“She’s such a good baby!” this woman would say.
I agreed, of course. But it prompted me to consider what it meant to say that a baby was “good.” The more I contemplated this, the more I began to wonder if “good” was really the right word. Then on another Sunday, this woman again declared that Curly Fries was such a good baby.
“Well, she’s an easy baby,” I clarified. “All babies are good.”
The woman laughed and responded without hesitation, “No they aren’t. Some babies are definitely not good.”
I’m still holding onto the belief that what this woman meant was not “good” but “easy” or “mild-mannered” or “low-maintenance” or “painless to take care of.” That “goodness” in a baby is not a moral quality but rather a description of how enjoyable it is to be around that baby. But it still chills me to remember what she said: “Some babies are definitely not good.” What does this mean? How can a baby be bad?
The ideas of “good” and “bad” are such subjective, culturally defined concepts when applied to anything. What makes for good pad thai? Or a bad margarita? Why has this season of Community been far less good than the previous three? (Obviously the loss of Dan Harmon, but I mean concretely…) When we say that a person is a good person or a bad person, what do we mean? We probably agree that Saddam Hussein was a bad person, but was he a bad baby?
As I’ve suggested above, what I believe someone would mean when they refer to a “bad” baby – or, at least a baby who is not good – is a baby who cries a lot, who doesn’t sleep well, who fusses and fidgets and spits up and requires a lot of attention. I think most parents would agree that this situation is less desirable than a baby who sleeps well and doesn’t cry much and eats without difficulty. But we don’t call a baby who cries a lot a “bad baby.” We might call them difficult, or high-maintenance, but not bad.
Our Curly Fries is not a baby anymore. She’s a full-blown toddler, two months shy of her third birthday. There are certainly many moments during the week where I am not inclined to call her good; when I want to say that she is being bad. Most of the time I refrain from saying this, and try to clarify what I would mean by that sentiment by stating that she is behaving poorly, or that I’m losing patience with her, or that her mood is unpleasant. Perhaps at her age these distinctions are lost on her. But I sincerely believe and hope that as she gets older, having made these distinctions will make a significant difference in how she views herself.
As I watch my child begin to grapple with basic theological ideas – God and church and love – I am keenly aware of the painful residue that the concept of original sin has left on my psyche. When I talk about myself as a child, I refer to myself as a “good kid.” I was well-behaved. I was a good student, I didn’t get into any serious trouble, I never got into drugs or fights or found myself on the wrong side of the law. But this is all defined by the things I didn’t do. I somehow overcame my inherently wicked nature by refraining from the really awful things that some people do. Being a good kid meant being obedient and following the expectations of my parents and my school and my church and my culture.
Let me be clear: I had gracious, loving, accepting parents. I don’t have any recollections of my parents – or anyone, really – telling me I was bad. But it seeps in, doesn’t it? Those expectations that are shouldered upon us are usually unspoken and undefined. Growing up in the evangelical tradition, one of the first theological concepts I learned about was sin. After all, that’s the first step to salvation, isn’t it? To recognize that we’re all sinners.
I still believe that in my own mushy-headed liberal fashion. We’re all flawed and broken, we all need help from others, and we all seek the endless grace that God offers. But I do believe we’re capable of great good. There is goodness to be found in humans that is beyond the things we do or don’t do. A fussy baby isn’t morally bad or wrong; she’s just fussy. Curly Fries isn’t a bad child for being defiant and pitching a fit because she can’t wear her baby shoes anymore; she’s just a toddler. That’s her job. We might mean “I do not like this behavior” when we say “You’re being bad,” but I think it’s foolish for us to assume that our children can parse that language.
A few days ago I was playing out in the yard with Curly Fries. The kids who live behind us were also playing out in their yard. There is a large picket fence separating our yards, so I couldn’t see what they were doing, but at some point I heard their mother start yelling at one of them who did something that almost hurt his sister. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she shouted. I have no idea what happened, but the implication from the mother is that something is wrong with her child.
Hearing that made me cringe. Not because I couldn’t identify; I completely could. Heaven knows I want to shout that same thing at Curly Fries at least once a week. I don’t – or, at least, I haven’t yet. And you know why? Because I want to be a good parent.
See? There it is. I’m still trying to be good. We throw those words around – good and bad – in talking about parenting. Refraining from giving my child the message that she is bad is what makes me good. I’ll bet that when you read my story two paragraphs above with the mother who cursed at her child in the yard, some part of you thought, “That’s bad parenting.” I know I sure did when I heard it, only to catch myself and realize how close I’ve come to doing the same thing and being just as bad a parent.
I’m not trying to suggest that it’s fine to yell and curse at our children. It’s not the healthiest, kindest way to go. I do, however, want to highlight how beholden our culture is to notions of goodness and badness as moral standards. We’re passing this down to our kids. Curly Fries wasn’t nine months old, and she was hearing in the nursery at a church that not all kids are good. Thankfully, she was one of the good ones. But imagine how that message could seep into a child and create a tense, uncertain anxiety about what you would need to do to stay a good child. To this day, it’s an anxiety I still live with: being a good parent, a good spouse, a good employee, etc. I want to be good, and that’s something I work at. It doesn’t come natural to me to just believe that I am good without having to do anything, that there is something about me that is inherently good. It is so difficult for me to rest in the assurance that there is something about who I am that others – my family, my friends, or God – finds good.
My child is a good child. What makes her good? Well, she’s sweet and adorable and beautiful and sleeps well at night and blows kisses and usually eats pretty well and has the capacity to feel bad when she hurts other people and she says “Sure” instead of “Yes” or “Okay” and the sound of her giggles makes my heart swell with joy and I love the way her curly hair smells when she cuddles me at night. She’s also good simply because she’s my child. Nothing changes that. My job as her parent is to help her make healthy, positive choices; to shape her behavior so that it makes her life and the lives of those around her easier and more enjoyable; to encourage her to develop values that are just and life-giving. But no matter how well she (or I) do in those tasks, there is a goodness in her that will always remain.
It’s a crazy idea, isn’t it? That there is something good in all of us, regardless. It’s an old idea, but a revolutionary, world-changing idea. It’s called love.