Are kids basically good
or basically bad?
October 3, 2022
Kyle]: In today's episode we're gonna tackle some big questions. Actually, just one big question, are your kids basically good or are your kids basically bad? Let's jump into that conversation and look forward to hearing your comments.
[Kyle]: Hello and welcome to episode 49 of The Art of Raising Humans. I’m Kyle.
[Sara]: And I’m Sara.
[Kyle]: And today we're going to ask a big question, we're going to try to answer one of life's most fundamental philosophical questions, right Sara?
[Sara]: Are we actually going to try to answer it?
[Kyle]: No, but we will talk about it.
[Sara]: We’re gonna discuss it.
[Kyle]: We’re gonna discuss, yes, because we're actually not philosophers. Are you a philosopher?
[Kyle]: I don't have a degree in that. I do have a bachelor's degree in theology, but that doesn't matter because this isn't going to answer the question. But we do want to talk about the question, because I see this all the time and so do you, Sara, in helping parents that-- A lot of times parents seem to have the answer to this question, you know? And the question is this-- Well, we'll get to that in just a minute. Before I do that, I want to say to everybody to please go online and to rate our podcast. Give it five-stars, share with your friends, leave your comments, all those fun things that really help more parents find our podcasts and we think this one's gonna be especially helpful, okay? So, the question is this, are kids basically good or basically bad?
[Sara]: Uh huh
[Kyle]: What do you think about that? Tell me how your thoughts have changed over the years.
[Sara]: I don't know if I ever really sat down and formed an opinion on it early on, but if I look back, I think different things I did operated from that idea. So, I can look back now and go “oh, how I did that interaction with that child came from this belief that I wasn't really aware of”, but I was thinking “okay, this is a messed up little human that needs to be fixed and that's what I'm here to do”.
[Sara]: Yeah, or I mean, I think I went back and forth in different times, different interactions it was “oh, they're really, really great, they're beautiful little humans and now we're gonna do this” and so, I think we do in our-- If we stop and think “why did I do that? Which belief am I operating from?”, I think they're there, we're just not always very conscious of it.
[Kyle]: Yeah. I mean, I definitely think the reason why I wanted to talk about this, Sara, I think it was a big shift in how I approached our kids and it's still I struggle sometimes. Like, I think now fundamentally, I don't see our kids as basically bad, but I remember as a kid, reading books like “Lord of the Flies”-- You know, do you know that book? That story?
[Kyle]: And so, you know, the story if you've never read it, it's great book, but it's like these boys are all left to their own devices on an island and it's really bad. When things go bad, they're like, killing each other and it's like, all of like the worst parts of humankind come out because they're left alone to their own pursuits and I remember that book along with just basically, how society I think approached kids when I was growing up, how teachers’ kind of talked about kids, it did seem like parents’ jobs were to be there to keep you from doing bad things.
[Sara]: Yes, yeah. I think religion plays a big part in this too, you know? And for a lot of people. I think we do have this underlying idea of “okay, we're all just really, really terrible trying to be better”.
[Sara]: Or we're great and still growing or whatever that is, but we do operate from that, for our children and for ourselves.
[Sara]: And I think it's important to know what that is and where you come from, because it does kind of predict or determine, influence your interactions with children.
[Kyle]: Well, it definitely influences how you interpret what they're doing, you know?
[Kyle]: I remember when you and I would talk to parents before we ever had kids, who they had a baby, maybe a baby who was like six months old and they would be doing a technique like, cry it out, you know? And they would be trying to just leave the kid and let the kids scream until the kid finally stops screaming and many times, the reason why they would justify doing that, was because the kid was trying to manipulate them, you know?
[Sara]: Right, yeah, for some people that-- Yeah, we're always-- I think we're looking to assign meaning, right? You see a behavior, a child's doing something, even an infant is doing something and we do, we think “oh, they're just so cute and funny” or “oh, they're manipulating” or “they're wanting attention, they're throwing-- They're angry” and you see that people will speak, especially into babies, babies will do something and they'll assign a meaning to it and I don't know if you've ever had that moment, where you think “I'm not really sure that's-- I'm not really sure that's what's going on there”.
[Sara]: But we do that too, right? We're just in that moment realizing “I assigned a different meaning than you assigned to that, very interesting”.
[Kyle]: Yeah. Well, I remember even we went to a conference one time, when-- Was it Ellie that was little? Like a little baby, I think Ellie was just born and you brought her to the conference and Ellie was--
[Kyle]: Ellie was starting to get a little squirmy, so you went outside of the conference. So, you could still hear what was going on, but you were holding her and then, I remember at the end, one of the other counselors came up to us and said “what a good baby she is, she was quiet the whole time”.
[Kyle]: And you and I were like “that's so funny because the baby wasn't even in the room”, like you took the baby out of there, she assumed the baby was in the room and then said she was a good baby because she didn't make noises.
[Sara]: Because quiet equaled good to her and her world, yeah.
[Kyle]: Yes! Yeah, and then of course, as a school counselor, I saw this all the time. A lot of times kids were identified and described as good kids because they didn't talk in class, because they didn't interrupt, because they got all their work on time. There was all these kinds of qualifiers. Now, most of the teachers that I worked with were educated enough not to call kids “bad kids”, they thought that was wrong, but they would use other adjectives to describe kids in a negative way. But I-- That wasn't what-- I was just fascinated by which kids were called “good kids” and why they were called “good kids” and it always had to do with the interpretation of the teacher, thinking that “this is what a good kid is”, whereas like, I wouldn't necessarily see a kid doing that and think that's good, I would just think that that's normal or I think that that's a kid being shy or a kid that's being apprehensive or whatever. I would describe it a lot of different ways, but they would describe it as good and now, their interactions with that kid were more positive, because they deemed that kid's behavior is good.
[Sara]: It actually-- When you talk about that it reminds me of our dog right now.
[Sara]: We have a year-old dog and sometimes I get really frustrated with her chewing or jumping on things, trying to get our food, things like that and the trainer will often “she's being a dog” and so, I'm assigning that to her, I'm assigning her as a good dog or bad dog or I'm like “you know what you're doing, you're just trying to do this anyway” and the trainer “well, she's being a dog”.
[Sara]: It's like, it's just almost neither to her, she's like “she's being a dog”. So, that always kind of checks me and I think “oh, yeah. Okay, she's being a dog”.
[Kyle]: Yeah, and doesn't that feel different though?
[Sara]: It does.
[Kyle]: She's just being a dog, right? She's not purposely plotting how to ruin your day, right? She's just pursuing her own interests, that's what dogs do, you know? And so, then through the training, the trainer would teach the dog how to behave the way the trainer would like the dog to do, right? But even then, the dog's not a good dog, because the-- The dog's just a well-trained dog, right?
[Kyle]: So, yeah, and some of those-- I really notice as I begin to see teachers do this more and hear parents talk to me, I started asking-- Sara, I remember when I first did this, when I was first working with parents, I would ask them the question. When I saw a lot of like, negative judgments being placed on the kid and I was just say to the parent “do you--?” and I'd ask the listeners today, do you think your kid is inherently good or inherently evil? Just take a moment to think about that and I remember almost every parent, Sara, would stop for a minute and they'd say “well, good”. You know, that’s the initial reaction. “It's good, my kid's good. Like, of course they’re--” and then they'd stop and think a little longer and go “well, you know. I mean, actually I think kids if left to their own devices, they would do evil, you know? So, they would hurt people, they would hurt themselves, they would like, be selfish, they would be rude and so, like unless a parent or adult is there to guide them, they would do evil” and I'd be like “that's a really interesting approach” and I actually never did this, but I wanted to do like, a research study and like, especially when it came to like, religious parents in particular. Because there's a lot of those in Tulsa and we come from a faith background, so faith is important to us too is, how much more that parent was punitive if they believed that to be the essence of their child?
[Kyle]: Because if my kid is basically evil, I have to stop my kid, I have to resist their behavior and then when they do something like, punch their brother, I'm gonna be afraid that unless I change that, that's a predictor of how my kid is going to turn out in the future.
[Sara]: Right, I have to remake my child.
[Sara]: You know, it's sort of like if you're handed a lump of clay and it looks horrible and like “this is a bowl” and you think “I've got to remake this thing, it's not a bowl” and I think sometimes we approach children, you know, it's interesting to think about, do I approach them as “well, here's this little human, but they're totally messed up” and so, remake them. That's your job, that's your task for 18 years, go remake this.
[Kyle]: How did this start switching for you? Because you talked about how it's been a process, it's been a process for me too and I know there's key moments, but how to for you in particular, how did you switch seeing their behavior in a different way and not interpreting it in negative ways?
[Sara]: I think when-- I think part of it was just working with kids who had a trauma, it was a little easier, right? It's a little easier to go “oh, well, this thing happened to them” and learning more about how we all form survival skills and so, we might have a behavior that in that moment, gets us somewhere, saves us from something, gets us through something and it could be a really serious trauma or it could be even something small, right? But we have ways of behaving and maybe later-- It served us in that moment, but it's not really serving us continually, but we continue to do that behavior.
[Sara]: And as I learned more about that and even looked at myself, how am I behaving in different moments? What am I choosing to do in different moments? And that maybe something I learned a long time ago, maybe it's not serving me anymore but I still do it and I think that sort of took some judgment away about why we're doing-- You know, “are you good or bad?”. It's like “oh, you learned how to do this behavior, it was the best you could come up with”.
[Kyle]: You adapt to it, yeah.
[Sara]: Yeah, it was what the moment-- That's just what you did in the moment and so, it was less kind of about just, “are you inherently evil or good?” And just more about “this is what you're doing, and is it serving you now? And how can you grow?” and so, looking at children and what they're doing in that moment, is “oh--” They're just trying to-- They're taking their best shot at what they can do, to accomplish their goal or get their needs met or whatever it is than-- That just alters the moment for me, it alters how I look at that child. “It's something broken to be fixed”, I don't really see it that way.
[Kyle]: Somebody hurting to be helped, right? It sounds like you, kind of through the process of helping these really hurting kids, that you started to move towards compassion rather than judgment, right?
[Kyle]: You tried to understand the pain and then help them with it, rather than, you know, try to like, judge the behavior as bad or good and put them in this dichotomous type. I'm thinking, Sara, mine was-- I resonate with that, but mine was also just noting how freaking good kids can be, you know? Noticing that here, I'm a grown adult and there were so many occasions where I was mad at our kids and I didn't want to let go of it. I wanted to be angry for a day or more at them, I wanted to withhold love from them until they acted better, right? I was not quick to forgive them and yet, they were quick to forgive me. I saw so many times where they were willing to forget the hurt that I-- Maybe I said something hurtful to them or been mean to them in some way, how quick they wanted to forgive that and move closer towards me. They wanted to hug me, quickly and I was blown away by that. Even as I watch kids at school, how quick they were to forgive their friend who hurt them, you know? How quick they just wanted to play with their friend, you know? They were so willing to come open-handed to me and to their friends, they didn't want to hold on to all the anger and the pain and instead, I wanted to and that was kind of a light bulb moment of like, who actually is closer to being--? You know, whether or not we're inherently good or evil, who over their lifetime has actually done more bad things? Probably me! Who's probably been more shaped by it? Probably me, because I've done more of it, right? This is a little kid who's had such a little time on the earth, they don't even know the difference most the time, right?
[Kyle]: I mean, even in our legal system to some extent, we don't even like, think a kid has that capability until they're well older, yet as parents, were judging them like I said, from six months. You would hear parents say “I'm not gonna go get my kid-- I've already fed them; I've already changed their diaper”. It's like giving the kid milk and cookies every time they ask for it.
[Kyle]: When the kids just screaming, the kid has no other way to talk to you, they have no words, right? And I really found, Sara, interesting, I found the shift really happened, parents were more like what you were talking. About up to about the age of three to four and maybe even some it was “the terrible twos”, once the kid could start to walk and talk, they started to assign much more negative meaning to their actions. They are much more willing to see the baby as helpless and the baby's just doing whatever they have to do to get what they need, right?
[Kyle]: But as the kid, as you've told the kid and you've had conversations with the kids, the kids should understand, you know? And so, now the kids purposely not doing it to oppose me, right?
[Kyle]: And so, I saw that shift as well, as I noticed that's interesting that kids’ parents would talk more negatively about them, once they got to the age they could talk and walk. Whereas when they were younger, they gave them the benefit of the doubt, they saw the best in them, they assumed positive intent in them, you know?
[Kyle]: So, I think there is-- This question's important, Sara, because I think it leads to understanding why we as parents react the way we do to their behavior.
[Sara]: I think so too.
[Kyle]: It really-- My reaction to what they're doing, whether or not you've ever thought about this question before or not, it tells you what the answer already is in your mind, you know? That you are either assigning negativity and like evil or bad to their actions or you're assigning like, good or just even benign, right? Like you talked about maybe they're just being a kid, right? If you're able to do that, then you're going to be much more understanding and open to the kid, as opposed to feeling you have to oppose and change them.
[Kyle]: So, this connects to that previous podcast we did on the dichotomous thinking, right? Is kids aren't living in this good or bad, right? I mean--
[Sara]: Right, none of us are.
[Kyle]: None of us are, and that's what we said at the beginning of this podcast. We're not going to answer this question, because we're not philosophers and we're not and we’re not-- But this isn't the point of the podcast, the point of the podcast is let's get out of this dichotomous thinking! Your kid isn't living in either good intentions or bad intentions, they're just being themselves, they're just being a kid. Whatever they are doing, if you can just look at it open-handed and just receive it and stop assigning blame to it or judgment towards it, that's the only way you can be helpful, right? I mean, you can't be helpful otherwise.
[Sara]: And I think the challenge is it helps me to know where I'm coming from. So, it's a pause for me to go “wait a second, how am I wanting to intervene? So, what is that saying about how I'm seeing this person in this moment?”. So, I think that's important and then, deeper than that is that that is how I'm also looking at myself. The more I am doing that to others, that's what I'm doing with myself as well.
[Sara]: And so, it just gives pause, step back, look at how your “am I seeing myself as good or bad? A mistake or wonderful? Or--"
[Kyle]: Yeah, selfish, lazy, rude. Yeah, all those kinds of things we assign ourselves, yeah.
[Sara]: So, the way myself talk, how I'm treating myself and then how am I treating others and just be careful of where you're coming from in that, because it's going to predict and determine those interactions with yourself and others.
[Kyle]: Yeah, completely. So, what you're saying is, use these moments-- Like, I'm thinking of so many times, I'll hear a parent say, you know, their kid did-- They picked up that thing that the parent liked and purposely hurt it, right? Or they purposely broke it.
[Sara]: “I’ve told them 10 times and they did it anyway”.
[Kyle]: “And the kid looked at me and did it and they did it on purpose”.
[Kyle]: And I will say to them, everything that kid does is on purpose. So, the kid isn't doing anything on purpose, the kid did it on purpose, but it's interesting that you think the kid is purposely trying to hurt you by doing it. What does the kid gain by that? Let's say the kid is doing that, typically hurt people hurt people. So, if the kid is hurting you, it's probably because they're hurting. It's not because they feel great about themselves, but our tendency is then once we get hurt by what the kid did, we hurt them back! Which then perpetuates the whole cycle of hurt and violence and pain and all that stuff, right?
[Kyle]: And so, instead if I could like “wow, he did that because he's really hurting and he really wants me to hurt with him”.
[Kyle]: I mean, that's equally do-- He's doing that on purpose, because he wants you to hurt with him. He's tired of hurting alone, he's tired of being the only one that feels like his life is out of control and he has no power and so, “man, when I do this thing, I feel powerful because I make you do that thing”.
[Kyle]: You know? And you'll see this even in like, relationships with adults or friendships. If someone's just to get someone to interact with you, I see this a lot with like, little brothers to big brothers, is they will purposely annoy the big brother, even though they know the big brother's gonna go hurt them, because they know that's the only interaction they're gonna get.
[Kyle]: And they think “this is how we do it, this is--”
[Sara]: And what they've learned, it's how they're-- Yeah, I have this need to connect with you and right now this is the way I know to do it, I don't know another way to connect with you.
[Kyle]: So, I love it how-- I think what really also helped me is Dr. Becky Bailey's thinking on this. So, there's two things, we've already hit upon this a little bit on a previous podcast is that, a child can only behave differently once I see them differently, right? So, this speaks to this, right?
[Kyle]: When I heard about that and read that in her book, I was like “oh, this is exactly what I'm talking about”. If I believe the kid is purposely being bad, then I have to make them good, which is not something I can do. So, if I choose to believe a different thing and once again, Sara, we're making it up, right? It's so funny is, with little babies when a little baby doesn't know how to speak and they point up and they just go [Baby noises], we look up to see where they're pointing and we assume they're doing that to get something and then we just tell them how to get that thing, right? But when another kid is doing a behavior that we don't like, we don't do that. Like, instead of assuming the kid is just trying to send you a message, what is the message they're trying to send you?
[Kyle]: And how would I rather them do it, right? And then teaching them. So, a child can only behave differently once I see them differently, that was really enlightening. But then the second one is, she says kids only have two basic states and I know we've hit upon this before in the past too, but I want to emphasize it with this. Either they're being helpful and showing you love or they're needing your help and asking for your love.
[Sara]: Yeah, I love that. It's so-- And just so-- Such an “uh huh” moment to think “oh, which one is going on right now?” and it reframes it, because then I'm not looking at their behavior as so frustrating and they're doing this and they're doing that and I'm thinking “how do they need hope and love right now? Obviously, they're not feeling love and they're not being helpful. So, how do they need that now?”. It just creates such a shift in me in the way that I'm gonna approach them, interact with them, how I'm going to assign meaning to what they're doing and it moves us closer together, instead of further apart. I love that.
[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, and I think one more thing I would encourage the listeners to think about. So, there's that quote, there's also that idea of the two basic states, you know? But then the other idea I'm thinking from Siegel, is his thoughts where he says, you know, this typical argument of nature versus nurture, right? And that's kind of what this comes down to a little bit, “are kids by their nature good or bad?”, right?
[Kyle]: Because he would say nurture informs how nature presents itself and with Siegel's brain science, you can see that. That with every human being when they feel safe and when they feel loved and connected, they do good things.
[Kyle]: When they are doing things that are not healthy, when they're doing things that are hurtful and harmful to themselves and others, it's not because they feel safe and loved, it's actually because they feel insecure and disconnected and isolated and alone and so, I want to emphasize that if you are seeing your kid do things and you're thinking “well, no, they're just doing that--” They are doing it not because they feel safe and loved, but they're doing it because they don't. So, our typical reaction in that moment is, we don't feel safe and loved when our kid does that, so we come at them with our own insecurities and our fears and our pain and then we inflict them upon our kid and then we expect our kid to come back with love and forgiveness.
[Sara]: Yeah! Yes! It's gonna be awesome.
[Kyle]: And that's just the cycle I see-- I saw us early on and still today we do at times.
[Sara]: Oh, yeah, it's hard-- I mean, we're not going to do it perfect, we fall back into that and the moment when you feel attacked, you feel like your child's trying to hurt you, you feel hurt, you don't feel loved, you operate from that. It's hard to have that pause and change intentionality to what you're doing and you're not going to hit it every time.
[Kyle]: So, in wrapping up, I'd love for our listeners to just take a moment and think about that question, do you believe your kids are basically good or bad? And of course, after you think about it, know there's really no true answer to that question. I just want you-- I want you to be aware of what you tend to believe about your kids actions and behavior and feelings, what judgment are you assigning to? Are you coming with closed fists believing you have to change them and make them good? And if you left them alone in and [Unintelligible] themselves, they would just do bad things? Because if I do think that, I'm going to miss all the good things they're doing all the time! I'm going to miss all the ways they love me when I'm being a complete jerk to them, right? Or all the ways in which they are so loving to others or giving. You know, I just-- One example that just popped to my head was, I remember we were at like a store and Abby was maybe like, four at the time and some old lady came up to the counter in a wheelchair, she was a little few checkout lines away from us and Abby said “dad, what do you think is wrong with her?” and I said “I don't know, she looks like she's in some pain or maybe, you know”. She said “do you think I could give her a hug?” I said “I don't know, why don't you go ask?”
[Kyle]: And I saw her walk over to that old lady, I saw the old lady nod to her “yes” and Abby gave her a hug and she began to cry and Abby came up and said “dad, why is she crying?” and I said “I just think she felt your love, honey, that's what love does”. But you know what? I saw that old lady, I never thought of going-- I didn't care, I was busy in my own head with what I wanted to do. Who in that moment was being more selfish? I was just focused on getting in the store and getting out. My daughter saw somebody hurting and wanted to go love them.
[Kyle]: And that happens in kids all the time and even though they are by nature at four very selfish, like-- But they wanted to go do that. I just thought that was such a beautiful moment. So, think about that question and then, let this sink in a little bit, “a child cannot behave differently until I see them differently”.
[Kyle]: So, sit with that quote and then begin to kind of focus on two basic states, either the kid is being helpful and showing you love or needing your help and asking for your love. If you just let yourself fit in those two categories, it can then really help you come open handed and really help your kids shift back up to the part of their brain, where they can be that loving caring kind kid that they want to be, you know?
[Kyle]: I'm not saying they always are that, but they actually want to be that more than they are.
[Sara]: Yeah, you actually-- You free them to be that.
[Kyle]: Yeah, just like you do, just like as a parent.
[Kyle]: We want to, right?
[Sara]: Yeah. When we feel loved, we're free to love, right?
[Kyle]: Yes, I don't like being a jerk.
[Sara]: When your child feels loved, they feel free to love.
[Kyle]: Yes, yes, it's so great. Okay. So, I hope this really helps you and informs, kind of raises your awareness, just kind of-- Not answer this deep philosophical question, but just raises your awareness of what is motivating you and causing these reactions, triggering you in these moments with your kid and hopefully, then it can shift these moments in a different way. So, you have a great day.
[Sara]: Thank you for listening.