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Have you, as a parent, been a "bad boy" or "bad girl" by calling your kids these names recently? It's so ingrained in our culture, but here's why and how to stop it.

What comes to mind when you hear the phrases "bad boy" or "good girl"? For some, it may be dog-training. For others, it may be Santa Claus. Yet others will be thrown back to their childhoods, in which their parents or others used these terms to describe them based on how adults appraised their behavior. The phrases are so ingrained in Anglo culture that we wouldn't be surprised if you have, as a parent, let a couple of these slip yourself. A "Lucas, you were such a good boy at the wedding today!", perhaps, or a "Bad girl, Michelle! Don't snatch toys out of other kids' hands!". 

We've also all heard that we should criticize the behavior, not the person, but yeah, that's more easily said than done if these phrases are part of your culture. What kind of impact does this kind of name-calling have on a child, and what can we do, as parents, not to engage in it?

Good boy vs bad boy: An interesting, culture-specific, phenomenon

While I was looking at the available research into this phenomenon, I found plenty of studies that explored the impact of harsh criticism and name-calling, but few that specifically delved into the practice of calling children "bad" or "good" boys and girls.

One study I did find was focused on linguistics rather than parenting, but it nonetheless offered some fascinating insights:

  • The paper points out that this kind of parenting "links evaluation of a child’s behavior with evaluation of the child him- or herself" — it praises or criticizes the person, rather than the behavior, in other words. 
  • In most European languages besides English, it's just not possible to call your child a "good boy" or "bad girl". In French, Dutch, or German, you may say "well done", or "that was great", but not "you've been a good girl!". I mean, it may technically be a grammatically correct construction, but using it will immediately have you stand out as a non-native speaker. Bad girls and good boys are an almost uniquely Anglo thing. 
  • Early acculturation (getting used to your culture) has a life-long impact, and the practice of calling your child a good or bad kid may imbue them with a lifelong impression that their short-term behavior is a reflection of their inner self, who they are as a person. 
  • These phrases themselves likely came from Puritan writers who created short stories and poems using them. (The paper, which is linked below, has plenty of examples.)

How bad boy and bad girl relate to criticism in general

We all know, I hope, that calling children more obviously bad names, like "idiot", "lazy", "crazy", "disgusting", "stupid" or "a disappointment" is a bad idea. Research has shown that harsh criticism — which reaches a peak when we criticize our child as a whole person, rather than seeking to correct a certain behavior — can impact children negatively in a wide variety of ways.

If criticism of this kind is a cornerstone of your parenting methods, your child may, research suggests, be more likely to become defiant (presumably the opposite of what you want), aggressive, and have low self-esteem. They are also more likely to have generic "behavioral problems", maybe right away or maybe later in life. Children who believe they're "bad" — perhaps because you've called them that — are more likely to engage in the kinds of behaviors they themselves considered to be bad. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy; they think they're bad, so they may as well live up to the label. 

Research has furthermore revealed that parents criticize their children much more than they think they do. That, in short, means it may be time to examine your own ways of relating to your children. (I'm writing this, yes, but not from the point of view of some superior, angelic, being — I'll do the same, OK?)

No more Mr Bad Boy: What can you do instead? 

There's actually quite a fine line between criticizing behavior and your child as a person — your child will still feel the sting if you say "that was a really nasty thing to do!" (even if it was), just as they would if you'd called them a bad boy or girl.

More constructive ways to deal include:

  • Asking your child what they themselves think of a certain behavior they've engaged in. You can start in a very general way — how do you think that play date could have been more fun? What does personal responsibility mean? The idea is that you want to raise your child to want to do the right thing, because it's the right thing and not because they'll get in trouble for doing the wrong thing.
  • Taking a clue from workplace practices and "sandwiching" criticisms between praise. OK, you might be a bit more refined about it, but the general idea is: "It was so very lovely of you to give your extra Wolverine mask to your friend today, but he really doesn't appreciate it when you shove him as you try to get on the slide first. You obviously care for your friend very much; imagine how happy he'll be when you let him on the slide without arguments! Can we agree to work on this next time?"
  • If you're feeling more angry than you should, you'll be less able to express yourself in the way you really want to. Take a deep breath or even take five minutes to yourself. The problem will still be there to deal with then, hopefully in a calmer, more constructive way. 
  • You remember what it was like to be a child, so use those "empathy muscles" and put yourself in your little one's (or big one's) shoes. Would acting the way you really feel like acting have made you feel like pleasing your parent, or would it have made you angry and defiant? 
  • Remind your child that the way to grow is through making mistakes. Nobody gets it right all the time, and that's OK, because when we know better, we do better. 
Soon enough, with some willpower, "good boy" and "bad girl" will totally have been eliminated from your vocabulary, and you'll be the mentor to your children that you want to be. 

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