Parenting the “Bad Kid”

All my childhood I had different memories of people talking about the “bad kid.” Whether or not it’s family worried about the one cousin breaking Great Grandma’s Greek Tea Set, or it’s classroom parents or teachers worried about who has to deal with the kid that talks back all the time. I think back to all of the overheard conversations or mutterings of other adults whispering about the parents of that kid and critiquing all of the things that parent chooses to do or how that parent disciplines or doesn’t. Probably in the course of my life pre-parenthood I could easily recall 30 kids that I knew adults bitched about when they or their parents were not around.

I’m now the parent of one of those kids.

The “bad kid” that people dread dealing with.

Let’s put aside how perfectly lovely my kid can be. How he experiences grief my more vividly than my other kids. He cries sometimes still about missing my Dad who he never really knew. He fights off tears when we talk about our two dying pets. He apologizes constantly when he has to wake me up in the middle of the night because he’s having leg cramps. He tells me he loves me out of the blue and worries about kids being bullied at school. He loves deeply and he feels a lot of shame that he doesn’t know how to process.

Let’s put aside the fact that I know in my heart he’s not a “bad kid” – and let’s just accept that we all know everyone knows what I’m talking about. The kid that the family or the classroom parents or the soccer coaches all complain about.

I’m constantly digging into the recesses of my memories and trying to remember details about the kids I heard people complain about. My memories of the kids are rare and foggy – no where near as clear as the memories of the adults complaining about the kids. Probably because I’ve always been a people pleaser and I always hoped that the same adults raved about how wonderful I was when I wasn’t around. I listened intently when I heard adults complain about other kids because I hoped the opening would allow them to brag about me. I was a suck-up.

I’m trying to remember those kids. Surely they had good days too, right? Did every adult hate them?

I have even less memories of the parents of those kids…did they know people talked about their kid like that?

Yes. I know for a fact, the parents knew.

Because I know other adults talk about my kid.

I mean, of course the do, right? When I’m not around they talk about the kid who can be SO VERY RUDE. Of course they whisper about the kid who yells at people in authority trying discipline him. I mean, wouldn’t you be so appalled by that behavior that you would whisper about it too? The kid who plays too rough and challenges other kids to break the rules? The kid who likes to make gross jokes about bodily functions? They kid who gets SO ANGRY if he loses a game? The kid who pitches the most terrible tantrums and says the most terrible things in the middle of those tantrums?

Yes. I know people talk about my kid when I’m not around.

And it’s hard. Because I get it. Sometimes my kid has very VERY bad days and bad moments. And it’s such a struggle. Mainly because we’ve come so far and I just want to remind the world of that every day. “DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN HE WAS FOUR AND HE WOULD PUNCH ME AND KICK ME AND SPIT IN MY FACE EVERY DAY????”

But I also know we have far to go. We had a bad incident 2 weeks ago that was a call back to those bad days. I know we still have so far.

But it’s just hard. It’s just hard being the parent of the kid you know everyone complains about. I want to go back in time and find all of those parents of the kids I heard the whispers about and I want to give them big hugs. I want to tell them that I know it’s hard and I know they’re doing their best.

We all know as adults that extreme emotions are hard to process. Some adults drink when they get stressed. Some flirt with people at work when they’re feeling inadequate. Some charge up credit card bills to fill a void of sadness. Some overeat to cope with anxiety. Adults every day make bad decisions to cope with emotions, but they’ve just figured out how to self soothe in ways that are accepted by society. My kid struggles with shame spirals and anxiety and we are trying our best to teach him out how to manage those feelings before he finds more socially acceptable ways to deal with them. I’d rather him learn to cope than learn to find ways to self-soothe that could be just as harmful in the long run.

Listen, I know the “bad kid” is a disruptive member of your classroom and your community.

But it’s also okay to assume the parents are doing their best. And it’s okay to remember that the love they have for that kid is the same love you have for your kids.

If you know one of those kids, maybe think of something kind you’ve noticed about that kid and share it with the parent. There’s a parent from my kid’s old school who is constantly reaching out to me and telling me when Wes has wowed him with a greeting. That’s something Wesley is amazing at – he’s great with names and he loves greeting people. Even his new afterschool care teacher bragged that he remembered her name on Day 02 and he enthusiastically greeted her. So, my friend will brag on that. He knows the struggles I have with Wes and he finds small things in his interactions with Wes to reach out to me and comment favorably on.

And it means the world. That is not an exaggeration. People compliment Nikki all the time and that’s great, but when people compliment Wes? It’s like my heart grows 100 sizes. It says to me, “Someone has looked past the problems to see the good in my kid.”

If you have one of these troublesome kids in your classroom or on your Scout troop or basketball team, maybe find something you can compliment about them and share that with the parent. The parents know people talk bad about their kid, so maybe counter that with sharing something good, too. It goes such a long way.

We all love our kids deeply. That’s something we can always connect on. And when you’re the parent of the kid everyone talks bad about, your heart breaks at the idea that maybe your the only one that loves your kid.

Let those parents know that’s not the case.

5 thoughts on “Parenting the “Bad Kid””

  1. This really hits home with me! My son is that kid, he has never been the easy one. He is 16 now and has come so far I cannot even begin to tell you. It’s been a long road with most of the work being behind the scenes where no one ever sees it and man has there been a lot of work. Really though he is a great kid and I am so proud of him and how far he has come. Those little compliments about him from various people over the years meant the world to me. Some of the harsh words still stick with me years later. I had the grandfather of one of my sons friends when he was elementary school age stop my mom in a store to tell her how bad my son was and that he was dangerous and would end up hurting someone in the future. Obviously this man was hearing things 2nd hand through his daughter. It just broke my heart that they were talking about my child that way and then had the nerve to say something to my mom.

  2. Teacher here- high school, but still. Maybe parents whose kids haven’t given them any issues YET will talk, but teachers get it, parents of less than fairy tale perfect children get it, and for the most part, people who have an understanding of the world and children in it get it and just feel empathy when we see a struggling kid. Also, maybe parents are talking a bit, but not necessarily about disliking the “bad kid.” They could just as easily be talking about ways to help everyone, “bad kid” included, have a good time playing together by managing what they can of EVERY kid’s behaviors.

  3. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read after a rocky first week of school. My attitude about my students changes everything about our interactions. When I’m at my best self, I have endless patience for every kid. When I’m stressed and worn down, the “bad kids” don’t always get the benefit of the doubt. That is unfair and it goes against every reason I became a teacher. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I struggle with this as well. My son is loud, will argue with authority, hates to lose (will accuse people of cheating at the top of his lungs) and struggles mightily with social interactions. I have often thought other parents have labeled him the “bad kid” and it breaks my heart. But I also realize labels of good or bad are subjective. I see side-eyes from parent’s at my kid and by focusing on my kid’s behavior, they are often missing their own kid’s “bad” behavior. I try to work with my son on self-correcting, and I advocate on his behaf whenever I see an opportunity to do so. Or force an opportunity if I feel like he was unfairly labeled. I can’t tell you how many adults/teachers I’ve had to say “Find something about him that you like and have in common and focus on that. He can sense if you are frustrated with him or if you don’t like him and he will mirror that back to you.” Becuase he has no tolerance for adults that don’t like him. He can sense it and he feels like why bother if they don’t like me.

    Our boys are the same age, we live in the same town, we should totally have a play date!!!

  5. I know your comment is supposed to help Zoot feel better, but I think it has missed the mark.

    If you think that she hasn’t shown grace and given these comments the benefit of the doubt, you don’t know her and/or don’t pay attention to her writing here. She is not the type of person to make assumptions about anyone, or assume the worst. kids know when they’re disliked or talked about. Parents know. And we all know how someone can make a general sounding comment but mean it in a very pointed way.

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