It takes more than an f-bomb to shock people these days. Blasphemy doesn’t cut it. Racial slurs will, but if you wish to make an unacceptable sentence using nothing but common words, try the following:
“X is a bad child.”
NO! Children are not BAD. Not when little Finley is hitting smaller children than himself for his own amusement. Not when little Olivia is giving stickers to every single girl classmate except one, and taking pains to explain to that one that it is because she smells weird. Children cannot be manipulative, even when they throw enormous sobbing fits that disappear when they get their way. They aren’t brats when they boss around their classmates or gang up on the outsiders. They can’t be bad when they lie, steal, pull hair, mock their classmates, shove other children out of line, etc, etc, etc.
Now there are several understandable reasons to avoid saying that “X is a bad child” when all evidence suggests that this is the case. For one, our expectations for childish behavior are, quite rightly, different for young children than for adults; a two-year-old unable to understand another child’s pain is normal, whereas an 18-year-old with the same lack of empathy is probably a psychopath. Adults can’t effectively discipline or interact with a child if they don’t understand what a child should and should not be expected to master, and some cases of abuse occur when adults become frustrated with children for failing to do something that the child could not do. Children who misbehave more than is usual often have good reasons for doing so–trauma, a disordered home life, parents or guardians who aren’t nurturing them properly, lack of proper sleep and nutrition. Children do not have the same power of self-determination that adults do, nor enough experience and wisdom to know a) that Mommy stealing their winter coats to buy drugs is not normal or healthy; and b) how to deal with the feelings engendered by such actions. It is therefore more useful to say, instead of “X is a bad child,” that “X is a troubled child,” or “X needs help.”
It is also wise to avoid telling a child that he or she is bad because children generally try to meet expectations. A child who thinks that he is “bad” won’t try to improve his behavior, because he is just plain bad and cannot change his nature. This, too, has a certain amount of truth to it; I know plenty of adults who think of themselves as incapable in a certain area of moral, intellectual, or physical competence, and so never try to get better. “I’m bad at math” may be the truth, but practice will make progress even for the most innumerate dummy ever to be puzzled by basic subtraction. “I’m disorganized”–that’s me, with a vengeance, and so I’ve got to find ways to be organized because otherwise I hurt myself and my family and friends. And since children, as mentioned above, do not have a robust experience base, they are especially likely to conceptualize themselves in ways that can harm their development.
Nevertheless, I maintain that the taboo surrounding “X is a bad child” is exaggerated. Think back to your own childhood. Were there not children who were consistently mean, nasty little snots? They may have had excellent reasons for being such; they may have been the victim of adverse circumstances; but it takes a lot of ignoring of reality to avoid coming to the conclusion that Peter, who liked to kick other children in the back at my school and was expelled at age 8, was a bad child. Perhaps he did not stay such; he may have grown up to become a decent adult; I certainly hope so. There are, unfortunately, children who lack empathy and who grow up to be full-blown psychopaths.
Furthermore, it is ridiculous to avoid identifying bad behavior by children as such. “Oh, that child is only four–she cannot, by definition, be manipulative!” Bullshit. A child of four months cannot be manipulative. However, a child of four years–or 18 months–is perfectly capable of identifying a desired outcome and acting in ways that show indifference to the wellbeing of others in order to achieve that outcome. We do not need to equate “manipulative” with “this child’s actions are on the level of Ted Bundy,” or to assume that the child is acting with enough wisdom to choose malevolence over benevolence. We ought certainly show wisdom and empathy ourselves in dealing with our children as children, rather than as evil adults, but the fact is that children develop morality–and immorality–rather rapidly.
It is easier for adults to admit that children have some sense of morality when we are talking about the positive development of their sense of justice, which appears in infants as young as 8 months old. Babies show preferences for puppets that are nice to each other, rather than puppets who are mean to each other. Young toddlers are notoriously helpful, and we don’t insist that they possess some nuanced, mature understanding of helpfulness to recognize this fact. Just as we recognize the early appearance of these positive traits, we should also be able to recognize that very young children can also be manipulative racists. And seriously, can you spend any significant time with even a delightful little child and disagree that they are prone to evil in certain ways that differ from child to child? Recognition of children as moral beings–even as underdeveloped moral beings subjected to many outside pressures, which of course they are–requires the recognition of children as immoral beings, too, and not simply as amoral.
This does not mean that the next time you see your toddler take off his diaper and smear poop on the wall while singing “Wheels on the Bus” you call for an exorcist. It is probably wise to avoid saying “You are a bad child,” unless you’re a Calvinist discussing the universal depravity of Man’s nature. (Total depravity is a lot easier to accept when you have a child, incidentally.) It is the responsibility of adults to recognize the needs of those children in our care, and to help them with compassion and understanding when some aspect of their lives contributes to bad behavior. But refusing to recognizing that children can, in fact, be brats or bullies actually does its part in dehumanizing our young, by refusing them any moral standing at all. This is wrong.