I think if someone asked me if I had been “naughty or nice” this year I would probably respond with “what day and time - let me think about it and get back to you”. And then, I would think, well, what would the categories be? Did I ever go above the speed limit while driving? (maybe just once or twice). Return a library book late? (just about every single book, but don’t worry, I always pay my late fees). Take a day to respond to a text message? (definitely, but often because I forget to hit send).
But, if someone asked me if I thought I was a good person, if I worked hard in my career, loved my family, was kind to others and generally did my best, that would be a much easier question.
There’s a big difference between behaviors and who a person is on the inside. Of course there is overlap, but specific behaviors, like returning a library book a day late, doesn’t define who we really are inside.
In my office, kids talk about being good pretty often, never about what but it means to be good, but just that they must be good! The have to be good in school to avoid losing points, they have to be good in order to get what they really want for Christmas, basically, they just have to be good. When you ask them what it means to be good, they really struggle. They have a general idea that certain behaviors are “bad” (usually not listening) but really cannot articulate what is expected of them to be deemed worthy of the title of “good”.
So, here’s the thing: Good or Bad, Naughty or Nice, these are categorical distinctions. These constructs, what these words really mean, are far from categorical and definitely reside in the shades of gray and go well beyond the holiday season. So, what we should really be doing is exploring these areas by activating thoughts and ideas in these gray areas.
We talk a a lot about brain development and how certain regions of the brain develop at a much slower pace (e.g., the frontal lobe - which is in charge of executive functioning, abstract thinking, and problem solving - just to name a few of it's responsibilities). So, while you can’t expect younger children to be able to understand abstract concepts, you can begin to form new neural connections to the frontal lobe, by talking about topics, such as - “What does it mean to be good?” or “What do you think Santa really thinks of children’s behavior, or children making mistakes?”.
For everyday life, if you’re struggling with challenging or unwanted behaviors, be sure to check in and make sure your child understands what the expected behavior is, and then be sure to get specific (what exactly is the unwanted behavior) and curious (what need is it serving or what skill are they missing). For example, you ask your child to please go upstairs, get dressed, brush their teeth and hair, and put their dirty pajamas in the hamper. You go upstairs to find your pant-less child playing with legos with the bathroom water is running. The unwanted behavior might be labeled something like not listening or not following directions, but a therapist would likely be quick to wonder about symptoms of inattention (which would be the skill deficit). Listing it out and getting curious can help you figure out both what is going on, and how to help. And, in this example, if the child struggled with inattention (one of the main symptoms of ADHD), would you label it as “bad behavior”? Of course not, because they are doing the best they can. Having a better understanding of the “why” underneath a behavior can definitely help to manage it.
And, instead of saying “be good today” when they get on the school bus, pick the one behavior you’re working on to mention as a reminder.
As for the holidays, when your child mentions being good or bad, remember that it goes well beyond just listening to adults. You may even consider using language like “expected behaviors” and use those opportunities to talk about “good”.
Beyond that, there’s an even more important point to be made here: we already know your child is good, we want them to know that too.
There’s a big difference between who someone is on the inside and "outside" behaviors - and this is the perfect shade of grey to talk about with your child.
Wishing your family a wonderful holiday season, even if you’re not quite sure where you’d fall on the naughty or nice list either. Although, I have to say, the therapists at RRC just keep raving about how wonderful the families they work with are, so I'm thinking you all made the nice list (because you're good, even if you return library books late, threaten to take away Christmas, or burn the cookies).