ControverSunday – Devil Spawn Edition

This week, which is almost half over, the controversunday topic is When Bad Kids Happen to Good Parents. You can write about it too, iffin you want. Go, read Kathleen’s post and leave your link in the comments.
There’s a badge, too. Accidents has it.


Fact: Four year olds are bossy. They have been bossed for four years and they are done being bossed. Now they are bossing. They are, in fact, The Boss! They will boss anything smaller than them. Cats, siblings, beetles, stuffed animals, cereal. Sometimes they try bossing things bigger than them, which can be illuminating.

Having a four year old is like having a job review. Now that someone else in the house wants to be boss, I am hearing a lot of my bossiness coming out of a little person’s mouth. Not just words, but tone. Not just tone, but TONE. As in, don’t take that TONE with me.

Turns out, little people are always watching you and how you behave. Everyone says this and I have heard it said. I sort of got it when the kids were mimicky-parroty and I was all, oh now I have to stop saying “fuck” because the children will imitate me. Which is why I swear so much on the Internet, because my children can’t read yet.

But it gets worse. When they get older they imitate not just your words but your emotions. They imitate your very being and they see that being more clearly than you do. They see your mean face and your funny face and your exasperated face and they try those faces out on themselves in the mirror, on each other, on people over whom they have some power.

Lots of this isn’t going to “stick”. Trombone is still figuring out who he is, in relation to me and to other people. He’s trying on a lot of disguises, to see which one fits best. There are other elements of his personality – his ability to empathize, his respect for other people – that are intact, even as he is blustering and bossing his brother. (Who, I might add, is having none of it.)

I have changed – I am trying to change – my tone of voice and the way I talk to my kids because now that I hear that exasperated voice and those mean words coming out of my son’s mouth, I am ashamed that I sound like that. I wouldn’t want me to talk like that to me if I wasn’t me.

I mention this in the context of the “bad kid / good parents” discussion because the way our kids see us can show us how we’re doing as parents. It gives us an opportunity to evaluate ourselves and change course, if need be.

I don’t think there are ‘good’ parents with ‘bad’ kids. I don’t think those words, “good” and “bad” are at all applicable when we are discussing the subtleties of human nature and behavior. Food can be good, as in edible, or bad, as in rotten, and that’s about it. Everything else in the world is more complex.

I think there are parents who don’t listen to their kids and who don’t respect their kids, and those kids learn to not listen to anyone or respect anything. Those kids behave very poorly indeed, toward their parents and toward other people. But the parent is still the first teacher. If a child* shows no respect for anyone, I have to assume that he has not been shown any respect by the people closest to him. (* I’m talking about kids who are not mentally ill or disabled.)

Some kids are born more challenging than others. Some are more stubborn, some are louder, some are risk takers. All of those facets of a child’s personality have good and bad qualities about them; a parent’s job is to help the child learn to participate in society without compromising himself or hurting others.

My most challenging moments as a parent come when I forget to see my kids as themselves; with their own personalities inborn, their own challenges and strengths. I get wrapped up in what their behavior is saying about me, what people are thinking about me as a parent when they see my kid throwing stones up in the air to see how they fall. Say it with me: It’s Not About Me.

When I think it’s About Me, I get embarrassed by their behavior and when I am embarrassed, I am more likely to treat them like misbehaving pets than the humans they are. What I try to remember is that it’s just behavior. Normal, developmentally appropriate behavior that it is my job to correct if necessary or let them figure out the ramifications of, if it’s safe.

An illustrative anecdote, if you will.

Last summer we were in the petting zoo at the park. Trombone, all of 3 years old and 3 feet tall, was talking to the rabbits and the suddenly the sheep started running towards him, bleating loudly. He freaked out. I had to scoop him up and Fresco up and go running for the safety of the gate. We did not return to the petting zoo for the rest of the summer. I joked about it a lot, not to him or in front of him, but when he wasn’t listening, because I was embarrassed that he was scared of sheep. I was embarrassed that he was scared of anything. I wanted him to be tougher, to be braver, to stand up for himself. Because when he freaked out, it made ME look like the mom of a wuss.

Yes, I would have felt the same way with a daughter.

My scorn for wusses is something I have been fighting with for many years. I believe intellectually – and firmly – that showing your weakness just yields more offers of support and how can we be stronger if we don’t acknowledge where the weaknesses are and that crying is cleansing BUT in my emotional DNA I still have a little line of code that says no crying, no weakness.

It is important to me that my kids feel free to cry and show their emotions, even if it makes me uncomfortable, even if it causes a “scene” because in the grand scheme of things, what do I care what a bunch of people at the park think? I am helping a human being build a lifetime of emotional health here, versus one 15-minute span of embarrassment and frankly, don’t most people expect children to scream like idiots for no reason? So when they cry – and oh, do they ever – it makes me tense but I have to allow it. I breathe through it. I offer unconditional support.

Except for those special days when I am over the crying. I am not that sympathetic on those special days but you know what? I was a human being long before I became a parent. And sometimes, kid, you are a drama queen.

Anyway, the sheep. It was his business. My job was to support him, to not invite any sheep over, to talk in a reasonable fashion about sheep and how self-absorbed and dumb they are and then to wait patiently for him to get over it. And that’s what I did. And by the following year, he remembered the incident but was no longer concerned about sheep at all.

And that, though it was hard for me, was the respectful way to deal with his sheep phobia. It was hard for me but it was harder for him. I am an adult, dealing with frustration. He is a 3 year old dealing with something that scared the crap out of him.

End anecdote.

Theory: If we are willing to listen – really listen – to our kids and admit when we’re being assholes, even though they’re littler than we are – ESPECIALLY because they’re littler than we are – then we go a long way toward helping our kids grow up to be people who listen and admit when they’re being assholes.

Shorter: Do as I do, and I will try to do better.

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