Good and Bad – what’s in a name?

As a new parent, I’ve begun to notice interesting terminology used by parents and other observers of children. Today I was given a compliment – “you have such a good baby!” Translation: My baby sat quietly during our moms group meeting, looking around contentedly and smiling at babies and moms in the room.

While I’m pleased that my daughter was able to bring joy to those around her, I also reject the premise of the compliment.

Why? To say that a baby is good when she’s happy implies, also, that she’s bad when she’s unhappy.

What our culture begins to communicate, from the first day of life, is that “positive” emotions are acceptable and welcome, and “negative” emotions are unacceptable and unwelcome.

Very few of us are immune to such judgments in our ‘civilized’ society.

How do these judgments affect us?

Many of us have learned to keep “negative” emotions – anger, resentment, frustration, jealousy, discontent – bottled inside. Some of us have become such experts at this practice that we are unaware of the nature or depth of our authentic emotional state.

Many outwardly successful members of society go through life seeking to please others, choosing paths perceived as acceptable in order not to fall out of favor with others.

This pervasive practice of people pleasing (for short, the four p’s) is a recipe for disaster. Not only are we doomed to fail at a life whose goal is to satisfy others – whose minds we can’t read – but even if we were to succeed, we would be failing ourselves.

Takeaways for parents?
Be aware of our language. Even by praising our children, we may invalidate their right to ‘negative’ emotions. Our children are healthier when we enable them to experience life’s highs and lows – with proper support and guidance, of course. Pretending the lows aren’t there doesn’t make them go away; it just sends them deeper underground, doomed for explosion or implosion.

Takeaways for the rest of the population?
We are not good when we are happy and bad when we are down. We are simply experiencing the natural spectrum of emotions as part of our human experience. When we take the time to appreciate all of our experiences, they will have far less power over us, thus increasing our capacity for true joy and contentment.

Author: Miriam Katz

A Boston-based WAHM who sees parenting as the most challenging career path she's ever chosen. In her spare time, Miriam is co-author of The Other Baby Book and works as a career and life coach to GenX women and moms.

22 thoughts on “Good and Bad – what’s in a name?”

  1. Hello Miriam Katz,
    I loved what you wrote on API. I too have found it disheartening when I hear words or phrases implying good girl when my daughter is behaving “positively”. I am curious how you have handled comments like that?

    1. Great question. I typically say “she’s pretty happy right now.” Thus, I’m addressing her behavior, not her relative worth (good vs. bad). Sometimes I say she has a happy temperament, but I also feel this raises expectations that she’ll always be happy, which is not my expectation. How have others handled this? I’d love some more ideas!

  2. Same goes for good or bad parenting. When folks tell me what a great parent I am based on my children’s behavior I wonder if they are thinking the opposite when my kids are whining, tantruming,etc. I prefer not to accept blame or credit – just enjoy the good moments and make the best of the bad. I have really become more aware of the off-hand comments that I make to others(esp new moms) and that people make to me (or my kids). Another thought, gratuitous compliments and praise frequently embarrass kids.

  3. I completely agree. I’m often told what a “good” baby I have, and it always bothers me. I never know what to say in response. Does anyone have any suggestions?

  4. I agree. I have been saying for sometime that when people say that a baby is good, what they really mean is that the baby is convenient. That the baby does not interfere with their comfort level. While that sounds unkind, I don’t mean it that way. After all it’s only natural to prefer what is comfortable.

  5. Ugh, I can’t STAND when people ask me if I have a good baby! I just wrote a post about this recently, too – of course, he’s good, he’s a baby! I find that what they are really asking is if he sleeps through the night, and he doesn’t, so I guess he’s a “bad” baby.

    (He’s a wonderful, happy, beautiful baby!)

  6. Thank you! And it’s amazing how difficult it has been to let go of “good” and “bad” — about my little boy’s behavior, about my parenting, and so on. That kind of thinking is so pervasive.

  7. Love this! And that’s why my husband & I call emotions either “uncomfortable” or “comfortable” (not even “positive” or “negative”). We also don’t use words like “tantrum,” “fussy,” etc. Instead we say our daughter is “overwhelmed,” “uncomfortable,” or “distressed.” Those words, we find, call forth our own compassion… instead of words like “tantrum” which make us cranky and impatient just thinking about it! There’s a lot in a name…

    1. These are great word choices, since calling forth our compassion as caregivers puts us in the right mindset to meet our kids’ needs. I’m taking notes!

      Another alternative for labeling emotions as positive and negative is anabolic and catabolic. Anabolic emotions strengthen our bodies and catabolic emotions cause internal stress when not addressed sufficiently. Rather than judging the emotions outright, these terms place the emphasis on the effects of the emotions on the body, similar to “comfortable” and “uncomfortable”.

      1. Miriam, I am interested in learning more about “anabolic” and “catabolic” emotions — any suggestions of resources on this topic? Thank you!

        1. I learned about anabolic and catabolic energy through my coach training program, iPEC coaching. A resource I’d recommend is the book Energy Leadership by Bruce Schneider, founder of iPEC.

  8. I can totally relate to this post. The instant I became a mom, suddenly floods of questions and statements from family, friends, and strangers were pouring in. “does she sleep for you? Is she a good baby? You are so lucky you don’t have a grumpy baby!” blah blah blah…Babies and toddlers have difficulty expressing their emotions, and sometimes us as adults do too. This does not mean we are neither good nor bad, we are who we are. I love my daughter, even when she has her moments!

    1. Alison,

      I love and agree with your post. Why do people/adults suddenly expect babies & toddlers to be any different than….well, let’s say…human :)? Don’t we all “tantrum” from time to time.

      With Love,

  9. This post appeared on my laptop not a moment too soon! Since my son was born, I mean the very first minutes, he’s been coined a “good” baby. He’s always been easily comforted, calm, and very happy to be around people. (He flashes ALOT of smiles) So, recently, as in yesterday little man started teething, I think. Regardless, my husband often refers to him as “fussy” or “cranky” or that he’s being a “bad boy”. And I often try to realign him with a nice, sweet, “he’s just having a rough day, we all have rough days.” So I’m honestly not real sure what my point is! But I want to say thanks for the post! At a time when my child who’s always been “good” and never even given me a reason to call him “bad”, has started a journey across the dreaded teething, my patience and certainly my ability to refrain from words like bad, cranky, and fussy is wearing thin – thanks for giving me a reality check. Teething doesn’t make him bad, being in pain doesn’t make him fussy, it makes him uncomfortable! Thanks again, and a million more times for reminding my mouth to say what my brain knows. (and keep from saying the things it knows it shouldn’t!)

  10. Here’s a holiday shopping story I’d like to share.

    Yesterday, I finally was able to get to the toy store without the kids, and there was a mom, grandma, and 18 month old (?) child in a stroller shopping near me. He made a raspberry type sound and was reminded that “we don’t do that at home, we don’t do that here.”

    Then, at check-out, he was making a sort of gurgling sound, barely audible, to which his grandma said, “Do you ever stop making noises?” My response, with an understanding smile was, “Nah! Why should he? He’s got to try out all the sounds!”

    Did I overstep the stranger-comment boundary? I hope not because I feel fairly noble in protecting that child’s right to be.

    No ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just being.

    1. I’d say no, because babies and toddlers seem to be considered community property by so many people making their behavior fair game. It’s not as if you said something nasty or combative, you merely pointed out he has been making all these noise because he’s learning what they are and how they work. So I say good for you and I hope mom walked away feeling good about her son.
      On a side note, I wonder what she would say about my five month old. She is seldom quiet. When she is happy, she sounds a lot like a parrot and when she isn’t she sounds a banshee. I foresee reminding her to use her inside voice often. 🙂

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