Bad kids and other mythical creatures

My mind has a tendency to bounce all over the place, which I think is a result of years of retreating into my head in order to survive. Once of the topics it bounced to earlier today was a conviction that, the older I get, the more stubbornly I adhere to:

There’s no such thing as a bad kid.

I don’t believe in bad kids, anymore than I believe in unicorns or dragons or the jackelope. The ‘bad kid’ is a fantastical creature, created to reinforce a mythology of juvenile badness that lets adults off the hook. If a kid is bad, then adults aren’t culpable for their behavior. They don’t need to accept responsibility; the kid is just bad, and the thing about labeling a kid as bad is that the burden of proof of innocence lies with the kid. Needless to say, the kid will continue to fail, therefore continuously proving their badness. And the adults, instead of being held accountable, are given sympathy.

I’m sensitive to the plight of mistreated and neglected kids because I was one. It robs you of your childhood, because you’re always in survival mode. What people sometimes forget is that kids are capable of rage – a lot of rage – only they don’t know how deal with it, and they’re typically not good at maintaining it, and so it leaks and pours out of them until it floods everyone in their vicinity. (Click the bolded and underlined text for a photo series about childhood rage that really touched me.)

Mirror neurons cause people to mimic other people, and they’re very important to childhood development.

From the time I was very young, I was being constantly berated, torn down, blamed, yelled at, and generally treated with anger and aggression. My mirror neurons were stimulated, and I mimicked what I was being shown. The worse they treated me, the worse my behavior became. They were aggressive, so I was aggressive. They lied, so I lied. They told other people terrible things about me, so I told my friends terrible things about them. They stole from me, so I stole from them. They didn’t love me, so I stopped loving them.

Here’s how that played out: When I was in kindergarten, I got in trouble for beating up some boys. Not a single adult in my life questioned why and how a six year old girl came to be so aggressive, nor did the people abusing me make the connection between my behavior and their treatment of me. I was simply blamed for being bad – I was told over and over what a terrible child I was, what a disappointment, and that I deserved to be treated poorly.

I wish someone had stopped and asked, what is happening to this kid to make her this way? I wasn’t born with some sort of incurable fault or flaw – like every baby, I was a blank slate. By the time I was six, I was terrorizing classmates. My parents didn’t get a kid with faulty wiring or a glitchy operating system – they wrote the program, then tried to blame the outcome on bad hardware.

What kills me is that no one ever challenged my parents when they went on tirades about what a horrible child I was. Other adults simply accepted that I was inherently flawed in some way, and my sainted parents deserved praise for putting up with such a bad kid.

What triggered this cavalcade of memories and musings was a coworker who has an assignment her son did hanging at her work station half-hidden by her computer, where she can easily see it, but others can’t. I didn’t think it unusual, as I know parents sometimes like to display things their kids do that they’re proud of or find amusing. But then she told me the reason why it was there. Turns out, it’s an assignment he failed, and she hung it there “to remind myself why I need to stay mad at him.”

I tripped and stuttered my way through the rest of that conversation, subtly urging patience and reminding her that being a teenager isn’t easy. Inside, that little kid who still very much exists at my core was starting to claw at my insides.

A sculpture from Burning Man. 

To hear an adult say out loud that they hung up a visual aid intended to trigger and sustain negative feelings about their kid, what I hear is an adult who is blaming the kid instead of using that energy to reflect on how they can be a better supporter. What I hear is an adult who prefers to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to dealing with their kid’s issues. What I hear is an adult who is consciously trying to dislike their kid as much as possible because she doesn’t think her kid is worth liking.

He acts like he hates her, and I understand why – she’s doing her best to sustain negative feelings about him, and he’s reciprocating what he’s receiving.

It’s stomach-turning, and now every time I pass her desk I glance at that assignment and have to resist the urge to tear it down and throw it away when she’s not around. It feels a little like this:

Which is what a lot of kids feel like as well. Before they have the capacity to think critically and reflect, all they have are raw emotions fighting it out inside their heads.

Don’t be fooled by the mythology – there is no such thing as a bad kid.

There is, however, such a thing as a bad parent.

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