you're-being-bad culture

Growing up, we weren't allowed to call kids "bad." Kids couldn't be bad. It was one of those things, my mother would insist, that just wasn't possible. Kids weren't bad just as they weren't good. They were simply kids.

I hear it a lot, the "bad" thing. If a child whines or cries, if a toddler throws itself on the floor while kicking and screaming, if a child says "no!" when it's told to do something it doesn't want to, it somehow falls in this little box of "bad." Bad behavior. Being bad. Acting bad. I mean, I love self-deprecating cracks about exhaustion and eyebags as much as the next person (okay, maybe even a little more than that), but did anyone actually become a parent because they thought they'd be well-rested inside their clean home raising little soldiers who are mindlessly obedient?

Toddlers haven't been there, done that for too long. They haven't been around the block for 20, 30 years like we have. They haven't even been trying to navigate life for half that. Still, it seems there are parents who expect their young children to have this whole life and living thing down pact. They expect them to express their wants and opinions like they are reading from a script in which there is virtually no room for self expression or personal growth. I'm not really cool with that. Honestly? I think it's a little terrifying.

I want Ethan to tell me no. I want him to tell me what he wants and likes, even if it's not something that I want and like (like cauliflower). I want him to say "I like that shirt" and mean it literally, not like "I like that shirt because it's what everyone is wearing." I want him to understand his inner voice, his conscience, his morality on the basis of what he believes to be right and true, not because someone promised him damnation otherwise. Maybe these issues all seem irrelevant bouncing to them from Rigorous Toddler Training, but I believe they're all connected. I don't think my child is bad when he rolls on the ground screaming because he doesn't want to leave My Gym. I don't think he's bad when he throws his apple skins on the floor even when he knows they belong in the trash. I don't think he's bad when he tells the random stranger in Target that he doesn't like her after she gets up in his face telling him how cute he is. I don't think he's bad if he doesn't want to hug someone he hasn't seen in a long time or doesn't know. I don't think he's bad because kids cannot be bad. I think he's being three and a half. I think he's trying to figure out life and how to deal with the vast emotional outpouring going on in his little body right now. I think he's a human being and as hard of a time as it feels like he's giving me, the truth is he's having an even harder time.

I get it. The other day Ethan lost a dollar spot Nutcracker head in the grocery store. Myself and three employees spent forty minutes trying to locate it while Ethan wailed so loud that I thought we would be banned indefinitely from buying groceries there ever again. My face was red and I could feel myself sweating both from stress and humiliation as the crowd grew to see what was wrong with the little boy. (Nothing to see here, my kid just dropped a Nutcracker head.) Sometimes it takes a while to step outside of yourself and realize that he's crying because he's sad, because he doesn't understand permanence, that to us it's a silly piece of a toy that can be replaced but, to him, it's something of his that he cherishes. Something that is wildly irreplaceable because it is his and it is loved.

I like to treat Ethan like he is a person because he is one. I like to ask his input when buying groceries and picking out our weekly dinners because he eats, too. I like his input when buying him clothes because they go on his body. He isn't a guest in our home, but a person who lives there just as much as I do. Sometimes he screams. Sometimes he makes intentional messes. Sometimes he pitches a fit because he didn't want to stop playing with his dinosaurs and missed My Gym even though he was previously confident he could schedule both into his day. These things seem ludicrous to me, but I'm almost 30. I'm not three years old trying to figure out this big world while still honing the necessary skills to do so. I mean, I get time. I get time and scheduling and urgency. But three year olds? They just get that they have a huge bin of dinosaurs that need to be played with right now and My Gym sounds fun, but maybe later on.

I give Ethan respect and he, in turn, gives us respect. We build him up to understand his worth and the beauty of being who he really, really is -- even if that means singing Rancid in the car when the other kids are singing songs from Frozen. We build him up to believe he is capable of making good decisions and guide him to understand how to make those good decisions. I want him to think critically. I want him to question authority. I want him to question anything that doesn't seem right to him. I also don't want him to think he's bad if he stumbles or makes a mistake. I don't want him to think he's bad if he acknowledges when something doesn't feel right to him. I want him to do the right thing because he knows it's the right thing and why, not because someone else told him to do it.

I am sure that we will have many lost Nutcracker heads in our future (figuratively speaking). I am sure these incidents will be stressful. I am also sure that, no matter how badly I want to lose my mind, my place is to take my little boy in my arms and tell him that I understand his frustration and am here to help him learn how to work through it. That's my job as his mom, after all. Call me any name you want, but I believe that taking Ethan into my arms and helping him hash out his feelings is my job as a mom way more than sending him off to a behavior bootcamp (no, really, that exists) where he memorizes a script to follow and doesn't dare improvise any of his own lines.

Improvise away, beautiful boy. I'll always care about what you have to say and am eager to learn all of the new things you are able to show me.

And for what it's worth, I've hot glued on all of the limbs on Ethan's new Nutcracker. Consider that one of many lessons I know he will teach me.


  1. Aw you're such a great mom. Sometimes when Lyla does something wrong I just want to yell 'bad girl!' at her but the minute she sees that I'm angry she starts crying because she is SAD that she upset ME and that just melts me right into a pathetic mom puddle. Your son has theeee most beautiful eyes!

  2. Behavior bootcamp exists? That seems wrong.

    I am glad someone else asks their kid what they would like to eat for dinner. When I make the weekly menu I ask my 4 year old if there is a dinner she would like.

  3. I love your brain and I love the way you think. Seriously. I'm with you on the labeling of and defining children as "bad." I can tell that your forward thinking stems from an amazing mom, who has in turn made you a better parent for it. This post needs to be read by so many! A lot of parents don't realize the messages they're sending when they categorize children and their behavior with labels that ultimately shape who we are. We can all do better.

    And oy vey at that grocery incident! How could they ever ban those big blue eyes?! He is the CUTEST!

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