Thursday, October 14, 2010

Being "good"

This is another in a series of guest posts by other bloggers. Read to the end for a longer biographical note on today's guest blogger, Amy from Anktangle. Amy reminds us to watch the language we use to describe our children.

Guest post by Amy from Anktangle

I believe that the language we use to talk about things not only says a lot about how we really feel about something, but also further reinforces those underlying feelings and makes us feel more that way. I think this is why we shouldn't use combative language when referring to difficulties with our children ("choosing your battles" "winning the war"): it sets us up against our children, instead of with them.

I think language is equally important when talking about our kids' everyday behavior—the day in and day out of it. I've noticed that, when it comes to my son, others often refer to him having been "good," when what they really mean is that he has been being quiet or sleeping. ("Was he good last night?" "He's being so good right now!" "What a good baby!") I think it's tempting to talk about those things as being "good," because it's certainly easier when Daniel is sleeping or being quiet when we're out for a meal, appointment, or activity. But I think it's dangerous to be calling those things good, because even though maybe we don't think that a crying baby is bad per se, that is what's implied when we label the opposite or other more desirable actions as good.

My husband and I have gently tried to suggest that others not label our son as good or bad by saying things like, "I think he's always good!" But it seems to be such an ingrained thing in our society to expect "good behavior" from children. What that really means is that we want them to act like little adults all the time, and be able to understand social convention and conform to the status quo. Only when it's convenient for us (and then, is it ever?) are they allowed to act like children.

Just as I wouldn't expect an infant to be able to wait to eat as long as an adult would, I would not expect him to be quiet for hours at a time. In the same way, I wouldn't expect a toddler to be able to make it through the day without testing her limits and getting upset when she can't have her way, or a preschooler to eat a food he doesn't like at someone else's house just to be polite.

The fact is, we would never say that an adult person was being "bad" if he or she was upset and needed to cry. Preverbal children have the added hurdle of not being able to communicate their needs and feelings with words; crying is all they can do. I don't want my son growing up thinking the adults in his life think he's bad when he's crying, that it's bad to cry, or that he should pretend to be happy and sociable and perfect all the time.

Can't we give the same respect to our children that we would expect from another adult friend? I would argue that his expression (through crying) of his desires and feelings has little to say about his character, whether or not he's a good person, no matter how inconvenient it is for us to manage when we're out to dinner. Without getting into too much of a philosophical or theological discussion of human nature, I believe we're all inherently good.

My son is a good person just because. So let's stop labeling our children as "good" or "bad" based on their behaviors.

Amy writes about the things she holds close to her heart: family, delicious food, and many aspects of natural parenting. She is passionate about natural childbirth, breastfeeding, gentle and intuitive parenting, and respecting all people, no matter how small. She's figuring it all out as she goes, following her instincts with her son as her guide. She blogs at Anktangle.

Top photo courtesy easylocum on flickr (cc)


Seonaid said...

Yay! I love this post. Somewhere (and I don't remember where, buried as it is under a decade of research and parenting) I read that we shouldn't say, "Oh, what a good boy!" as praise... because it sets up the good/bad dichotomy.

We worked really hard on it with my first two, but the third has a different dad, and I've found myself having to assert this priority; I even heard myself say, "Good boy!" the other day, for obeying, I presume. I was contrite because I try SO HARD.

Thanks for the reminder.

kelly said...

[I]t seems to be such an ingrained thing in our society to expect "good behavior" from children. What that really means is that we want them to act like little adults all the time, and be able to understand social convention and conform to the status quo. Only when it's convenient for us (and then, is it ever?) are they allowed to act like children.

You are right. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in what it means to parent according to these beliefs, and what kind of support/nonsupport and social pressure we feel from the other grownups who are a part of this. I believe our kids pay a heavy toll. Some of them eventually respond in their suffering (by inflicting suffering or damange) and then they're labeled as the "bad" kids, which (for many) is taken as proof of the poisonous pedagogy in the first place. It's a very sad state of affairs.

I'm always happy to read about grownups who are seeing things in a better way! Thanks for your post.

Arual said...

I often refer to my baby as being very "sweet." This is usually in the context of his blowing raspberries on me or attempting to give me kisses or patting my back... I certainly try to avoid calling him "good" though.

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

I can't stand the idea that communicating with your parents that you need something is seen as "bad" baby behavior. *sigh*

nurturing said...

Good post. Since 1973 when my first child was born, I've waged a personal campaign against the use of "good" in describing a baby who makes daily life easier for you.

By the time I had my 6th child 17 years later, nothing had changed.

Now that my children are old enough to make me a grandmother many times over (none have yet!), I still hear about 'good' babies from their friends who have children, and in general as I hear parents speak and answer questions about their little ones.

In my day, it was grandparents and other elderlies who were married to this phrase, but alas, it continues, nearly 40 years after the beginning of my own journey through motherhood.

Good luck in affecting change! (You'll need it.)

Fresh and Feisty said...

My son is not quite 8 weeks old and when he was born people asked (and still do) if he's a good baby. Of course he is...he's a baby! I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels this way.

ADHD in Children said...

I so totally agree. In fact, it frustrates me to the hilt when someone asks me if my baby is a good baby. Of course he's a good baby!

What am I supposed to say..."well, he's actually not. My baby is not a good baby. He cries when he is uncomfortable. He cries when he needs attention. Nope, not a good baby at all. A good baby is the kind you don't have to take care of--they're those automatically quiet kind. Thanks so much for asking...nope..I don't have a good baby"

Anonymous said...

My MIL keeps saying What a GOOD GIRL when my daughter eats her dinner. she even said to her other grandchild "look at how GOOD she is, eating" to point out how bad he was being for not eating. how do you ask them to stop saying GOOD GIRL for something that has nothing to do with being good?

Heather H. said...

While I agree with you, I do think that "good" occasionally has its place. While I absolutely try to avoid labeling my son by saying things like "Good boy!", I do use the word good to praise specific actions, such as "Good listening!" or "Good helping" when he does something helpful, or listens well. I don't think that the use of "good" in those contexts unfairly labels the child, and I do think that it helps them understand the boundaries that Mommy and Daddy have set. That said, though, I would never say the opposite - i.e. "Bad listening" because I do think that, to your point, kids are not little adults. Better to point out when they are doing "right" and to forgive/allow when they are just being kids.

Jessie said...

Yes! Thank you! As the mother of a "high needs" baby (now a toddler), it drives me crazy when people call babies (usually not mine!) "good". Because they're just sitting there? My daughter knows what she wants and isn't afraid to tell me. That's good! She's never been a great sleeper -- that has nothing to do with her morality!

It comes pretty naturally to me to NOT call her "good" (though, as someone else noted, we do say things like, "Good job!"). But other people just can't get over it! The first 6 months of her life, I pretty much wanted to punch anyone who asked "Is she a good baby?" She's just a baby! You wouldn't ask anyone, "Is she a bad baby?" would you?

(deep breath...) :-)

Lisa C said...

This post makes an excellent point, that we should call a child "good" or "bad" based on their behavior. And for a young child, even the behavior itself shouldn't be labeled as good or might be undesirable or difficult, or easy and enjoyable, but not good or bad.

You didn't say this, but some people are afraid to call their children "good" at all. It bothers me. Children are good people, and I think it's important to tell them that. I believe that when I randomly tell my son that he's a good boy, he'll ingrain it as a part of my unconditional acceptance of him, and that if anyone ever tells him otherwise, he'll at least know that his mother sees him as good. But, agreed, it shouldn't be used to describe them based on whether or not someone likes their behavior.

Lisa C said...

Whoops, I meant "shouldn't" call a child good or bad based on behavior. typo

Anonymous said...

You made some great points. We still use the word 'good' but mostly when referring to 'good choices' and 'good job' instead of 'good girl/boy'. Thanks for posting!

mamapoekie said...

great article. What we say to our children is also a big concern of mine, one I write about often. It seems that our vocabulary when it comes to addressing children is completely disjointed. Children are basically treated with the same respect as we would pets

Anonymous said...

hey Heather, How about replacing good with Thank you. Thank you for listening. thank you for helping. Kohn has some very interesting findings on praise. I think you are looking to acknowledge the help; thanks is perfect response.

Lauren Wayne said...

I love this article, Amy! Thanks for allowing me to post it!

I know, even though I'm aware of the problem with the language, it's hard for me not to equate "good" with "convenient for me." It's just so prevalent and ingrained.

I think it's fun to tell people, "Oh, no, my newborn is very, very bad. He swigs vodka and swears, and the other day we even had to call in the police."

I was going to say the same as the last Anonymous about praise. There are definitely some strong opinions about the harm saying even something like "Good job" can do to kids' internal motivation. Here's an article by Alfie Kohn if you're interested: "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job!'" Saying "thank you" is a great substitute if you'd like to avoid it. It's the way we'd talk to another adult.

To the Anonymous who asked, "how do you ask [a relative/friend] to stop saying GOOD GIRL?" for me, I have to pick my battles. If it's someone my child will see regularly, I've found a way to bring it up conversationally or as a joke. If it's someone he visits once a year, I just let it go. Even the person I've been able to have the most talks with about it, though, still does it, even though she said she agreed with me. I think it's just that ingrained.

Thanks again, Amy! What a great discussion.

Lauren Wayne said...

Oh, I was also going to say: Lisa C, I like the idea of randomly saying that a child is good, not attached to behavior. Because, yes, I do believe every child is good. I know my parents used to say it to me every once in awhile, and it made me feel happy, though I'm sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was a very easy and obedient kid. I wonder if I can steel myself to say it when he's not behaving in a way commonly accepted as "good."

Ailbhe said...

I've been saying "She's very convenient, if that's what you mean," for over six years. If I feel irritable I say "Actually babies are amoral."

Sheila said...

For my six-month-old, I replace "good" with "happy." I want to emphasize that the only reason I mind him crying is that I don't want him to be sad. Luckily he is a very happy baby! But I don't particularly like getting compliments on "how good he is" when he's sleepy and looking zonked, like a little zombie ... I prefer compliments for his smiles and giggles! That's what a baby is "supposed" to be, right? Not just quiet. Very sick babies are often quiet.

The first time I brought him to see my family, I handed him to my dad and he started to cry. I moved to take him back, and my dad said, "It's okay, I don't mind!"

I was really ticked off. I think the BABY just said that HE minds, you know? Crying isn't just background noise that you just tune out!

I turn the situation around as well when people ask if he's a "good sleeper." I always say, "Yes, a pretty good sleeper. He wakes up a lot, but that's normal for a baby his age." In other words, stop assuming a "good" baby will be sleeping through the night at a young age!

Momma Jorje said...

BTW - the top photo is absolutely mesmerizing! Love it!

Unknown said...

Thank you again for hosting my post, Lauren! And thanks to everyone who commented. It has been so interesting to read all of your thoughts. I hadn't read that article from Kohn before today, but I'll definitely be passing it on.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thank you :)

Rachael @ The Variegated Life said...

Thanks for this post, Amy! I try to avoid "good" & "bad" when talking about my little one, and I'm grateful for Lauren's suggestion of a simple "thank you." But then your post came to mind last night when I caught myself thinking along corollary — and sometimes equally harmful — lines about myself as being a "good" mother for doing this or that but a "bad" mother for doing some other thing. Whereas good and bad aside, really my little boy and I are together just doing the best we can.

nerdmafia said...

i DO encourage my girls with a "good girl!" and i must say, i don't feel bad about it. i think all children are inherently good and i want to encourage my girls to be good human beings, so yes, i do say "good girl!" when they've accomplished something, tried something new, been kind to another child or each other...really it doesn't take much for me to throw a "good girl!" out there (when we go through the letters of the alphabet, G is for Good Girl...). i don't think it's a bad thing to label our children as being "good". i mean, they are good no matter what, so why is it bad to tell them so?

i think it's more dangerous when we start labeling people, or even things, as bad. when my 19mos old needs a time-out, my 3 yr old will often say, "she not 'having self" (which means "she's not behaving herself). but i've never heard her describe her sister as being "bad" or even "behaving badly" because she's never heard me say any such thing. she understands that there is behavior that is acceptable (any good or, really, normal thing she may do) and behavior that is not acceptable (hitting/pushing, throwing things at people, etc). she even gets that sometimes other kids are not being very nice. but we often attribute someone else's (or even her own or her sister's own) unkindness to "maybe she's cranky today"/"maybe he's hungry"/"maybe she's not feeling very well today".

i think maybe we, as adults, need to reassess what we consider "bad behavior". is a child bad when he acts up at a restaurant? i don't think so. maybe the adults with him need to bring an activity for him so he doesn't get bored and act out. even when our kids hit someone on purpose, it's certainly not nice, but up to a certain age, they just don't possess the communication skills to be able to work through their emotions. it's our job as adults to use those moments as learning moments where we can gently let them know that whatever they've done is not nice and they should say sorry and give a hug. and maybe suggest some other things our kids can do to help them deal with their anger or frustration towards another child/person.

anyway, this is just a long-winded way to say that i don't think it's bad to label our kids as "good girls" or "good boys". i think it's more important to avoid labels that we don't want them to identify with as tiny human beings.

Anonymous said...

a time out for a 19 month old????

Even the (Cdn) government is discouraging time outs. Proponents don't even advise them for a baby.

Write About Birth said...

I totally agree! Unfortunately, disrespect towards children is extremely common. The other day, an older man at the supermarket told me to HIT my two year old because he was running around, trying to HELP me put oranges into the basket... I was so very tempted to ask him if he would like me to hit HIM? But I didn't have the courage.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Write About Birth Wow. It's incredible what sort of advice strangers sometimes think they have cause to give you.

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