For some reason, it’s become acceptable to publicly insult our kids, especially in the name of “humor.” Read through a lot of parenting blogs and somewhere in there is the article where the parent decides to call their kid an asshole, a little shit, or some other variant. I see the shares these posts get and the comments flooding in about how they too have a kid that’s an asshole, and that kid is often a toddler. Based on these articles, you'd think we were being overrun by little toddler assholes, wreaking havoc on all our lives just for fun.
Here’s the thing though: Your kid’s not the asshole, you are.
Your kid isn’t intentionally trying to make your day hell. Your toddler isn’t trying to hurt you or make you shut them away when they need help. Your child is suffering as much, if not more, than you. But you? You’re not thinking about them, you are so stuck in your own head and your own emotions that you can’t see the child who needs help. Who needs you. You see an asshole. So you spend a day fighting your child and then take to the Internet to share loud and wide what an asshole you gave birth to. Even if only for a day, you have disowned any responsibility for your child’s behaviour and put it all on their tiny, overwhelmed shoulders. That kinda makes you the asshole.
The thing is, I do empathize with the plight of dealing with a child who is not having, shall we say, a good day themselves. When you combine full-on fury with an underdeveloped brain, it can cause anyone to want to start with a bottle of wine and go from there. As Yale professor Paul Bloom wrote, “Families survive the Terrible Tows because toddlers aren’t strong enough to kill with their hands and aren’t capable of using lethal weapons. A 2-year-old with the physical capacities of an adult would be terrifying.” So I get how hard it can be -- physically and emotionally. And no, I don’t think you’re a bad parent or that you don’t love your child.
I think it’s really a reflection of the greater problem of how we view children in our society. We expect children to behave like adults and are angry when they fail to live up to this impossible standard because they aren’t adults. (Of course once they are old enough we treat them as infants, incapable of walking down the street alone, but that’s a topic for another day.) When I read of parents calling their kids assholes for behaving as children -- because yes, as hard as it is, your child will have hard days and tantrums -- it is clear that our parenting expectations are so warped that the only way parents have to look at toddler-like behaviour is to think of their child as an asshole. And then share it with the world.
When you call your kid an asshole in a public forum (with your name and everything), you are doing three things:
- Making it clear that you have expectations of their behaviour that is unrealistic, especially without proper guidance from you, and then shaming them for it;
- Responding to your child in a way that doesn’t foster the type of growth or behaviour you seem to be expecting; and
- Supporting other parents in doing the same thing instead of helping them see how to help their child grow and learn.
Let’s start with the issue of expectations. Your young child is in the midst of learning to regulate emotions, control behaviour, and learn what is socially acceptable. Your child also has a prefrontal cortex that is only starting to develop (compared to yours which is fully developed, giving you a rather large edge in the “how to behave” department, though you don’t seem to be taking advantage of that edge). Your child hasn’t mastered emotion regulation and will be triggered by things that may seem trivial to you, but are overwhelming to them, especially if they are already in a highly emotional state. In short, the deck is stacked against them being able to calm down on their own once worked up, understand their behaviour or its effects on you, or respond to your demands (yes, demands) of sleep or quiet with anything other than more panic and screaming. Calling them an asshole -- even just in the online sphere where you think it won’t reach them -- is a means of shaming them (and is memorialized online for years to come if they ever try to google themselves or you), and if you are calling them that in public, you’re likely thinking it as you interact with them. This means your reaction to their behaviour isn’t what it should be either.
This brings us to point two: How you respond to your child. It’s easy to get angry at the child that is acting out. Very easy. This post isn’t to tell you that you need to be a beacon of Zenness as you deal with a child that has lost it entirely. There may be a few people who can do that, but as I know I’m not one of them personally, I can’t realistically expect others to be too, but that doesn’t leave calling your kid an asshole the only alternative. You may first feel like you’re going mad. You may want to storm from the house and threaten never to return. You may want to cry or start drinking at 11am. All are completely valid feelings. Acting on them is not. If you’re letting your child’s feelings of being overwhelmed overwhelm you, you will end up in a situation in which no good will come.
So take a moment. Lock yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes to calm down. Take your deep breaths, scream into a pillow, whatever you need to do to get to the stage where you can remind yourself of something that is essential: Your child isn’t trying to give you a hard time, your child is having a hard time. And your child needs you to be there. What your child needs specifically will vary, but at the very least, they need you to remain calm, or as calm as possible, because if you don’t, you’re the one adding the fuel to the fire. Your child will react to your stress and the situation becomes worse. It may be that you need to tell them you’re there and wait for them to calm down and come to you. They may need a time-in right away where you cuddle and just hold them until they are feeling better (note: if they’re flailing and hitting you and holding them tight isn’t possible or doesn’t work, give them the time first, letting them know you’re there when they’re ready).
Once they are calm again it’s our job as parents to talk to them about what happened, offer alternatives that are more appropriate for future meltdowns, and help them see ways to stop these behaviours before they start. In short, you don’t need to endorse the behaviour or expect it to continue forever more, just understand it and work to help them help themselves.
What your child doesn’t need is for you to think of him as an asshole for not being able to keep it together all the time. Heck, if that were the rule then I believe all our kids could rightfully be calling us assholes most days, but I don’t see many parents writing pieces about how much of an asshole they were that day. No, we are generous to ourselves and understand how stress can overwhelm us, giving ourselves a pass when we fail to live up to the high expectations of perfection.
What’s perhaps most disturbing in a large-picture sense is that when you share this view of your child as an asshole out in a public sphere, you support other parents in maintaining their own unrealistic expectations and inappropriate responses. As I said at the start, I get why you want to write something after a day that has been horrible, but there’s so much more that could be written. You could write a piece from the perspective of your child and how hard his day was. You could write a piece about what you learned from the experience. Or if you just need to vent, you can actually vent about your day without calling your kid an asshole. People will understand how hard it is to deal with those days and the sympathy will come pouring in even if you don’t throw your kid under the bus for being a kid. A neurologically immature kid at that.
Next time you think about writing something that tells the world what a shitty kid you’ve raised, perhaps you should think twice: Either you’re admitting you’re a pretty shitty parent yourself to have raised such an asshole, or you’re just being the asshole you’re accusing your kid of being.
Image via Mindaugas Danys/Flickr