Thursday, 17 March 2011

The making of a bad guy

"Mommy, I think my brother is going to grow up to be a bad guy."

Here we go again. The oh-so-familiar bad guy/good guy conversation, a daily part of life around here lately.

"Oh? Why do you think that?"

"Because I...because he falls a lot...and because sometimes I push him and throw blocks at him."

My breath catches, stomach twists. Oh I have lived my life that way, me always the one responsible for everyone else's feelings, people-pleaser, giving in to spare others' unhappiness. And here I preach it - don't makes your child responsible for the feelings or actions of others; own your own feelings - and have I already failed so miserably with my own son?

"Honey, when your brother grows up he will have to choose for himself what sort of person he will be. You won't make him into a bad guy."

"But sometimes I push him, and that teaches him bad things, and then he'll grow up to be a bad guy."

My own words, served back to me with a side of heavy guilt. "We must treat your brother with kindness. When we treat him kindly, he learns to be kind. If we are mean to him, he learns to be mean."

"You do sometimes push him, don't you? But you know what? I see you doing very kind things for him as well."

"What kind things do you see me do?"

"Well, just tonight you wiped your brother's eyes and gave him a hug when he was crying. That was very kind. And I often see you give him a toy or share a treat with him. Today you played with him in your bedroom for a long time, and I heard you being very nice to him the whole time. You help me take very good care of him."

"And I patted his back tonight when he was going to sleep."

"Yes you did. That was very thoughtful of you. And you know what else? When you do knock your brother over, you always stop and tell him you're sorry, and then you try to make him feel better. That teaches him kindness too."

"So if I didn't say sorry to my brother, then he would grow up to be a bad guy?"

How do I ever explain this? How do I balance being kind with personal responsibility? empathy and compassion with not being responsible for others' feelings? How? I'm floundering here.

"Even if you didn't say sorry, he would still have choose for himself whether he was going to be a good guy or a bad guy. You can't make your brother be a bad guy. He has to decide himself."

Good guy, bad guy. Such simplistic terms. How can they ever convey the whole range of human experience - the brokenness, sin, choices, emotions, perspectives, hope? But these are the terms he has adopted, and it is in these terms that we explore the ideas of choice, repentance, redemption, grace, and, most of all, love.

"No, if I didn't say sorry, then he would learn mean things."

"You have taught him many kind things already. But even if you didn't, he still has to decide for himself whether he wants to be mean or be kind. We all do. Mommy and Daddy had to choose, even when people were mean to us. And you will have to choose too. Even if people are mean to you, you can still choose to be kind."

"No, if you didn't say sorry to me, then I would grow up to be a bad guy."

"Sweetheart, even then you could still choose to be a good guy. It might be hard but you could still choose to be kind."

"No, I wouldn't if you didn't say sorry."

"I'm glad I do say sorry then. God wants me to treat you so kindly, always, and I am very sorry when I am unkind to you. I love you very much. I think that you will grow up to be a very kind man who makes good choices, and I think your brother will too. Now let's pray and get into bed, okay?"


But is it? Is it okay? I don't know what I'm doing here. How do I teach compassion without co-dependency, balance sacrifice with self-care, encourage thinking of others while maintaining boundaries and an understanding of personal responsibility?

Like I said...I'm floundering here.


  1. I'm not a parent yet (though I'm pregnant with our first), but I LOVE your blog, and I have loved reading about how you deal with these sorts of things.

    Perhaps we should teach our children to be kind, not because of the positive consequences of being kind, but because it is the right thing to do, and falls under the golden rule? I should be kind because that's how I want others to treat me? I still don't know how that would look exactly, but I understand how a little mind can get caught up in cause/effect mode. I don't know. How do you teach a young child that we are to be kind even when someone is hateful toward us and spits in our face? I don't know...big questions. Here's hoping I have it ALL figured out before the baby gets here. That could totally happen...right? Right???

  2. This is such a great question, I think about the "responsiblity for others" thing quite a bit because when I was a kid my parents told me that all of my siblings were watching me and learning from my bad example, I was always so worried about everything they did. I am still afraid of all the times that I've passed on the "bad guy" tactics that I was taught by my parents behaviour towards me, so I certainly haven't figured this out! But one of the things that jumped out at me reading this post, is the difference between a "bad guy" and a "bad choice". Luke may learn a bad behaviour from his sibling, but that will not make him a "bad guy". Each person makes their own choices, and sometimes those descisions are bad, but even a person who makes many bad choices, is not nessacarily a "bad person." Just thinking with you and looking forward to the other commentors!

  3. Our children will be affected by our baggage. They just will. The best I can hope for with my own daughter is that she will benefit from me being transparent about it with her, and letting her see how I strive after wholeness. For example, when she's super bossy (which, erm, runs in the family...) I tell her, "trust me, kiddo, I've been that girl and it doesn't end well."
    A few days ago we were having a disagreement about a safety issue and I said, "I'm the mom, and that means sometimes it's my job to be more stubborn."
    She started crying and said, "Well, I'm the kiddo and that means I do things WRONG!"
    I have never told her that kids just 'do things wrong,' but she got that impression because she is in a negative development phase so I spend a lot of time redirecting and I'm in my third trimester and so not nearly as gracious as I should be sometimes. I spend a lot of time explaining to her why I react the way I do (and if I think my habits are helpful or not, and why).

  4. I've been checking "keep this unread" on my feed reader every time I scroll past it - it's stayed on my mind.

    It's something I think about in regards to my children too.

    I'm always trying to stress that we act thoughtfully and responsibly and with love and kindness and consideration for others because that's how we are to act - no matter what - even if the other person doesn't - that we make our own choices. (And the baggage I bring to it being fear that I'll impart lessons that teach them to be doormats rather than to have a gentle strength)

    How to do this well? No clue. But I'm guessing example is a good start - - when we show them that we make our own choices about our attitudes and response no matter how others treat us - - thanking people for being gracious when we make mistakes.

  5. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments!

    April, oh yes, I'm sure you'll have it ALL figured out before then! ;) Me, I'm just hoping that maybe I'll have these things straight by the time the third comes along. ;) I appreciate what you said about being kind simply because it is the right thing to do.

    Young Mom, those are some great points. We've been having a lot (A LOT) of these "bad guy" discussions around here, and I've really been trying to emphasize, as you said, the difference between a "bad guy" and a "bad choice". We all make bad choices sometimes, but that doesn't make us bad. We use the word "choice" around here very frequently, in the sense that we must all make our own choices and accept the consequences that come along with them.

    Kate, oh, I was so hoping to avoid that part of parenting! But you're right, this passing on of baggage is inevitable. I appreciate what you had to say about transparency. We have a lot of those same very frank conversations around here, coupled with sincere apologies when I (again, inevitably) mess things up.

    Nicole, I too worry about the "doormat" effect. That's a great point about setting an example in this area. That's definitely something I could improve on. I do this in regards to how I treat my children - with the transparency and apologies that I mentioned to Kate - but I'm not so good at it in my other relationships. I will make a more focused effort in that regard from now on.

  6. Oh lordy.

    My love and I talk about this one a lot, because neither of us come from healthy home environments and we're determined to break the cycle and allow her to be the first generation able to grow up healthy.

    The biggest conclusion we could come up with was to just be really great examples for her. In his chivalrous and gentlemanly behavior, he teaches her how she deserves to be treated from the opposite gender, healthy male behavior, and safety.

    From me, she (hopefully!) will learn how to be a confident and emotionally healthy female with boundaries, and that it's okay to define and defend personal boundaries.

    But ultimately it comes through being examples ourselves, and letting our children know that we're not perfect, admit our mistakes, and take responsibility for them.


  7. We, too, have the "is he a good guy or a bad guy?" conversation about a thousand times a day (usually about Star Wars characters); it seems he's just not quite ready for neutrality. We also have the "Even if people are mean to you, you can choose to be nice" conversation and the one about different people acting differently, different parents having different rules for their kids, people liking different things... :)

    I love that you pointed out all the kind things he was doing for his baby brother, rather than encouraging him to focus on the "bad" things (even if they're accidents) or chastising him for them.

  8. Since I have no parenting skills yet, I'm obviously not a great source. I honestly think you are handling this topic well. I think you just telling him over and over will get the point across eventually.

    I also think childhood is a black and white time for us. It's good or bad, right or wrong, we can't really see the middle ground. So I hate to say he'll grow out of it, but I think if you keep reinforcing that it's his choice, and individual responsibility, he'll pick it up.

  9. Delena, it's wonderful that you two are making such a focused effort to break that cycle. Being an example is such an important part of that; thank you for pointing that out.

    Karyn, it is so encouraging to hear that your little guy is asking these questions too!

    Korey, thank you for that encouragement, I really appreciate it. You're right about it being a very black-and-white stage in life; I shouldn't expect him to understand all the shades of grey just yet.

  10. This is an interesting question. It seems to me in part that your answer is in your post. Just as your child will choose how they interact with the world ("good" or "bad" guy tactics) your child will choose whether to own the actions/feelings of others or to evaluate their own actions and let the other individual own their actions/feelings. The best we can do is to model and take advantage of authentic moments to help our children witness a way of responding. In the end, they choose what works best for them.