In a checkout line one afternoon, my toddler stretched from the seat of the cart for a packet of gum. When her fingertips connected with the cellophane wrapper and she finally palmed the box, she let out a little shriek of victory.
I looked up from where I was piling groceries across the conveyor belt. "Oh, we don't need that," I said, my voice light. "We're buying so much stuff that's better than gum." But her prize was hard-won, and she wasn't giving it up that easily. She didn't move, so I switched tactics to a barter-distraction combo, "Once we put it back, you can help push the buttons to pay."
Young children aren't always reasonable, and my patience is not always perfect. But nothing about this situation was unmanageable—my daughter and I were simply talking through it. Before she had a chance to decide what to do next, which is part of how she learns to navigate in the world, the woman standing behind us decided she couldn't take being a silent observer to this exchange for one more minute. She jumped in, her voice a honeyed chirp, "Are you being a good girl for Mommy? You should be good."
The woman wasn't being unkind. She might have even had intentions of been-there solidarity—a sentiment I appreciate. Still, my back tensed. My daughter nodded and stared, unusually quiet. I gently lifted the package from her hand and kept my eyes on her sweet face as I explained, solely for her sake but loudly enough for the woman to hear, "You're always good."
Variations of this scene repeat while we're waiting at the post office or walking through Target or enjoying a cookout at my in-laws' house. The voices of these mostly well-meaning strangers or extended family members are loaded with the cheerful warning, "Be a good girl," and each time my husband or I interject with the same refrain: Our daughter is always good.
This does not mean, of course, that she always behaves. Sometimes, like any preschooler, she's an absolute tornado. But especially for children, who don't yet fully understand context or consequence and who haven't had an opportunity to decide who they're going to be as people, behavior is conditional. It's temporary. It isn't the metric by which we should measure their worth.
Yes, on days when my daughter is crafty, it's tedious to put back 12 packs of gum as I'm paying for groceries. But when I ask her not to and she does it anyway, she isn't being bad—what she's doing is not listening. Those things aren't the same. And the minor inconvenience I experience when this happens doesn't necessitate the cashier staring pointedly and saying, "Don't you want to be a good girl?"
This isn't a question we'd ever ask an adult—even one who was acting rudely. Kids are one of the most vulnerable groups of people we interact with, the demographic that's the most most impacted by the weight of our words. How is it appropriate or acceptable to burden them with that kind of judgment?
As Kelly Sanders, MFT, a therapist in Rancho Cucamonga, California, explained on GoodTherapy.org, "The goal of parenting is to help shape a child to have a good sense of self, to know how to behave appropriately, and to be able to self-correct or recognize when he or she does not make a good choice."
Focusing on the inherent value of a child by labeling them as "bad" instead of choosing to address a specific behavior or to establish a clear boundary negatively impacts a child's self-esteem over time. Telling a child that they're bad or that they're being bad becomes internalized—part of how they'll come to define themselves.
Now age four, our daughter can easily identify the villain in a movie. Her current favorite is Tangled, and she narrates as she watches, eyes wide, "That's the bad witch." The badness of this witch is unequivocal: she kidnaps a baby, imprisons her, and exploits the girl as she grows up for her magical powers. At one sinister moment near the climax of the movie, the witch says to Rapunzel, "You want me to be the bad guy? Fine, now I'm the bad guy." When someone tells my preschooler not to be "bad," this is what's being conjured in her mind.
Last summer, on the Fourth of July, before we took our daughter to a crowded neighborhood festival for games and fireworks, we started a conversation with her about the importance of staying together. It's a delicate, devastating moment when we're tasked with destroying the innocence of our children's world by degrees. I didn't want to terrify her but needed to communicate the real dangers of a busy public space.
"Most people you'll meet are good," I started, "but some of them are bad." Something in the awkward strain of my voice caused her to turn her head toward mine, her entire face open, expectant. "Sometimes it can be hard to tell who's good and who isn't."
"Like the Big Bad Wolf!" she exclaimed, piecing the puzzle together with me.
"Sort of. Some people can be tricky, yes."
We arranged a meeting place in case we became separated, and I told her to look for someone in a uniform or another parent with children if she got lost. Not a perfect solution, but a start.
Since then, there have been nights when my daughter will snuggle against me in the glow of her nightlight and use her quietest voice to request, "Tell me about bad people." She's not quite old enough to hold in her mind the idea that a person could dress just like me or her dad or her teachers at school and not also care deeply about her well-being. That's a truth we've been teaching her a little at a time—a difficult and nuanced lesson.
But learning this lesson shouldn't start with her own sense of shame about her identity or with confusion about her worth. When someone tells her to "be good," I want her to know with certainty that she already is. It's taken practice, but she responds to this comment now with ease. "I'm always good," she'll say with a coy smile, "sometimes I just misbehave."
Kirsten Clodfelter is a freelance writer living in the Midwest.