It was heartbreaking to realize that my son believes, in his core, that many adults see him as a bad kid. Instead of giving up and proving them right, he chooses to argue with these adults to prove them wrong when he perceives he’s being judged.
Curiously, he doesn’t argue vociferously at home. My son knows in his core that his father and I believe he is a good boy. We love his cleverness and celebrate his intensity and athleticism. We recognize his competitiveness and applaud his sportsmanship and leadership. In our home or when one of us is with him, our son believes that he is a good boy and that belief makes him calm(er) and reasonable.
He knows that his best friends’ parents know he’s a good boy and appreciate him. Both at their homes and at ours, he knows he must follow the rules – and he does, because he’s not “fighting for his life”. Same when he’s at my office. He is appropriate with coaches who also believe he’s a good boy.
But when he makes a mistake or is involved (as victim or provocateur) in an incident, our son perceives that other adults in his life judge him as a bad kid. It began at school when a significant learning issue – central auditory processing disorder – went undiagnosed for two years and my son became very disruptive. Teachers predictably became frustrated and he was frequently punished as efforts were attempted to reduce the disruption. His behavior is especially common among boys with this disorder according to Dr. Gerard – Hearing is Behavior.
The teachers who couldn’t manage him became curt and frustrated with my son – conveying, in his mind, that they judge him a bad kid. Every criticism and every question about an interaction became, for my son, a crisis where he has to prove through arguing with the questioning, doubting adult that their judgment of him is wrong. And to him, it felt like his very existence depends on it.
It’s frustrating when a child doesn’t do what he is asked. It’s frustrating when a child seeks attention by disrupting his classmates. The sages teach that we must seek first to understand. Understanding that this boy feels considerable social anxiety because he preceives that adults and peers believe he is bad is the clue to how to adapt the behavior. The teachers who had success with him conveyed they believed he was good. And he strove to be good for them.
Our approach now is mutli-facted:
- Teach our son awareness that he’s reacting and arguing because he thinks someone believes he’s a “bad kid” – and that he needs to simply answer their questions or do what he’s asked – he doesn’t know what someone else believes.
- Encourage and advocate for adults in his life to convey, especially when giving criticism or exploring an incident, that they know he’s a good kid and they want to understand what happened.
- Give him a fresh start with new school, new teachers, new kids – where he can create a new story.
No child should believe he is a bad boy. Sure, he may make bad choices or behave badly at times – and he should be held accountable for those choices and behavior. But to allowing a child to believe they are “bad” is barely short of psychological child abuse. As a community, we need to support each other and our children by seeking first to understand and conveying that we see the image of G-d in everyone – and that image, and that child, is good.