Not everything your child does is adorable. Yes, I’m talking about your kid. I’m also talking about my kid. Don’t get me wrong. They’re great. Kids are fabulous and inspiring. They can make you realize that your capacity for love is greater than you have ever imagined. They’re also rude. They’re selfish like you wouldn’t believe. Gross. Shockingly vicious. Thoughtless beyond comprehension. On their best days, they’re like puppies who are extra-resistant to potty training. On their worst? They’re tornadoes with teeth. They’re animals. Nothing but attitude and flailing fists and feet, usually aimed at your groin.
Let me take a step back and give you some context on where this is coming from. A few months ago, I was heading out of the office to grab a quick cup of coffee with a friend. As we got to the door to the building—the only way in or out—we came across a mother with three small children—two girls and a boy. The oldest girl was holding a stuffed dragon (Toothless from the “How to Train Your Dragon” movies) over her head, while her little brother and sister begged for it and tried to reach high enough to take it. Every time one of them got close, the older sister shoved them back and smacked them with the dragon. The dragon custody negotiations took place in the middle of the doorway for a good minute or so while foot traffic piled up on both sides.
We’ve all been there, right? Mom or dad, woefully outnumbered by kids—the kids going all “Lord of the Flies,” the situation spiraling out of control, the center cannot hold. The lone parent is clearly mortified and wanting to be anywhere else, and your heart goes out, because we’ve all been there. Oh, except in this case, Mom really didn’t seem to care too much, since she was just holding the door and checking her texts.
Eventually, little brother got Toothless. Mom finally hit “send,” confiscated the dragon, and returned it to the older girl so the beatings could continue. The gridlock cleared and we were on our way. My friend, who was in her second trimester and quite possibly giving a lot of thought to parenting at the time, quietly sighed and said “I really try not to judge, since I don’t have kids yet, but…”
As opposed to what was going through my head, which sounded a little more like: “OH MY GOD! Get your kids out of the doorway, lady! I’ve got 20 minutes for coffee and I don’t want to spend it watching your little malcontents work out their conflict management skills like the model U.N.”
Some context: My friend is one of the most genuinely sweet people I know—to the point that when I first met her, I thought it might be an affect to make people more inclined to be helpful, meet their deadlines, etc. It wasn’t, which was probably for the best because while it made me feel bad about missing my deadlines, it certainly didn’t help me hit them. I can honestly say that “I really try not to judge, but…” is one of the harshest things I’ve ever heard her say, and she actually felt a little guilty about it.
I wanted to just stop and hug her because y’know what? Sometimes it’s okay to judge. If texting mom had been a better judge of her kids’ behavior and what she should have done about it, we wouldn’t be having this blog right now. See, at six months pregnant—not quite a parent yet, but about as “all in” as you can possibly get—my friend was starting to suspect something that I could tell her with absolute certainty after 10 years in the parenting trenches: Not everything your child does is adorable. And hitting the breaks when things get too un-adorable? That’s on us.
There’s an old adage that we’re not raising children, we’re raising adults. I think that’s true—to an extent. And I’m not talking about the even older adage that children should be seen and not heard. Believe me, I’m a big fan of kids acting like kids (it’s much better than when they try acting like teenagers or—heaven help us—Disney Channel tweens). We were out to dinner once with a large group, including my daughter and one of her friends—they were 8 at the time. It wasn’t a fancy restaurant—just a pizza chain—but every time the girls giggled—which was constantly—one of the older members of our extended family glowered at them like the persnickety spinster from a Dickens novel. So I did the responsible thing and egged them on into a giggle-fest the likes of which will never be seen again in our generation. Because, oh well, grumpy old people.
But I digress.
I do think it’s true that we’re raising adults in the sense that we’re teaching our kids how to interact with the world around them, and to be aware of the other people who live in it. We’re here to teach our kids that they’re loved, they’re special, and every once in a while, that it’s not all about them. Sometimes that means watching what your kid’s doing and judging it hilarious. Sometimes that means assessing the situation and realizing your kid’s the problem in a rapidly accelerating nosedive and it’s time to pull the ripcord. It can be as simple as a sharp “HEY! Cut it out” (I’m talking to you, texting mom), or it can be as personally mortifying as throwing a writhing mass of toddler fury over your shoulder and leaving your wife to take care of the check as you storm out of your favorite Indian restaurant, only to realize you left your coat and car keys in the restaurant and now have to sit on the trunk of your car for 10 minutes while your kid melts down (this is a purely hypothetical example, of course).
One of the hardest parts of being a parent is realizing that sometimes your kid is being a pain in the world’s butt, and finding the balance between letting her bask in the glory of childhood, and pulling the plug when she starts pulling some out-of-control madness that’s going to make life miserable for total strangers.
It’s about recognizing what’s just not okay, and not letting it slide. It’s not letting her smear Shamrock Shake all over the table at McDonald’s for some 16-year-old kid to clean up. It’s stopping her from kicking the seat in front of her at the movie theater. It’s not letting her just walk to the front of a line in front of five other kids. It’s the fine art of looking at your flesh-and-blood and asking “Would that annoy the living heck out of me if someone else’s kid was doing it?”
It’s a question of self-awareness, like having three 10-year-old girls sleep over your house and realizing that, even though they’re all equally loud and obnoxious, the only one who’s actually starting to grate on your last nerve is yours. As my wife put it: “Of course she’s the annoying one—you expect better from her.” But it’s a little more than that—it’s that of the three, she’s the only one whose behavior I still feel personally responsible for.
And we are responsible for the best that comes out of our kids…and the worst. (My daughter’s capacity for holding a grudge isn’t exactly a genetic fluke.) One of the most frequent chestnuts that expectant parents hear is “it’s not all about you anymore.” I understand where it comes from, but it’s also one of the most condescending bits of advice you’ll get. It’s also totally wrong, and too easy an excuse for letting yourself off the hook when your kid runs rampant.
At no point in your life has it ever been more “all about you” than when you become a parent. The next few years (possibly the next few decades, depending on how lenient your “kids live rent free” policy is) are all about you. More accurately, they’re all about who you are, and how you’re going to pass along the best parts of that to your child. Kids don’t naturally know the right things to do in order to coexist with the rest of humanity—they either learn it from us, or they don’t.
So, how do I think my friend is going to do with all this? I think she’ll do just fine. First of all, “who she is” is pretty great—conscientious, considerate of others—so her baby’s got a solid baseline to work with. Second, that day while we stood there watching a little girl bludgeon her two siblings with a stuffed dragon, she wasn’t judging. As far as I’m concerned, she was taking notes—starting her own mental catalogue of things to keep an eye out for in her own kid, and in herself. And if she was already caring about what kind of example she was going to set for her baby months before he was due, now that he’s finally here I’m pretty sure she’s got this.