Some time ago children were to be seen, but not heard. They knew their place.

Recently their position has blurred. In fact, psychologists say children now find themselves walking a fine line between speaking up for themselves and what's commonly referred to as "back talk."Although back talk is hard for any adult to tolerate, Dr. Agi Plenk argues parents need to take a second look at the little creature daring to defy them.

"It's defiance with a purpose. It is a search for independence, a necessary step in developing autonomy," said Plenk, founder and former executive director of the Children's Center.

But how do you handle it? Plenk has a number of recommendations.

First, she says, when dealing with toddlers, don't phrase your demand as a question. That's a sure invitation for a "no." Say, "Its time for bed," not "Do you want to go to bed now?"

"Secondly, the less talk the better. Little children are action-oriented. For example, when you've told your child it's bedtime, don't hesitate going to the bedroom. You are giving a message . . . you mean it."

Plenk said that at 5 and 6, children have a new challenge: They have to accept a lot of rules in school - some of which make sense and some that do not.

"Here rebelliousness is considered inappropriate, and yet the feelings are there," she said. "The child has to find a way for rebelling, and hopefully he or she does it at home. Home has to be the place where children feel comfortable enough to be themselves and show their feelings. Wouldn't you rather they talk back or refuse to take out the garbage, rather than resisting learning to read?"

Between ages 7 and 10, children are struggling generally with authority. Who is boss? Can I pick my own friends? Watch my favorite TV show even if it is gruesome, sexy and violent?

Plenk said this is the time parents should set family standards. "But do it by action, rather than by words," she said. "If `Jack the Ripper' is your favorite show or Playboy magazine your favorite reading material, you'll have a little more trouble and more verbal rebellious behavior will result."

The psychologist urges parents to be positive and do fun things with their children - go on hikes, play a game of tennis or watch a good movie or nature show. "Peers are important, but so are parents."

What about the greatest challenge of all - the back-talking teenager who "should know better."

Recognize the reality and validity of their feelings, Plenk advised. "We don't like authority all the time either. We rebel against `too much government,' want a voice in decision making, but hopefully have learned to keep our rebellion within acceptable bounds," she said. "The teenager is learning those boundaries at home, in the ways parents handle disagreements, in the way issues are discussed and decisions made."

Plenk has some general helpful hints for all parents: make few rules and those made should be the "rubberband" type, to be stretched a little, but not broken. Compromise gracefully, but do not be spineless. Be fair and be prepared to overlook unimportant issues. Please keep your sense of humor.

"At any age, remember back talk can be healthy. It is a sign of independence. Squelch it too much, and you may have an obedient child, but one who may also be less comfortable in expressing true feelings and/or afraid to take independent risks throughout life," she said.