominance.


Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
23. October 2009 at 11:39 am

I’d guess the best approach is a balance between providing no explanation and spending an excessive amount of time explaining.



Alex Lim 24. October 2009 at 5:39 am

Interesting findings, I think this would make children more active thinkers than passive followers in time. I wonder what age range does this study covers. I think the fact that children have greater number of neurons and the ability to learn things faster would make them benefit from the rationales of what their parents want them to do. Parents should be careful enough with their explanation though.


Sandra 24. October 2009 at 5:04 pm

I don’t believe talking back makes kids smarter.I think it’s rude and disrespectful.I bet Super Nanny agrees!


Promotional Products 24. October 2009 at 10:53 pm

I think this can easily relate to marketing. Talking back is a pseudonym for feedback, it is innate in humans to give feedback or talk back to something that they dislike. I think that parents and business owners alike can use this to influence a future decision.


katchja 25. October 2009 at 4:09 am

Talking back is what children do when they see adults arguing over something, and use this model to attract attention. It has little to do with sharing your point of view, since talking back can be as unreasonable as “because mom said so”; it is more like an interpersonal practice to establish “authority”.

Nonetheless, making smart conversations with your children, instead of just watching TV together, may help the child look up to you and understand the difference between being assertive and talking back.


Erica 27. October 2009 at 5:19 pm

What constitutes talking back? Asking questions? This seems to be sort of vague – sorry for nitpicking but also in the last paragraph “more better” is incorrect.


Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
27. October 2009 at 10:59 pm


The headline is a catchy way of saying that engaging in a dialog vs. demanding obedience without explanation, and that (up to a point) questioning parental requests may be a good thing. Thanks for pointing out the grammar error, looks like I was changing thoughts midstream and left some of of both in there. It’s much more better now. ;)



Nathan 27. October 2009 at 6:11 pm

“New research shows that simply telling kids what to do, rather than explaining why they should do it, may impair cognitive growth.”

You mean when kids know the reason behind things, instead of just taking them as read, that their intelligence might be expanded?

Well I think we can file this under “The Bleeding Obvious.”

Teaching children (and adults, it must be said) to question the state of things is the very basis of education and learning. A child can be inquisitive about the reasons behind things without being bratty.

“Because I said so” is obviously a useful attitude when pressed for time or in safety situations, but it’s dangerous to get stuck in that kind of thinking. If children understand the logic behind your parenting and what they’re allowed and not allowed to do, of course they will learn to better handle things themselves and process situations on their own.

My parents told me long ago (I am 26, incidentally) that they never wanted to catch themselves saying “because I told you so,” and that was how they parented us. Both I and my sister were always unusually mature with our decisions for our age, and were never discipline problems. Both of us received a free undergraduate education based on our academic performance, and my sister received a PhD from a very respected institution from grants and scholarships alone (again, based on her academic performance). All this without strict discipline from my parents, and I think it’s the fact that the reason *behind* everything was always made apparent, or was free to be inquired about.

You nurture intelligence in the mind of a student by teaching them how to think—it’s the thought process that really counts in the grand scheme of their lives, not the rote knowledge. It’s hardly surprising that this also applies to parenting, is it?


Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
27. October 2009 at 11:07 pm

Sounds like you had wise parents, Nathan. In reality, many parents do value obedience over discussion. What is common sense for one person may not be for someone else. Good research helps push the debate in the right direction. Thanks for stopping by.



Roy Mathers 26. February 2010 at 11:22 am

A more likely reason for the Latino community falling behind n questioning is their much greater prevalence for faith based indoctrination. The ancient masters of branding…religion.


Ernest @ weight loss drops 7. April 2011 at 11:30 am

Great and smart article. I really like this one. And I believe this is really true. But I think not too much because it might develop some negative effects on the child.


Leave a Reply