Giving In to “Bad Guys”: The Parental Struggle of Making Choices That Support Our Values

Image courtesy of mikecs83 via Creative Commons.

 We’re swamped with some exciting projects (stay tuned), so please enjoy this repost from 11/23/10.

by Mary Pat Champeau, IHE’s Director of Education

“Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates us to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.” ~ John Dewey
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

“I hate the environment!” ~ second grader at a school function whose mother would not let him have lemonade in a paper cup because it’s bad for the environment (overheard by big-ears Mary Pat Champeau).

How many decisions do we make that either compromise or reinforce our deepest needs, desires, values and wishes as parents? Are there any decisions that don’t fall into this category?

When my son was very young he was crazy about action figures, or “guys” as he called them. We lived in a tiny apartment with no outdoor space (here comes the rationalization); my husband and I worked full time; his daycare provider’s son had a pantheon of guys that Liam was not allowed to touch or play with; I had four brothers who seemed like fairly functional normal men and they’d played what whatever they wanted to when they were boys; the only toy I ever remember loving as a child was a gift I received at a birthday party: a fake holster with a pearl-handled pistol tucked into it that shot caps. (I bring up the gun because most action figures come equipped with a weapon of one kind or another, which was part of my objection — no war toys! said I.) Well, the line in the sand got crossed at some point, and I agreed that he could have guys, as long as they were GOOD GUYS. No bad guys. He began collecting good guys by the boatload, every birthday, Christmas, visit from grandparents or aunts or uncles, trips to the dentist; there was really no occasion that did not call for a new good guy.

As you can imagine, we ran through the good guys pretty quickly and had every incarnation of Superman, Batman, Spider-man, X-Men, and on and on. One day, just as I was totally wishing he would outgrow the whole “guy” thing, because I rejected everything about them, and perhaps more importantly at the time, I found it embarrassing when certain friends came over who did not allow their children to play with such heinous items — and they seemed like superior parents to me because they stood their ground and had more control in general — we were standing in a toy aisle at some huge store in New Jersey, and he was carefully examining every single action figure and begging for a bad guy. He had birthday money burning a hole in his pocket, and let me just say, we’d barely finished eating the junky birthday cake before I was standing in a big box store looking at the many faces of action-figure evil (How did this happen? How did I get here? Where did I go wrong?) and he was practically on his knees. No, I kept saying, no. You know the rule. No. Finally, with a look of sheer panic and exasperation on his face, he said: “But I NEED bad guys! Without bad guys, the good guys have nothing to do!”

I am a sucker for a good argument, so I said: “They could all build something together.” “Build something? They have super powers — they don’t build things!” And it continued like this for a while as I tried to come up with worthwhile tasks that good guys could do if there were no bad guys around. It began to feel like a conversation about “good guys on vacation” where, I thought, maybe they could just relax, sit around and talk, scuba dive in the bathtub, that sort of thing. You can see that we have drifted from the sublime to the ridiculous here, and I left that big box store in New Jersey with one happy five year old, and the bad guy of his choice. That was the end of that. I admitted defeat without really putting up all that much of a fight. A happy child is part of the equation for me; not the whole equation, but part. I consoled myself that the one bad guy would be sorely outnumbered by the numerous underemployed good guys that awaited him at home. Thin consolation, you are thinking! And you are right. A few years later, we sold the whole bucket of heinous action figures at a yard sale to benefit a cause we believed in.

I tell this story not as a good example of how to parent one’s bad-guy-loving kindergartner but to say that this is one example that stands out for me because it was really the first time I completely caved (bit by bit, but caving nonetheless) and did something I did not believe in because it made my child happy. I like a happy household; I’ll admit it. And I often disguise supervision as support. But in this case, there was really no way around it: I went against all my best judgment and knowledge and chalked it up to weak character and moved on. But, all is not lost. Because now I can use myself as a bad example — looking for the silver lining here!

This experience granted me a huge dose of humility, and also compassion for other parents whom I had, perhaps secretly, been judging for the way they seemed to give in to their children all the time. We are all in the same boat, doing our best, hoping for ideas, encouragement, support and not harsh judgments as we try to bring our values into alignment with our actions.

How have you struggled with making choices that didn’t support your values as a parent?

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