Feeling Bad, Acting Bad

R.D. Laing was a famous psychiatrist who wrote a book called, Knots, in which he described double bind situations that people experience while growing up.  Everyone recognizes them: your mother gives you two scarves for your birthday.  When you wear one, she says, “You didn’t like the other one!”  I had one grandmother who worried if you finished your food, “There wasn’t enough!” But if you left anything on your plate she said, “You didn’t like it!”  No win situations.

An example Laing gives is especially true of children: “I am bad because I feel bad, I feel bad because I am bad.”  This speaks to the difficulty children – and adults, too – have knowing the difference between feelings and behavior.  When children do things parents tell them are bad, this means to them that they are bad.  This then leads to the feeling that they do bad things because they are bad people.  The bad feelings they have when parents are angry at them confirm for them that they are bad.

The problem is that we do tend to make judgments of behavior as being good or bad.  As parents at times we do equate children with their behavior, and may worry about what certain behavior says about a child’s character or future.  This often happens when we give a child’s behavior the same meaning it would have in an adult.   Such judgments often turn up about behavior parents call lying, cheating, or attacking other children.

These judgments reflect an earlier period of thought and point of view about human behavior and its meaning for raising children.  The belief was that human nature is bad, children are born bad and have to be made good in the way they are raised.  The “bad” behavior of children was seen as the forerunner of adult evil.  The beginnings of everything that seems dangerous about human nature were perceived in childhood.  The aggressive behavior of children was seen as the adult who might kill.  The sexuality of children suggested adult lust.  It was the duty of parents to curb and control these dangerous impulses in children.

Such beliefs were expressed in harsh child-rearing methods.  Corporal punishment, shame and humiliation taught children to fear parental anger and displeasure, and enforced strict obedience to parents.  Feelings and impulses were also considered bad because of their nature, but also because of the fear that such feelings would give rise to bad behavior.  Feelings were not distinguishable from behavior, and the child himself was not distinguishable from either.

Modern thought, influenced by developmental research and changing patterns of behavior in society generally, has a more accepting attitude about certain behavior –  individual rights for example.  Parents today believe that children should be permitted to express themselves, and allow them to have a voice in many decisions that affect them.  In fact, at times it seems as if the children have a stronger voice than their parents.

The problem, however, is that while ideas have changed about how to respond to children’s behavior, feelings about certain behavior have not.  When children deny having done something we know they did, we call it lying.  When they want to win in a game and don’t follow the rules, we call it cheating.  When they strike out at another child we worry that they may become bullies.  We forget to look at the behavior in the developmental context that gives the behavior a different meaning.  

But here is where another kind of double bind comes into play.  We believe we should not use some of the harsh methods of punishment that were used in an earlier age, but the harsh judgment we feel about “bad” behavior leads to the impulse to use some of those punishments.  The behavior feels ”bad,” the harsh responses we want to make feel “bad,” and it can feel as though both we and our children are “bad.”

Sometimes these conflicted feelings can lead to a kind of paralysis – doing nothing, or to extremes of either punishing, or accepting the behavior.  The real point though, is that although the behavior does not mean the child is “bad”, neither does it mean that it is acceptable.  So the question becomes how can we respond to unacceptable behavior in a way that lets a child know we disapprove without also giving the message that he or she is a “bad” person?

This brings us back to the importance of distinguishing behavior from feelings, and helping our children learn the difference between the two.  Feelings themselves are not “bad”, it is behavior that may be unacceptable.  In order to teach this to our children we first have to understand what the feelings are behind the behavior.  For example, if a child “cheats”, that says he wants to win.  Both the wish and the behavior are characteristic of young children who are not yet able to understand the concept of playing by the rules.  Later on when we want to teach about rules, we can acknowledge the wish to win.  There is nothing wrong with the wish – but since others have the same wish, they won’t want to play if you don’t play by the rules.  Acknowledging the feelings behind behavior applies to other behavior we don’t like or of which we disapprove.

The point is, that when children know we understand and can accept the feelings that are expressed in their behavior, they are better able to respond to our disapproval of that behavior without feeling they are disapproved of, or feel rejected as people.  Of  course, to do this we have to separate our own behavior from our own angry feelings.  Therein lies the challenge.

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