Many of the kids I see in therapy are the kinds of kids adults often refer to as “good kids.” They work hard in school, they are well-liked by peers and adults, they are active in arts or athletics or community service or all three, and they don’t cause much trouble for their parents. Many of them are in therapy because they are experiencing mild anxiety or depression or because they are going through a difficult experience such as a rupture in their friendships or a parental divorce.
Parents who are blessed with one or more of these kids have every reason to feel grateful. While good parenting is of utmost importance, kids come into the world with a great deal that will affect outcomes, temperament and genetic risk factors, for example. There is a certain amount of luck in having a “good kid.”
Before I go on, I feel compelled to point out that the opposite of “good kid” is NOT “bad kid.” There is no one useful label for all the other kids. Some might be “challenging;” others might be “spirited.” Or “worrisome” or “troubled.” And just like the easy ones, all kids are complex, multi-layered, nuanced human beings. I’m sure it goes without saying that ALL kids need love, acceptance, support, and guidance.
Paradoxically, I have noticed a tendency for many parents to expect less, rather than more, from the kids who are most securely on the right track, the ones who cause them less distress. Here are two recent quotes from parents that illustrate this paradox:
He’s a great kid. He gets good grades, works every weekend, and everybody loves him. Why would I get upset over something stupid like borrowing my car without asking? – Father of 17-year-old Vance
She’s a really easy teenager, not like my friends’ daughters. She doesn’t use drugs, she’s not having sex, and she’s not a mean girl. What’s wrong with me rewarding her by buying her a new cell phone to replace the one she lost? – Mother of 15-year-old Vanessa
Put simply, this father and this mother are not doing their kids any real favors. Just like everybody else, kids like Vance need to be taught to follow the rules and to be held accountable when they don’t. Good kids like Vanessa need to learn about responsibility and natural consequences. In fact, if Mom and Dad don’t hold their good kids to high standards, the kids may come to believe that they are somehow above the rules, entitled to a free ride, and/or exempt from the expectation that they work hard and treat others with kindness.
Sometimes I talk to parents about the importance of teaching kids that they are special AND that they are not special. Kids are special in the sense that they are unique and that their parents love them above all else. At the same time, they are not so special that they deserve any more than anyone else or that they get any free passes.
When parents make comments like the ones above, here’s what I tell them:
Dad, here’s what I would say to Vance. “Vance, you’re a great kid. You do well in school, work hard at your job, and everybody loves you. I am very proud of all of that. But, you made a very poor choice and there have to be consequences for doing so. Give me your car key; you will not be allowed to drive my car, or your mother’s, for the next two weeks.”
Mom, here’s what I would say to Vanessa. “Vanessa, you are a really great kid. You stay out of trouble and treat people with kindness. For that, I am both grateful and proud. But, you were not responsible with the cellphone Dad and I gave you for your birthday. I will take you to get a new one when you have the money to pay for it. Let me know if you want some extra chores to do around the house to earn the extra money more quickly.”
By holding kids to high standards and by effectively addressing the occasional moments when the kids screw up, parents can assure that their good kids grow into excellent adults.
[Names and other potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]