We call it her asshole face. This is where my eight-year-old, Norah, tilts her head to the side, makes eye contact, and draws her lips to a straight line. Then she does whatever I just told her not too. I tell her not to go to bed, and she gives me the asshole face — and keeps watching TV.
A few days ago, we were at my son’s soccer game game. I told Norah to please take her younger sister to the playground and Norah turned, gave her the asshole face, and kept walking, her younger sister still at my side.
Every time she gives me the asshole face, I tell her to cut the crap. “Don’t look at me like that,” I say. “Who do you think you are?” And sure enough, she does it anyway.
But here’s the thing with her asshole face. As much as I hate it, as much as it drives me bonkers and I can’t stand it, I cannot help but respect her strong will.
Because the fact is: Yes, I want to raise kind kids, but I don’t want to raise kids who won’t self-advocate, or step up to defend others when needed. I don’t want my kids to be too nice.
Before becoming a parent I used to listen to my older sister complain about her daughter. How she never listened, talked back, and thought she was the boss. I told her that it just showed that her daughter was becoming a strong-willed woman.
“You make her out to be a jerk,” I would say. “She’s going to grow up and become a CEO or a senator or the president. You should be encouraging that sort of thing,” I’d say. Melissa gave me a look that seemed to say, You have no idea what you are talking about.
And indeed, I didn’t. It’s difficult to live with a strong willed child. No doubt about it. But the question I often run into as a parent (and I have to assume that I’m not alone) is how much strong will is too much? Where do you draw the line between encouraging your child to be too nice, and possibly walked all over, to being the kind of person who stands up for a cause? The kind of person that stands up for a friend when they are being mistreated? The kind of person who isn’t afraid to advocate for themselves — to ask for a larger salary, to ask for a raise, to ask someone to stop mistreating them?
To be perfectly honest, I’m not all that good at those things. I consider myself to be a pretty nice guy, and when I think back on my life, there are moments when I feel like I should have asked for more. I feel like I should have stood up for someone, or something, and made a difference. I don’t really want that for my children. I don’t want them to live with regret.
But this is what parenting is all about, right? It’s about trying to encourage the good qualities in your child, while weeding out the bad qualities, all the while doing the best you can to keep your sanity.
So when Norah gave me that look and walked to the playground, I stopped her. We had a conversation about respect. She stuck out her lower lip, and looked at the ground. I told her that I wanted her to grow into a strong willed woman, but when it comes to helping out with the family, she needed to respect me.
About 20 minutes into playing, an older boy on the playground pushed a younger kid. Norah walked up to the older boy, gave him the asshole face and told him to leave the boy alone. She stomped her rainbow shoes, and glared, same as she does every time I send her to bed and she puts up a fight. It was the same look she gives me when I insist she take a bath, or brush her hair, or eat three bites of dinner. Not surprisingly, the boy backed down because, let’s face it, my daughter is one tough young lady. Then she helped the younger boy up.
I pulled her aside a few moments later. She looked up at me with blue eyes, and I could tell she was afraid she was in trouble again. “What you did back there,” I said, “was awesome.”
She smiled and I told her that these are the fights worth fighting. “This is when I want you to be strong willed.” I winked at her, and she giggled. Then she walked back to the playground, hands in fists, feeling empowered.
This is what it looks like to raise a child into someone willing to advocate for themselves and others. It looks like telling them to stop when it’s needed, but also encouraging them to stand up for what’s right, and to stand up for themselves and others.