I’m an asshole. I don’t have any problem admitting that. Everyone can be an asshole sometimes.
Or, at least, I think most adults can be an asshole sometimes. But children? Not so much.
And yet, I often hear people say about their young kids, “he’s a real asshole,” or “she was being such an asshole this morning.” For those who don’t favor the a-word, other words of choice include monster, pain, terror, tyrant, manipulator, jerk, dick, and so on.
As often as I hear such expressions, it still surprises me. And it worries me, too. I know people are often joking when they use those words; other times, they’re just expressing their frustration. But why use such negative terms about our kids, especially when they might hear? And by using such words, do we then start thinking that a given child is an asshole — versus being one at that particular moment?
Children are children. They’re young, and they’re learning how the world works. They usually aren’t trying to be difficult or mean. They don’t intend to spill tomato sauce on your favorite top, or to make you late for work, or to jump onto your lap when you’re desperate to pee. They don’t think about how their actions affect you — in fact, considering other people and their needs and feelings is something kids need to be trained to do. They’re just young humans who are eager and curious, and they’re trying on different words and behaviors. Our job as parents, in my opinion, is to lead them, to support them, and to try to be patient.
Granted, it’s hard to be patient sometimes. My 3-year-old really likes to take her time getting ready in the mornings, and that can be really frustrating. But maybe it’s more accurate to say that she doesn’t actually a sense of time — and why should she? She feels she has all the time in the world. While my wife and I are busy rushing around, showering and dressing, making breakfast, packing bags, and fretting about how full the gas tanks are in our cars, or the meetings we have to attend that day, our daughter is equally occupied. She’s using her toothbrush as a microphone, looking at books and requesting a story or two, telling us about her plans for her day at nursery, arguing about which clothes she is going to wear, and asking if we can play games or do some version of “let’s pretend”— often all at the same time.
Just because she doesn’t understand that adults have to be at work at a certain time doesn’t make her an asshole. And shouting at her isn’t going to improve the situation; it is only likely to end in tears — for all of us — and a long discussion. So instead, I have to make sure that I’m not an asshole about it. I try to understand what she’s feeling, and how it can be confusing when you’re having fun and someone interrupts that fun to tell you to get your socks on.
It can also be hard to be understanding. Adults have been socialized into being rational — okay, mostly rational, and not even all the time, at that. But kids haven’t yet had that experience. They want what they want, when they want it, and they can throw tantrums when things don’t go their way. Older children and teenagers have more understanding than little ones, of course, and sometimes they do deliberately make things difficult. But even then, I’d be cautious about identifying a beloved child with such a negative term.
A young child isn’t an asshole. Not even when they’re having a massive tantrum in a public place and everyone else is staring at you like you’re the world’s worst parent. Kids have big feelings and don’t yet know how to cope with them. A child isn’t an asshole because they want to smear porridge in their hair (hey, it feels good!) or they think it’s funny to get totally undressed right before Grandma turns up for a visit (who needs clothes, really?). They’re experimenting and learning; that’s their job as kids.
I’m an imperfect human. And, yes, sometimes I’m an asshole. To me, an asshole is someone who’s impatient or mean or who doesn’t show understanding. All people make mistakes, and that’s normal, but an asshole goes a step further and ignores that inner voice that tells them to be kind and empathetic. An asshole can be cruel and ignore the impact of their words or actions.
And sometimes, everyone acts like this. When I make a mistake or behave like an asshole, I try to apologize, and explain why I said or did whatever it was. And my daughter is learning that apologies are important, too. Just the other day she said, “I was grumpy before and I shouted at you. But now I ate and I feel much happier again! I won’t shout now.” It’s okay to fail, but we can and should strive to make the next day better.
I wish when we were frustrated with our children we could recognize that usually it’s ourselves that we’re frustrated with. No one is a perfect partner or parent or child all day, every day. But we’re the ones who are the assholes, not our kids. Nothing has made me realize what an asshole I can be as much as having a child — and nothing has made me strive to improve as much, either.