A friend of mine likes to tell her dogs they've made "bad choices," and while I'm not necessarily equating child-rearing and dog training, there are some parallels. For example, I'm not really a morning person, but having a toddler roaming around the house pre-dawn with poop dripping out of his pajama leg and wielding a butter knife sort of gets the adrenaline pumping sans alarm clock, if you know what I mean. So, although I'd like him to stay in bed past 6:30 every morning, going "back to bed" sort falls in the category of "bad choices" for both of us by about ten till seven.
"Bad boy!" I tell him, as he looms over me with the butter knife. And now I'm a bad Mommy. At least I feel like one.
Despite all my feminist, collegiate, PC training, those words find their way out of my mouth more often than I'd like. More so when the in-laws are around, I suspect, because I'm a bit of a bandwagon kind of gal when it comes to linguistic habits (that Boston accent I had in middle school went by the way of all y'all within months of moving to Texas; I blame my musical training). The habit of saying "bad boy, bad girl" isn't ill meaning, in the larger sense, as anyone who knows me knows I'm not averse to discipline (quite the opposite), but there's something in the "bad boy" habit that strikes at what seems to be the unexamined core of how language (often unintentionally) has a way of transmitting deeper messages about who we are, how much we are worth, how much choice we have about who we are and what we could be, if given some attention and effort.
I try to remain conscious of telling him that he made a "bad decision" or a "bad choice" and throw in some enthusiastic "good listening" and "good choice you made there" for good measure. Because, even Mommy makes bad choices now and again, but does that make me a "Bad Mommy"? Not likely, since I don't own patents on guilt and inadequacy, as far as I can tell. Although, that doesn't stop me from feeling like the only bad parent on planet, every five seconds from time to time.
It reminds me of Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir Woman Warrior, which among other things, deals with gender identity. In it, she says, "Isn't a bad girl almost a boy?" Now, I'm not overly concerned about affecting my son's gender identity here, but Kingston's question (which I first encountered in high school) really resonated with something I'd felt all along about failing to live up to the expectations of femininity, at least as it stacked up against the information I had at the time. It made me think about how being routinely berated for being a "bad girl" fed my sense of not being very good, not just at being a girl (which admittedly, I wasn't very good at), but also that in some deep, unfixable way, I was just "bad," so I deserved to be treated that way.
In terms of academic achievement, I suppose feeling you're not good enough can actually work out in the long run, if your nature is to err on the side of overcompensating. But otherwise, it seems self-defeatist and I don't recommend it. Plus, your hard work doesn't pay off, in the happiness factor, because nothing is ever really good enough, which makes you a valuable asset to people who can recognize your talent and hard work, but might also not pay off in the financial sense because you probably don't think you deserve a raise either. For me at least, this understanding that I wasn't good enough led me to decades of unsatisfying over-achieving that eventually led me into graduate school, where my efforts to prove myself as somewhat deserving of accreditation (or at least a Masters degree), if not some minimal evidence that I was slightly more than pond scum, eventually led me into teaching middle school, where there is still plenty of insecurity to go around, both in the teachers' lounge and at the school desk. There were plenty of students who were convinced, at the age of twelve, that they were simply "bad students" or "bad writers" and therefore equally certain that I was blowing smoke up their ass when I showed even moderate signs of praise or encouragement.
On the one hand, I totally get it. I still have a hard time understanding the difference between empty praise and sincere encouragement. As for outright praise, you can forget it. Tell me I'm great, and I'm immediately convinced you're a habitual liar or have some contractual obligation to tell me I'm wonderful (because that's a lucrative career path, apparently). On the other hand, I know it takes work to get good at something. Having a child reminds me of this regularly. "Just try it" (we say, far too much for someone who is only two). He seems to have inherited a bit more spit-fire and self-loathing than I would like. "No hitting" we tell him, when he slaps himself out of frustration. Yeah. I have to teach my kid to be nice to himself. Go ahead and start the psychoanalysis.
Did I unknowingly teach him this behavior, or is this a human trait, or a familial trait passed down through genetic happenstance? Do my feelings about being a "bad parent" a "bad mother" bleed through all the bandaids and ointment of praise and encouragement? As much as I don't like it when my son is "that child," whose disagreement has temporarily rendered him a forty pound fish out of water on aisle three, part of me celebrates his defiance, his commitment, however brief, to arguing with his circumstances rather than with himself.
My favorite students were always the ones who were creatively defiant, creating comic strips instead of essays, and miniature airplanes out of gum wrappers, and spitball trebuchets out of scavenged rubber bands and half-empty pens. This is probably my favorite quality in most people, come to think of it. When a friend of mine, a yogi, admitted to wanting to put all the shoes (most of them conspicuously new, expensive, and displaying high-end brands) in the donation closet to teach the yoga students a lesson about attachment, it goaded my sense of quiet rebellion. If we're friends, it's likely because there's something cleverly deviant in your character that reminds me there are indeed constructive ways of raging against the machine. So as my son edges his little legs farther off the "time out" chair, or hangs one foot into the living room when he's been told to finish chewing in the kitchen, or does the naughty shuffle toward whatever off-limits area/object while smiling over his shoulder, I feel pride well up. Attaboy. That's my son. Good boy.
It's probably less important to know why we are self-loathing, or self-destructive, or resistant to praise, than to acknowledge those bad habits and develop different ones. Habits that acknowledge choosing action over passive acceptance of the inevitable bad seed. Habits that encourage us to creatively defy our own worst opinions of ourselves and instead constructively celebrate the "no thank you" that would serve us better than "yes please, may I have another."
What do you think? Do you tell your children, or yourself, that you are a "bad seed," or are you secretly proud of being associated with a bad apple in the bunch? How do we discipline ourselves or our children but also encourage creative (constructive) defiance? I have my own ideas, but I'd like to hear yours.
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