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Good Kids, Bad Kids

My son Alec first heard the phrase "Good boy!" when he was 2, from his grandmother. I don't remember what he did to rate her praise, but I recall that I said, "Mom, we don't really talk in those terms anymore." Parroting a friend who'd passed on this bit of wisdom to me, I explained that it was important to Alec's self-esteem  -- and to his view of other people  -- that he learn not to judge a person (himself included) as wholly angelic or dastardly, even at a single given moment. It is the behaviors that are scolded or praised, not the child as a whole. "Oh!" said Mom, duly caught by the praise police. "What do you say?"

"Something that specifically praises what he's doing, or 'Good job'"  -- not confessing that while I do use this little commendation, I dislike the way it makes just living life sound like a series of labors.

"So what's the opposite of 'Good job'?" my mother asked. Here, she had me stumped  -- but the very next day, we were in a mall when a small child came careening around a corner, followed by an irate mother. Tackling the child, she turned him around and firmly stated, "Poor choice!"

"Well, there you go," said Mom. Since then, it's become a family joke: Tell a story involving a grown-up's rash or moronic behavior, and you'll hear an outcry of "Poor choice!" followed by a wave of laughter.

Most parents I know admit to spending a lot of energy crafting the language they use when scolding or praising their children. It's not just that we no longer say, "Bad girl!" or "What's wrong with you?" or "You're in a world of trouble, mister!"; we're also discouraged from saying, "I'm proud of you" and "You're so wonderful!" and "What would I do without you?" And our pussyfooting extends to the way we talk about other people's behavior as well.

"I try to avoid making global generalizations about people in front of my daughter because I want her to think in more subtle ways," says one mother I know. "I don't want her to divide people into categories, so if she says another child's bad, I try to modify that view, get her to focus on that child's behavior. If it's behavior that I don't want my daughter to copy, I might say, 'In our family, these are our rules. In her family, maybe the rules are different.'"

I've embraced the prevailing philosophy because it makes rational sense. But as Alec has grown  -- particularly since he's reached the age of superhero (and superfelon) fixation  -- I'm less convinced that it makes emotional sense. And frankly, sometimes it exhausts me, especially when I have to suppress my gut feelings  -- or modulate Alec's, even as they echo mine.

Sometimes I like the way my inner censor makes me pause for a moment to revise a judgment, but then I'll hear myself sounding artificial and wimpy. I've become so used to splitting hairs that, in some situations, I forget how to say it like it is.

At a recent birthday party, Alec had a run-in with a girl he'd never met before. When he tried to join a game of miniature golf, she refused  -- vociferously  -- to share the clubs with him. Alec immediately burst into tears. "She's mean!" he sobbed as I steered him away. "Well," I said, holding my tongue, "she's having a hard time sharing." "She's mean!" Alec reiterated. "Honey, I know she hurt your feelings, but maybe she's never played this game before." Renewed wailing: "She's mean!"

Meanwhile, I'm thinking that the girl was a brat. Why was I making excuses for her? Does my son have to like everyone he meets  -- or think there's a reasonable cause behind every slight? I took a deep breath. "You're right, Alec. She is mean." As soon as I said it, his face brightened with relief and vindication  -- the world made sense  -- and two seconds later he was happily playing with another group of kids.

When Alec misbehaves, I try to render only the most Solomonic of scoldings ("It makes me angry when you hit the furniture with your sword." "When you stomp clay into the rug, it's hard for me to wash it out."). Lately, however, a devil's been reminding me that plenty of grown-ups who were admonished as children in more Draconian terms (involving threats, banishments, and cries of "Bad boy!" galore) feel just fine about themselves and handle moral niceties quite deftly.

One of the gentlest parents I know is coping with a 12-year-old who tests her patience by taunting his 6-year-old sister. Too many times, she's heard herself say, "That's not an appropriate way to speak to your sister" and "You're hurting her feelings"  -- with little or diminishing effect on his behavior.

"I had an abusive mother, so I'm careful when I'm angry, but sometimes the way I talk sounds so stilted," she says. "Sometimes you need to sound real." Now, when necessary, she'll say, "Stop being cruel!" or "You are being mean!" And she gets heard  -- because, she suspects, she's talking clearly and directly, in 12-year-old terms.

Who are the experts behind our compulsive soft-shoe? I did a little digging and struck gold in the 1956 classic Between Parent & Child, by the psychologist Haim Ginott. He outlines a "new" discipline, which brings an end to "angry argument" that's "incoherent, inconsistent, and insulting." Who wouldn't champion that? He advocates respecting our children's wishes even as they clash with the rules and naming our own feelings instead of making threats. (In the 1970s, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish took his ideas further, examining all kinds of parent-child conflicts in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.)

Most germane to our self-censorship is Ginott's discussion of praise. "The single most important rule," he writes, "is that praise deal only with the child's efforts and accomplishments, not with his character and personality." Saying "You are such a good boy" and "You are so generous" may leave him feeling anxious and threatened because he'll fear he can't live up to such labels. "Direct praise of personality, like direct sunlight, is uncomfortable and blinding," Ginott maintains. By extension, negative generalizations are devastating.

I see the logic, but I don't believe children are so unswervingly literal. And when it comes to praise, sometimes they bask in that sunlight.

A month ago, Alec made his third visit to the dentist  -- the first time, as it turned out, she would use one of those electric gizmos to clean his teeth. Alec hadn't been warned. Unable to do more than watch and reassure him, I saw his inner struggle to brave this new experience  -- which he did without flinching.

The dentist was impressed, and I was exhilarated. "You did such a good job of sitting still, and you let her use that loud machine on your teeth without complaining. That was great," I said. But I felt phony.

So, while giving Alec a bath that night, I said (expert advice be damned), "You were such a good boy today at the dentist. I'm so proud of you!" And I think he heard it for what it was: an expression of how strongly I share his pride, of my love at its most inexpressibly deep.

What was his response? A big smile  -- aimed at himself, not me. Because I spoke from my gut instead of my boomer-parent playbook, his triumph returned full force.

Surrounded by Alec and his pre-school pals, I've come to believe that they're inevitably drawn toward extremes of judgment  -- and for some good reasons. No matter what examples we set, they will continue to categorize the doers as well as their deeds.

In our house, those extremes are expressed in superhero play, and for several months after Alec turned 4, I agreed to be slain on a nightly basis. "You be the bad guy! I'm the good guy!" was his unchanging order to me. Only our identities varied. But one night  -- when I was Penguin to his Batman or that damsel-snatching centaur to his brawny Hercules  -- I found myself cornered in the kitchen, about to be vanquished, and decided to twist the plot. "Wait!" I pleaded as Alec charged. "Please spare me! Can't we be friends? I'll mend my evil ways!" Alec interrupted his coup de grâce to scowl at me, outraged. "No, no, you're the bad guy! You have to be bad!" He actually started to cry; this was not the cosmos he'd created. And for the umpteenth time, I got my just deserts.

Girls relish this clear polarity too. "At my daughter's preschool, they don't use the word 'bad'; if a kid does something wrong, it's 'not okay,'" says one dad I know. "My wife and I have picked up the phrase at home. But when our daughter's playing with her dolls, I'll hear her scolding, 'Bad girl! Bad girl!' I have no idea where she's heard talk like that."

Another dad made an interesting observation about animated violence. To wean his 5-year-old from certain new cartoons that he saw as apocalyptically violent, he substituted episodes of good old Bugs Bunny and Road Runner. "They're still violent  -- extremely violent, if you take them literally  -- but they always make Michael laugh; with those other cartoons, he just sat there in front of the TV, staring grimly. They're too reality-based."

To kids this age, there's something comforting about the extremes of a Looney Tunes world. Could it be that what they're expressing is a perfectly healthy, timely yearning toward the black and white of right or wrong, good versus bad  -- no matter how much we shilly-shally about in shades of gray?

When I look back at my affirmation to Alec that the mini-golf tyrant was "mean," I think I was supporting him not merely in judging another but in recognizing behavior that's inexcusable for anyone, including him. Such strong language can show our children vivid boundaries between right and wrong  -- boundaries that they'll soon have to draw for themselves.

Recently, a fellow mother told me she'd just finished jury duty on a case in which she felt the verdict depended on whether the jurors thought the key witness was lying, framing the defendant out of sheer malice. "As I struggled to judge this woman's nature, I thought about the wishy-washy ways my husband and I talk to our son about good and bad behavior," she confided. "I mean, how is he going to gain any grasp of something as powerful as evil  -- a word we don't even use?"

Without getting theological here, I think many of us would agree that evil (or rotten-to-the-core badness) does take hold of some people and govern more than their deeds. Were Timothy McVeigh's actions "not okay"? Was Adolf Hitler someone who made "poor choices"? (Conversely, can we no longer call someone "good-hearted" or "saintly"?) Not that Oklahoma City and Auschwitz are topics for circle time  -- but how we talk about the playground bully (and how we talk to our kids when they do the bullying) may lay the groundwork for how we talk about worse crimes later on.

Much as we teach our kids to read, swim, and ride a bike years sooner than we ourselves may have learned those skills, I wonder if we're also pushing a complex view of human nature sooner than we might, when it simply isn't natural.

I doubt we're doing any harm, but maybe there's also no harm  -- and more pleasure  -- in affirming the occasional rightness of a world that does include devils and angels (or dynamite-toting coyotes and caped crusaders).

Alec has a favorite bedtime reading request that reminds me just how delightful this polarity can be. It's a poem called "Sometimes I Feel This Way," by John Ciardi, in a book I loved as a child. In Edward Gorey's illustration, a headless boy stands in his pajamas before a dresser that holds two heads, one with a cherubic smile, the other with a stormy scowl. The poem begins:

"I have one head that wants to be good,

And one that wants to be bad. And always, as soon as I get up,

One of my heads is sad."

Alec shrieks with glee as I read the two heads' descriptions of the kindnesses and pranks that "being good" and "being bad" entail. Sometimes, in reading this poem, I feel as if I am being bad myself, but how delicious it feels to shrug off the subtleties of human interaction. All too soon, Alec will learn about those, devils and angels unto themselves.

Julia Glass recently won her third Nelson Algren Fiction Award and a fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation of the Arts.