Yesterday I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen since before I had my daughter. She wanted to see some photos, which I showed her, and then she asked me the question people always seem to ask without giving it much thought: ‘Is she good?’ I never know how to answer this question, and on this occasion I replied ‘It depends what you mean by ‘good”. But it really got me thinking about what a strange question it is, and also what a loaded question it is!
Children are children. They’re neither inherently good nor bad. They just are. They can exhibit a wide range of behaviours, some of which are challenging and undesirable, (and some children show more of these behaviours than others), but they don’t do this to be spiteful or evil. Malice is a fairly sophisticated concept, alien to most, if not all, children. Even if a child is deliberately causing pain or upset to another, they are usually not yet cognitively developed enough to truly understand what they’re doing, and the consequences of that. It’s for this reason that the age of criminal responsibility in most of the civilised world is somewhere between the ages of 10 and 14 years.
I think categorising a child as ‘good’ or ‘bad/naughty’ is unhelpful. I think it’s better if we try to think in terms of expectations: what behaviours we should expect from a child at a certain age. We should expect an infant to cry often, not sleep through the night, and be extremely demanding. We should expect toddlers to have tantrums, empty drawers and throw food on the floor during mealtimes. And we should expect younger children to ask lots of questions, push boundaries and interrupt us while we talk. These are perfectly normal behaviours, and to categorise them as ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ sets us on a dangerous path! Self-fulfilling prophecy, where a child lives up to the expectations set for them, can become an issue if your child is raised with the notion that they’re a naughty child.
Let me share a little story: the other day I was listening to a mother chastise her daughter who I would say was aged about 5. The girl was playing her computer game with the sound turned up high, and as this was in a hospital, her mum wanted her to turn the sound off. The child ignored her mother, who became increasingly angry and eventually got up, took the game from her, and proceeded to talk about her daughter to the grandparents present, calling her ‘naughty’ and ‘disobedient’. The grandparents chimed in, agreeing with the mother that she was a ‘naughty child’. The little girl started to cry, and my heart went out to her. Her mum then stood up, dragged her off the ward by her arm, and started lecturing her about being respectful. This event made me so sad! The girl wasn’t being naughty; yes she was ignoring her mum, but she was 5 and probably so absorbed in her game she wasn’t listening. Rather than getting up and turning the game down herself, the mother chose to be combative and challenge her daughter. And then worst of all, rather than acknowledging her daughter’s upset at having her game snatched from her hands, she embarrassed and humiliated her in front of her grandparents and a ward full of people! She wasn’t even setting a good example about being respectful and keeping noise levels down, as her persistent nagging of her daughter was much louder and more annoying than the noise from the video game! Hopefully this little girl won’t grow up being constantly told she is ‘bad’, and having her confidence and sense of self undermined.
So what exactly do people mean when they ask if I child is ‘good’? I’m not sure exactly, but in the future I think I’ll just say ‘She’s a child. And I love her no matter what.’