i'm bad

Yesterday Chicken and Buster were playing at a toddler gym.

And cue the piledriver
in 3...
(mouths the word "one"
points at Chicken)

Chicken turned around and performed one of his trademark moves - "walk through Buster's body with the steady focus and inescapable force of a steamroller flattening a Starbucks cup." Buster fell backward, knocked his head on a wooden ladder, and started to cry.

This is not unusual for a family with 2 young kids. They play hard. They knock each other over. Eye gouging is just, you know, how they learn.

I reached out to pull Chicken into my lap for one of our post-body-blow talks. He wiggled away and threw himself down on the brightly-colored tumbling mat just out of arm's reach, as Buster cried and banged his face on my chest.

"I'm bad," Chicken said.

This is not a word we use on children. This exact moment is one that I've thought about, written about, a single sentence that I have dreaded will break my heart.

It didn't break my heart; it squeezed it. I felt like a passenger on an elevator, surprised and panicked at how fast the steel box dropped. If I had a coherent thought at that moment it was WhatNo!

"Oh, baby..." I reached out again, but he slithered away, still on his back, staying just out of my grasp. I leaned forward so I could lay my hand on the bare, pink blade of his foot. It was the only contact he'd permit.

"Baby, you are not bad."

Wait, that's too negative. Say it better. 

"Baby, you are so, SO good."

Too abstract. Say it better.

"Baby, remember how this morning in bed you asked me if you could hold the baby? And when you did, you held him so gently and laughed and said, 'I love my brother'? Remember that? And when you noticed the moon was out even though the sun was up the other day, and you said "the moon is comin with us," and Mommy laughed and squeezed you with a huge hug? Remember?"

Too long. Say it better.

"Baby, do you know how much I love you?"

Too generic. Say it better. 

"Baby, it makes me so sad to hear you say that you're bad."

Too guilt-tripping. Say it better. Say it better QUICK! He's already decided that he's bad! You have to find the right words, right now, to change his mind completely! HURRY!

"Baby, you are strong and smart and kind and sweet and funny. You are everything in the world except bad."

He sighed, rolled his eyes up toward his forehead, and said, as if he'd given the matter a lifetime of thought, "No. I think I'm just bad."


Me: Why do you think you're bad, baby?

Chicken: Because I knocked Buster down.

Me: But that doesn't make you bad, honey.

Chicken: Yeah, I'm bad.

Oh my God, please stop saying that. Please stop thinking it.

Me: Yes, you knocked your brother down. And that was a... a...

DON'T SAY ANYTHING THAT SOUNDS LIKE BAD. Mean? No. Not nice? Same as mean. Um... 

... a rough way to play with your brother.

Chicken: Yeah. It was bad.

Me: Did someone say that to you? Did someone say that you're bad?

Chicken: I said it to me.

Maybe he means that he feels bad, like he feels sorry... please let that be what he means...

Me: Do you mean that you felt like you did something wrong?

Chicken: Yeah.

Me: Because you know you're not supposed to knock your brother down?

Chicken: Yeah.

Me: There's a word for that... when you feel sad because you hurt someone, or like you're going to be in trouble because you did something you know you're not supposed to do. The word is "sorry," or "guilty."

Chicken: Okay.

Me: Baby, you're still learning how to play with your friends, what your body can do when you touch, or hit, or push. And everybody has big feelings and makes mistakes...

You're talking too much. He's done with this now.

Anyway, I love you so much. And when I think of you, I think of someone who is kind and smart and funny and good. SO good.

Chicken: No. Just bad.


All day, all night, I asked myself if I do something to make him think that he's bad. Of course I would never say those words to him; I don't even think those words about him.

But... hmm...

I do treat him like he's an annoyance, sometimes, when he's stubborn, or exhausted and whiny.

Actually, now that I'm really listening to myself talk, every day I say things to him that fall under the umbrella of "not-so-good."

Why are you making this harder? STOP. STOP. STOP! Don't sit on your brother! Blocks are not for throwing! 

I need your help. Please help me. That's not helping me. 

HONEY HONEY HONEY it scares me so much when you run into the street, okay? 

WAIT. WAIT. Remember to be careful on the stairs, right? Remember how you tumbled down the stairs yesterday, how scary that was? Baby, you know you are not supposed to push Buster. I've already told you a bunch of times today not to push Buster. Remember? I know you can remember.

Well, no, we can't build a tall tower right now because Mommy has to change out the laundry. Wait just a minute. Move please. MOVE PLEASE. 

I'm trying to say:

I'm frustrated.
I'm scared.
I love you.
I feel like I'm messing up.
I love you.
I want you to be happy.
It doesn't seem like you're happy.
I don't know what I'm doing.
Help me understand you.
I just need to feel like something got done today.
Are you okay?
I love you.

But what he hears is:

You bug me.
You make me mad.
You're not helping.
You hurt Buster.
You scare me.
You're impatient.
You're mean.
You're forgetful.
You're in my way.

Nobody had to say the words "you're bad." The way that I have been responding to him says it loud and clear.

I feel... bad. So bad. Just... bad.

But I woke up today with a goal. Today, I will:

Show him that feeling bad, sad, mad, scared, guilty, frustrated doesn't make him bad.

Show him that acting on big feelings doesn't make him bad.

Show him that he's good.

Tell him, "I saw that you were gentle when..."

Tell him, "Wow! You remembered..."

Tell him, "Chicken, you have such amazing..."

Tell him, "It makes me so happy when you..."

Tell him, show him, cuddle him, trust him, help him, let him, over and over again, until the day is done, and again tomorrow.

He's good. He is so, so good.

And I am, too.


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