Bad Kids Aren't Always What They Seem — Cut Them Slack

I’m Mom To The ‘Bad’ Kids — You Need To Cut Them (And Me) Some Slack

November 9, 2021 Updated November 16, 2021

Brother hung her sister on the wall
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My kids are the bad kids. You know the ones I mean. They’re the loudest kids on a playground. They swing their swings too high. When it’s time to leave, they scream. Sometimes they run. At least one throws an epic, age-inappropriate tantrum — in front of their friends. Sometimes they hit their brothers. They do not use equipment in the prescribed manner: they climb up slides; they shimmy up the outside of tunnels; they hang from dizzying heights. They are the only children able to clamber straight up the fireman’s pole and they do it. If there are sticks, they carry them. If there are sticks, they fight with them. If there are sticks, they organize armies for a stick battle.

If there are pine cones, they throw them.

If there are logs, they marshal children to build a fort which will only remain standing if no one breathes on it. This fort will involve what one might term “timber.”

They find dead things.

They interrupt me.

They whine.

They take too many cookies.

Other parents wish they were not on the playground. I see people’s faces when I drag one of them, weeping loudly, towards my car. They exchange looks. Those looks are fraught with meaning and that meaning is: those kids are no-good, horrible, badly-behaved brats and it’s her fault. They are the bad kids and they wouldn’t be bad if she just… [insert draconian, possibly illegal punishment here].

The Bad Kids Aren’t So Bad

My kids aren’t the bad kids. My kids are the neurodiverse kids. All have varying degrees of ADHD, and this world was not constructed with neurodiverse people in mind. This neurodiversity can lead to loud voices, age-inappropriate tantrums, and a strong need for sensory input, which often means climbing up tunnel slides on the outside. Since they do need so much exercise, they spend a lot of time running around outside, so yeah, they’re strong enough to hang from breath-stealing heights. When my oldest was a diver, his coach used to make him, a skinny 11-year-old, demonstrate the most difficult hanging stretch poses for older and more experienced divers.

Children with ADHD often demonstrate age-inappropriate behavior. This includes whining, tantrumming, and interrupting people. They look like the bad kids when they’re really acting like they’re expected to act.

They’ve also been raised fairly free range. They’re allowed to play with sticks at home. They’re allowed to have stick armies in our backyard. Are we back to you’ll-shoot-your-eye-out territory? They build forts and dig holes and find dead things, and sorry not sorry that it screws up your pristine little playground, Karen. I’m only sorry little Aiden/Aidan/Aydan/Ayden is staring longingly at their fort-building while you shout at him to stay away.

This free range philosophy is important for managing their neurodiversity. Their ADHD requires a creative outdoor outlet that gives them plenty of exercise while allowing them freedom to learn from their mistakes and collaborate with each other. They quite simply need outdoor exercise in nature. A swing set won’t cut it.

And because they’re homeschooled, they see kids of every age as a possible playmate, so they hand kindergarteners sticks and induct them into their army, too. What no one sees: they’re mindful those little kids don’t get hurt. But people are too busy assuming they’re the bad kids to notice or care.

Of Course, This Is All My Fault

When kids act ill-behaved, we blame their parents: it’s default mode. My kids are the bad kids, ergo, my husband and I are the bad parents. I reinforce this idea when my kid throws a tantrum and I don’t punish him. Instead, I get down on his level, talk to him, and hug him until he calms down (unless we’re leaving, then I drag him back to our car first). When they use equipment inappropriately, I don’t march over screaming with the wrath of God. I shout something like, “Hey, honey! Can you please not climb the outside of the slide, because little kids will do it too if you do.”

I do not say because we don’t climb the outside of the slide or slides are not for climbing up or some B.S. announcing a certain type of item must be used in a certain manner. I’m perfectly happy for my kids to climb the outside of playground equipment: they’re strong enough and safe enough to do it. But other kids aren’t, and those other kids will imitate them. Plus it pisses other parents off, so I gently stop them.

Gentle is not good enough to stop the bad kids.

Gentle is also not enough when I talk to them about whining, or talk to them about hitting, or say, “Do you want to sit with me and calm down for a little while?” And suddenly a small person is tucked under my arm at The Parent Table for ten minutes. No one likes the bad kids, much less when they want to gripe about their spouse instead of keeping the convo PG.

My kids have ADHD. Hitting them or screaming at them will not teach them to stop hitting or screaming. Punishing them for their emotions? What, should they stop having emotions? We work on emotional regulation, which looks like gentle talking. It looks like: use your words. Take deep breaths. Tell me what you want. 

As for the sticks and the forts and the stick armies? I’ll stop them if other parents seem unduly pissed off. But always calmly and kindly and never in a way that makes them feel guilty. “So-and-so is uncomfortable with sticks on the playground, so let’s be polite and find another game, because she is afraid so-and-so will get hurt,” I’ll say. Shut up, Karen: I’m not making my kids feel guilty because they broke your rule, and I’m not confusing them into believing that I suddenly changed the rules on them. Consistency is really important for neurodiverse kids. I’ll grant you enough respect to ask my kids to stop; rules are different in different places, and we should be polite to people. But I won’t make my kids feel bad, and I won’t pretend that I, personally, changed my own mind about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.

So they look like the bad kids.

They’ll probably keep looking like the bad kids unless people adjust their thinking to accommodate neurodiversity and different parenting styles. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

But if you see a parent struggling with a tantruming kid who looks way too old to be throwing down; if you see a kid yelling too loud and climbing slides and whining and hitting their siblings, maybe short-circuit that default mode: it’s the parents’ fault. That’s one of the bad kids. Maybe think instead, “What could I do to help?”

We moms of neurodiverse kids would appreciate it.