What Do You Make of Bad Behavior?

What would you make of this bad behavior?

Ashley was pushing her daughter Ella in the stroller through Nordstrom to the men’s department to buy a shirt for father’s day.

At the foot of the escalator Ella said: “Can we go up to the video?”

“Not this time, Sweetie,” responded Ashley. “I want you to stay with me, so I can just find a shirt for Daddy, and then we can go.”

“I want to watch the video.”

“We will go another day, Sweetheart. Today we’re just buying a shirt for Daddy.”

“But I want to watch the video.”

“No. I told you: we are getting a shirt for Daddy, and then we are going home.”

Ashley saw an angry look come over Ella’s face and could see the wheels turning behind her eyes. Then out it came: “You’re not even pretty!”

“Well, look at that,” thought Ashley, “My sweetly dressed little daughter has found in her devious mind the perfect hurtful thing to say,” but Mom kept it together enough to say: “I understand that I don’t look pretty to you right now,” and started flipping through the racks of shirts.

The sales lady said, “Don’t say that. Your mother is very pretty.”

“No she’s not,” shot back Ella.

Angrily, Ashley wanted to say, “Shut up, Lady. That will just provoke her. Just ignore her and mind your own business. Find me a shirt so we can get out of here,” but didn’t. Instead, she just picked out a shirt, and rolled her daughter to the register.

Is Ella doomed to still be a mean girl, when she is in fifth grade?

Little girls are cute and small only to adults.  To one another they are not cute.  They are life-sized.  ~Margaret Atwood

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10 thoughts on “What Do You Make of Bad Behavior?

  1. You must be trying to get a lively discussion going because (obviously) your framing of this issue is a little wacky.
    “Mean girl?”
    What I’m observing is: Ella gives a verbal response to being denied what she wants.
    “I understand that I don’t look pretty to you right now” sounds like a parrotty response Ashley has learned to dole out– “respond by reflecting the emotion blah blah blah…”
    It’s NO response at all, because it’s deeply dishonest. Ashley DOESN’T understand. And it’s not that Ella thinks, “heh, heh, how can I hurt my mom’s feelings?” — she is saying something about her OWN feelings.
    Better response? Squat down, look her in the eye, and say, “You are not very happy with me right now, huh.”
    Start there.
    The real question is not “Will Ella be a mean girl in 5th grade?”
    The question is, “Will Ashley continue to build authentic relationship, so that when her daughter is a fifth grader they still have honest communication?”

  2. Nice, Grace. Thank you. I see that the person who named you had some sense of your genius already.
    Good start for a conversation.

  3. anonymous contribution:
    I’m guessing she could go either way depending on how her parents handle her behavior. But that type of behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. She must be learning it somewhere, maybe being on the receiving end. I would love a professional opinion on how to handle a situation like this. My instinct is that just empathizing and not addressing the fact that it was unkind and said with the attempt to manipulate and get her way was not the best way to handle it. The child needs to learn better tools for expressing her frustration. But perhaps that is a conversation they can have later when her daughter was in a better place.

  4. Great comments! I think Grace was right on to distinguish the framing (what I would call “context”) for the discussion, as that context (frame) of bad is where we virtually always start. Whenever our expectations aren’t met, 1) we get upset, and 2) someone or something is bad or wrong. And once that happens, communication is defensive and protective. Ella has nowhere else to go with it but try something to feel that she matters to Ashley, one way or another.
    By the way, imagine that Ashley were out with an adult friend. Would she have said the same things the same way she did to Ella, even if her friend said, “But I want to watch the video?”

  5. I am not condoning Ella’s response, but to point to that her response came from something(s) that have happened earlier. Ella is not mean, but meanness can become a social strategy – people listen.

  6. I would love to know how old this child is? This is important information. I would also find it helpful to know what time of the day it is? Many children can make “mean” statements when tired or hungry. The adult needs to quickly assess this, and determine if this is the cause of such rude behavior.
    Having said this, I suspect that this is a strong willed child, one that has been given too much freedom, and not enough limits. If this behavior is not checked, this child will continue to be a challenge, and
    And probably a selfish adolescent!
    Mary Lou Cobb

  7. Wow, I guess my 5-year-old doesn’t have enough limits. She has moments when she says mean things. I just got a, “you’re badder than a tiger!” the other day. As a matter of fact my neighbor called to ask what I had done.

    Children say these things. They are reacting. I thought that the response from Grace said it best, that this is a question of relationship and how I teach my child.

    Clearly I come from a dysfunctional background as I don’t see this situation as unusual nor do I see a red flag. Not as one situation.

  8. It seems to me there are several things going on here. 1st, she’s 2.5 yrs old, and therefore does not have enough life experience to know anybetter, even if the parent is working to raise a caring, sensitive child….along with, she is 2.5 years old! Meaning her feelings and her autonomy is all that matters to her at this point. Third, this is not something to harshly ‘correct’, as the family is the place to practice expressing feelings. Forth, I definitely would talk about it when I got home with her! In fact something like this should always be discussed if you want to work on shaping her conscience, which is vital for long term maturity in every area! However if you are harsh then the message she’ll get is that when she does something wrong that it is SHE that feels the pain…when the goal should be to help her internalize that it is the other person whom she hurt that felt the most pain. Otherwise, when she does things to hurt others, her tendency will be to just try and not get caught…whereas, if her conscience is getting shaped, her behavior will begin being curbed BECAUSE she begins understanding that her actions affect others. ….

    However, at this point, she, again, is not bad, she’s 2.5 and is just naturally thinking concretely – so, to her it is what it is!

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