The Danger of "Good" and "Bad"

Sometimes in families with two children, the first will seem naturally similar in nature to parents and be comfortably inclined to live up to their expectations, to agree with their values, and to comply with what they want. To this “easy” child, parents give a lot of approval and very little correction because very little is needed.

The second child, however, is perhaps determined not to be a clone of child number one, and is perhaps vested with a more stubborn and independent nature. Because of this, he fails to meet certain parental expectations, rejects some of their values, and opposes a lot of their wants. To this “hard” child, parents give more disapproval and correction because more correction is needed.

Over time, parents find themselves modifying their labels for the children, the easy child now perceived as usually “good” and getting more positive attention for being a pleasure, and the hard child now often seen as “bad” and getting more negative attention for being a troublemaker.

Although the parents never say the terms “good” and “bad,” the terms are sometimes used by the children themselves, who develop an envious relationship with each other. “You're so good, you get all their appreciation and I get none!” “Well, you're so bad, you get much more of their attention than I ever do!” So the good child becomes a magnet for compliments and rewards, and the bad child becomes a lightning rod for conflict and punishment. And the more fully each occupies his or her respective role, the more each feels prohibited from trying each other's role.

At the end of adolescence, which child is worse off, do you suppose? If you guessed the bad child, you are wrong. Now the bad child can admit being hard to manage, make amends, honestly declare, “You have known me at my worst,” and with relief begin to let the good side out. The good child, however, often feels trapped by perfection, fearing that to let any bad side out would break that image on which parental love depends, and so with resentment carries on in an exemplary and unhappy fashion. “If I let myself act badly I would lose your love.”

Every child needs permission to be both “good” child and “bad,” to let both sides out. Thus, if you have children who are beginning to occupy these opposing roles, try to liberate them if you can. To the child in danger of going all “good,” declare, “You know, if you do something we don't like or disagree with, that doesn't mean you're bad or that we'll love you any less. It just means you're human like everybody else, like us, sometimes acting to other people's liking and sometimes not.”


Some adolescents are too good for their own good. They are so concerned with maintaining a harmonious and pleasing relationship with their parents that the abrasive work of separation, experimentation, and independence is left undone. This can create a delayed crisis in early adulthood or even in midlife as they try to deal with independence and individuality for the first time.

And to the child in danger of going all “bad,” declare, “You know, there is much more about you that we love and value than that we disapprove of. Just because we fight a lot over differences doesn't mean all you do is get into trouble. We believe the good in you far outweighs any trouble you might sometimes get into.”

Differences between parents (who give discipline differently) and diversity between children (who receive discipline differently) can make it challenging to provide the necessary correction and instruction. The trick is to accept and work with the inevitable human differences that exist in every family.

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