When it comes to parenting, so many people think convenience is equivalent to health. My husband and I have run into a few situations where we’ve faced the unwarranted opinions of the people around us. If our son is loud, boisterous, and “inconvenient” to the adults around him, then he is “‘bad” and something MUST be wrong. If he is quiet, reserved, and withdrawn, then he is a “good” and pleasant little boy. When our son, Levi is excited or upset he feels and expresses at 100 percent (he gets that from his mama!). My husband and I have been dumbfounded at the times people have flippantly spoken (in front of our child) about his identity in correlation to how conveniently he acts in social situations. If I had a dollar for every person who’s asked “what’s wrong with him” or “why is he so bad “we’d be able to live rent-free for a year or two.
As a mother and trauma therapist, I can sniff social trauma out from a mile away. Mostly because my everyday work consists of working with people for months, sometimes years as they unlearn and unravel the lies that were spoken about them when they were just children.
When we affirm a child's identity based on how others react and perceive them, we send them down a path of cultural codependency, essentially saying, “as long as the people around you approve of you, you’re good and worth loving! And if they disagree with how you express yourself, who you are is bad and deserving of no love at all.”
How terrifying is that? Our job is to teach our children that they are always deserving of love, no matter what they do.
Our responsibility to teach them that they always deserve access to love doesn’t alleviate our responsibility to teach children appropriate behavior. But we must keep in mind that kids are kids and are learning what “appropriate” means - so, they don’t yet understand it fully. When we shame a child by calling them “bad” when they can’t sit through a long ceremony, church service, or prolonged event, we help them develop neurological pathways of shame, and self-loathing for them being nothing other than themselves. we encourage them to perform in a way that is most validated by others, rather than do the courageous work of being themselves. It’s easy to make the mistake of expecting children to ace these social “quizzes” in life when they’re just learning how to identify letters and numbers.
The balance between teaching our child what is appropriate and allowing them to be a kid requires understanding and advocacy. Understanding looks like getting educated on what my child can and can’t handle developmentally. For instance: the average uninterrupted attention span for a child that’s 25-36 months (around my son’s age) is five to eight minutes. Though I’ve seen him give attention to tv shows, toys, and books for longer than that range, I don’t expect him to go much longer than 8 minutes with absolute full attention in a new and unfamiliar environment. This is where advocating comes in. I come prepared to step out of events and ceremonies with age-appropriate toys (like the Generation Mindful coloring resources from the Time-In kit and his Snuggle Buddie that my son affectionately calls “Color Bear”), books and snacks if he begins to disrupt events for others. I make sure to communicate that stepping away is an opportunity to connect and play with mommy rather than a punitive time-out for doing exactly what a child his age should be doing.
Advocating for my child also looks like correcting the shaming narratives that others may often unintentionally speak about him. I once had a family member ask if he was being a “good boy” that day. I took the opportunity to educate them in front of my son, by saying our son is always good and though he may face some challenges listening and following directions throughout the day, those changes don’t define him. I then embraced my child and told him that he is always a good boy no matter what he does. He gave me a kiss and ran off to play. I’m not sure he understood every word shared, but something tells me he knew his mommy came to his defense.
Understanding and advocacy are important because we are parents and we’re also human. When we hear things like “ Why is your kid so bad?” or “why isn’t he normal like other kids?” There’s a part of us that will inevitably think, “Is my kid bad? Is something wrong with them?” If you’ve had those thoughts, you’re not alone. I know because I’ve been there. The education I’ve invested in receiving (like in Generation Mindful’s amazing Positive Parenting Course) has helped me meet my shame with compassion and truth: There is no such thing as a bad kid. Just a kid that’s learning and growing.
Simple boundary-setting sets the tone for how safe our child feels around us as they witness what we allow and disallow when it comes to how people (even people we love) speak to and treat them. We are the gatekeepers of our children’s experiences. When we encourage appropriate play and kindly call-out shaming language, we protect them from the trauma of persistent shame and invite them into acceptance of themselves.