“What if there’s something wrong with him?”
It’s a question that’s slipped through every parent’s mind at least once. It hit us hard when our son, after being told he couldn’t have any more candy, erupted into a fit of shrieking, kicking, and trying to claw at our faces until he drew blood.
He’d never done anything like this before, and it terrified us. This wasn’t the behavior of a boy whose parents knew what they were doing. It was the type of behavior that makes people in supermarkets scoff, or teachers call home and ask just what kind of environment, exactly, are you people raising this child in?
We spent that night watching a documentary on the childhoods of serial killers and worrying about what was going to become of our little boy. As we watched and worried, my wife and I, trying to figure whose biology was to blame, listed off every family member we could name who had ever done anything wrong.
Was this built into his DNA, we wondered? Was this proof of a deep-rooted hatred and anger hidden in our child’s core? Was this a glimpse into his violent future?
Were we bad parents?
At that moment, it seemed to us like the answer was “yes.” We had raised one of those children who terrorize their teachers when they’re young and end up on the 5 o’clock news when they’re grown. One of those children people get together and talk about, shaking their heads in disbelief and wondering just where their parents must have gone wrong.
But none of that happened.
Our son never tried to claw us again, except for one half-hearted fit a few days later that he gave up on almost immediately. He hasn’t tried violence since.
We made it clear that what he was doing was wrong. We talked to him about handling his emotions, and he got better at it. He learned to leave the room when he felt mad or to talk about how he was feeling. When he saw that it worked, he changed his behavior.
When he started school, we didn’t get any angry calls home or teachers questioning our parenting aptitude. Instead, his teacher gushed about him from the very first day. While the other kids had fought and screamed over toys, she told us, he had told them that it was nice to share and tried to give them advice on how to calm down.
It’s easy to forget, but one bad action doesn’t mean your child is heading down the wrong track. When we see other parents, we only see them at their best, and we imagine that they never went through the struggles we fight with our own kids. But the truth is that everyone’s been there, and they all worried just as much as we did.
Kids need to be bad before they can be good. It’s how they learn. They’re naturally curious. They want to know what will happen if they try something new. If I scream at Mama and Dad, they wonder, will I get my way? If I say a bad word, will I get away with it? If I hit people, will they listen to me?
Children try these things and see if they work – and they try a lot of things. It’s perfectly natural and normal for a toddler to scream and have tantrums, to hit or bite their siblings, to bully their classmates, to draw lewd images, to run away from home, or kill insects for no reason.
When our kids do these things, it can feel like we’re raising little serial killers, but it’s all a part of growing up. It’s how kids learn – by pushing boundaries and seeing what they can get away with.
When our kids act out, we take it as an opportunity to mold them into the good people they will become. It’s a chance for us to show them the difference between right and wrong, to help them understand how their actions affect other people, to teach them how to behave.
And that’s something I need to keep in mind. Because my son hasn’t reached his teenage years yet. There’s a lot of weird stuff that he’s still going to try and – as I’ll have to remind myself – that he’s going to learn from, too.