No bad boys

“I’m a bad boy,” my older son mumbled when I snapped at him the dozenth time yesterday morning.

I stopped what I was doing. “Oh, sweetie,” I said, cupping his chin in my hand. “Do you think that because I’m always telling you no, and stop it, and don’t do that to your brother?”

“Yeah,” he whispered, nestling his head into my waist. I stroked his hair, and wondered briefly how I could explain in a way a five-year-old would understand with head and heart why he’s nowhere near being a bad boy.

“I don’t believe in bad boys,” I explained. “There are … actions that aren’t great, sure, but the actions are the problem, not the person. And it’s not even that the actions are bad, usually. They’re more like … unskillful.”

Like me when my words have you believing you’re a bad boy.

Does this look like a bad boy?

I don’t see any bad boys here. None.

We talked about house fires maybe a month ago. A single light-hearted comment opened his eyes to the possibility that entire houses could burn down with everything still inside.

As when we talked about death some months ago, he was deeply concerned for his “babies.” He told me tearfully that he didn’t want to leave any of his toys behind.

“I understand you’re worried, sweetie,” I told him then. “But the thing is, we can replace every single toy in this room. We can just go down to Toys-R-Us and buy new ones. But there’s no Li’l-Ds-R-Us or Littler-Js-R-Us. If there’s a fire, we have to keep the people safe. We can’t replace people.”

“And the dog?”

“Yes, also the dog. But Daddy and I will take care of that. You don’t worry about anyone else if there’s a fire. You get yourself out, okay?” I showed him how to let himself out.

Fires came up in conversation throughout the day. I emphasized how rare house fires are, and told him that it’s probably not something we’ll ever experience.

He got it, but he didn’t get it. The idea it could happen at all made him unbearably sad.

Yesterday my son’s class learned about fire safety in school.

I was excited to hear Li’l D explaining the importance of stop, drop and roll. He was so proud of his new knowledge that he drew an informational poster while I took care of his baby brother.



After Littler J was in bed, he told me he needed to go teach nearby firemen about stop, drop and roll. I said that was very thoughtful, but probably not necessary. Firemen know a lot about fire.


“Well, the more you know about something, the better you can handle it. The more they know about fire, the better they can put it out and keep themselves safe. But you could teach your brother, and other kids.”

He got really quiet. I felt another Big, Scary Sadness gathering tempestuous in his heart.

“How do you stop, drop and roll with Littler J in your arms?”

“I probably wouldn’t have to. You only stop, drop and roll when you catch on fire. Most the time, I think you’re going to have to focus on getting out of a building that’s on fire.”

“So you won’t squish Littler J?”

“No, no, I won’t squish him.”

What about my baby?” He held up one of his teddy bears before snuggling it close.

“You won’t need to squish him, either.”

“Will firemen save him?”

“They have to focus on breathing things–first people, then animals.”

“My baby is breathing.” He set his baby down and watched him closely for a moment. “See, I can see him breathing.”

“I don’t know if firemen will be able to, sweetie.” I wished I could unsay it the second the final word rolled off my tongue.

His head fell and his shoulders shook with crying. I pulled him close and told him it’s okay to be sad. As I always do when he is distressed, I stroked his hair, the way my mom once stroked mine to soothe me.

“If my baby catches fire, I’ll spray him with water so the fire goes out and then I’ll take him to grandma’s house so she can fix him.”

“That’s good thinking,” I told him as my hand rolled again and again over his lovely curls. “The more you have planned, the easier it is to take care of things if something happens.”

In the moment, I have to let Li’l D know when he’s doing certain things unskillfully. It’s my job to make sure he and his brother are safe, which means identifying and stopping potentially harmful activities early. But I overdo it, putting a damper on things that are more annoyances than real trouble, and that overdoing it shows up in my son’s forming belief he’s a bad boy.

I told him these moments are just that: moments. They’re little moments that only tell me about what’s going on in that single point of time, not about who he is. At a task level, he has some learning to do, but time to do it. So do I.

At a higher level, the one that has to do not with any one action or word but instead with all the goodness in his heart, he is soaring.

I can see it. I can say it, and I do. But I’m still working out how to show him so he understands, unequivocally, deep down in his heart where words have no meaning, how little certain learning acts matter compared to the enormous, healing, brilliant sweetness of his soul.

  1. nicciattfield
    October 15, 2014 at 2:09 am

    Getting the balance right is just so difficult! It isn’t something I think I’ve mastered yet, but what gives me hope each time is that my daughter has a good enough relationship with me to share the impacts, as does li’l D. I sometimes think it’s the best we can do-ensure our children speak to us, so we can put it right, appologize or re-explain. I know the feeling of guilt though when your children are feeling awful and you blame yourself. It’s terrible.

    • October 15, 2014 at 3:52 am

      I agree about the relationship! I told Li’l D that I’m so glad he shares these thoughts and feelings with me. There’s no perfection in human relationships (or action), but it’s so much more comfortable wading through the mess of learning together.

  2. October 15, 2014 at 3:28 am

    I am not sure there exists a perfect balance. But following each correction with lots of kisses, hugs, and “I love you always no matter what you do,” will eventually succeed in reassuring him. You are such a great mommy! 🙂

    • October 15, 2014 at 4:04 am

      There’s probably not a perfect balance, but I’ll keep striving for a workable one! And, oh, those words: “I love you always no matter what you do.” Even just reading them is so soothing, it’s hard not to believe they’re having an impact on D bit by bit. I wish it could be faster, but this will happen at its own pace.

      I debated adding this second paragraph, but it seems appropriate here since (i) you’re a mom and a doctor and (ii) I posted this bit about motherhood (versus mommyhood) on a doctor site. 🙂 I no longer cringe when referenced as “mommy” by anyone not my son, but I do still have a strong preference for “mom.” Since I wrote on this before we started following each other, I decided I would indeed share the post explaining why: “Mommy v. Mother.” (This was part of a five-post series that sprang out of this post.)

      • October 15, 2014 at 4:08 am

        Oh, man. I used this as an opportunity to reread the bio I wrote for the site. (It’s above the links to the other four posts.)

        Rereading that right now was exactly what I needed. Thanks for giving me the nudge that direction today.

      • October 15, 2014 at 4:30 am

        It is interesting how women have such visceral reactions. I have read posts expressing preferences both ways and so I have decided that I will use the term I would prefer myself and then offer apology if it offends for some reason. Trying to guess to too exhausting. So I am sorry that I chose incorrectly here! 🙂 I personally prefer the term mommy because a mother signifies someone that is distant, unfeeling, uncaring. Much like my own mother. In my experience, anyone can become a mother by giving birth. It takes something special to be a mommy, someone that offers a level of nurturing that one is not simply born into. Someone who cares if their son feels he is a “bad boy”. It hurts my heart that my son is now growing out of saying “mommy” and “mamma” and using “mom”. I DO hate the term “mommy blogger”, however. No mom who blogs is only a mommy and as such the term is wielded in a derogatory manner. Mommy/mother is a single facet of our complicated lives.

        • October 15, 2014 at 4:39 am

          I need to try finding a few more minutes of sleep if I can, but I did want to reply to this before attempting that! I didn’t take offense and hope it didn’t come off that way, because some of the dialogue from that opened my eyes to how others perceive it. I only shared it as a continuation of that dialogue, recognizing that how I hear it and how it’s spoken can be two very, very different things, articulating it not as an attack but an extension of conversation.

          I’m glad I did, because how you’ve articulated this helps me understand so, so much more keenly why others might favor this word. Sometimes I know something without fully knowing it. After reading your comment, I fully know it, and I thank you so much for taking time out to illuminate why “mommy” not only isn’t negative but profoundly positive. It’s almost like I needed a refresher so many months out from the early dialogue?

          I ache a little reading the bit about not being called “mommy.” I know that time will come too soon, and think on that every time my son sings “wa wa wa” instead of “la la la.” These markers of their youngest childhood will be gone too soon.

          Thank you so much for taking time out to share these thoughts and feelings on this. I only hope it wasn’t with a feeling that I was grumpy or attacking, because, oh! That was not my intention. I love your words and shared the link because I love reading your words, and your take on things. I always learn something by them. Thank you.

          • October 15, 2014 at 4:54 am

            I really appreciate you sharing the links! I sat here thinking after I responded to you how I make a conscious effort to refer to my mother as “mother”, especially when speaking to her, because referring to her as “mom” is actually painful. I create distance with that one word, keeping her at a comfortable arms distance. Ack! I feel a post coming on! Anyhoo, I want you to know that I respect your feelings to the contrary. Language is a fascinating thing! 🙂

          • October 15, 2014 at 5:06 am

            Ooh! I look forward to reading it, as with all your posts. I do not, OTOH, look forward to trying to think straight today. I should know by now that “just writing this one little post at midnight” actually means none more sleep will happen. (Worth it, though; I just shouldn’t kid myself on the front end about impact!)

  3. October 15, 2014 at 5:17 am

    You handled everything just perfectly. I think the most important message/feeling that “Getting Bigger D” will walk away with is love and security. You’re doing such a wonderful job of parenting.
    A house fire was my childhood fear. I slept with a slight crack in my bedroom window and a chair underneath of it, so I could escape, if needed. I didn’t know anyone who had experienced a house fire, but the approach of teaching fire safety at my elementary school (in the mid 1970s) was a fear-tactic type of film about two boys burning down their house by playing with matches. Their father died in the fire trying to save them. It was actually pretty traumatizing, as I still remember it now at 50!

  4. The Rambler
    October 15, 2014 at 6:53 am

    Aaaaaw. He (and you) are such sweeties. ❤

  5. October 15, 2014 at 7:00 am

    Reblogged this on Life as I Now Know It and commented:
    I think all parents, like myself, struggle with this.

  6. October 15, 2014 at 7:43 am

    Sweet, sweet boys (and their mom!). Mine has currently taken to saying, “I don’t want to be 18.” because he knows the “out on his own” part of life is rapidly approaching. On good days, I might get a bit nostalgic for the days now gone. On bad days, I might (okay, okay, DO) long for the day he ventures out on his own. The most common thread between the good and bad days is my excitement for him to discover the rest of his life for himself. We set them up to succeed to the best of our ability, and then we let them go out into the world mostly untethered. It’s not living vicariously so much as a choose your own adventure book where they are going to make different choices from your own (even though they are carrying a lot of your DNA), so you are excited to see how it turns out. :-p

  7. October 15, 2014 at 8:12 am

    There is only so much a child can understand at each age, but the overall effect of your loving and thoughtful care will show when he becomes an adult.

  8. October 15, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Don’t worry, Deb. You’re doing your job, with firm, loving correction. Kids see things in such absolute terms, though, that your response about “no bad boys” is spot-on.

    Reminds me of a saying in church that I think a lot of people don’t quite get. The aim is to:
    Love the sinner, hate the sin. Just because I believe that certain BEHAVIORS are wrong, doesn’t mean I don’t LOVE the person. But just because I love the person, that doesn’t mean that everything they do is right or good.

  9. October 15, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Very insightful and encouraging! Thank you, I know this is coming and little stories like this help us all figure things out and know we aren’t alone. I love that you are so honest with him!

  10. October 15, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    I love this post. You’re a good mama. He’s a lucky boy.

  11. October 15, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    My friend, you are doing exactly the right thing in the right way. You are loving and kind. No worries my friend, he will get it and embrace it.

  12. October 16, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    Deb, that fine line between informing and frightening is a parent’s nightmare.
    Children are so literal but also strong and resilient.They need to know and a parent is in the right place to tell them.
    The responsibility of an adult is take control of ones life.that includes weighing up all of the gathered childhood knowledge and deciding what makes for a good life.
    As a child, it should be expected of an adult to offer information and teaching that is life saving and life affirming, then utilising that information where needed.
    It is a calculated risk to advise on fear based situations, but that has to be the call of a parent. That’s why we have children- to share the wonders of this beautiful life-and steer them safely through the dangers that lurk.
    Should a parent decide that exposing dangers to their child is not for them, then that is their personal call.But making an informed choice should be just that – informed.
    Every child becomes a bigger child, we are all children and a product of our learnings. B

  13. October 16, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Your boys are beautiful. It is hard to know how a child will perceive something…their perceptions are so different from an adult. We do the best we can. I remember once I had a difficult day at work and in the evening I became frustrated and started to cry while talking to Dad. I noticed my son leave the room and I went back to tell him we were not even fighting and he should not worry about that. There is some divorce in the family and I wanted to make sure he didn’t imagine that scenario. He made out like it never occurred to him — “Why would I think that?” I said that sometimes children think things and don’t say them out loud, and I was just making sure… but then he asked why I had been crying and I could tell that he had been upset by it. If I had been distracted, I might not have noticed him… might not have reassured him. And it was nothing…but he didn’t know that.

  14. October 20, 2014 at 11:19 am

    This one hits close to home.

  15. October 20, 2014 at 11:38 am

    I don’t know, Deb, I wouldn’t put it all on you – or any parent, for that matter. In my experience, there are a some key things we don’t need to teach kids because they are innate. I believe shame is one of them. I think we are all born with the feeling that something fundamental within us is ‘broken’. Kids interpret that as they themselves are bad.

    I wish I had understood this better when my kids were young like yours – I would have worked a lot harder at showing them how much they are loved. You are doing a GREAT job battling the inner voice that’s plaguing them! And from another post of yours I just read, you’re doing a great job battling it inside yourself as well. I think it’s something we fight all our lives – and while we already have that inner fight going on, everything on the outside contributes as well (like the jerks who accuse others of being fat or unattractive, or whatever negative they can come up with).

    I have listened to several of Brene Brown’s talks (her TED talk went viral a few years ago) on shame, and I think they would encourage you. Search her out on Youtube and see what you think.

    God bless you on your amazing parenting journey!

  1. June 25, 2015 at 9:16 pm
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