Don’t raise assholes.
This seems to be the parenting philosophy du jour.
Quite frankly, I think it’s bullshit.
If the best we’re shooting for is not being an asshole, we’re selling our kids and ourselves short. Because in a world filled with bigotry and hate, it’s not enough to not be an asshole.
Not being an asshole doesn’t make you a good person; doing good things makes you a good person. Being a good human isn’t a spectator sport, where we can sit on the sidelines, cozy in the knowledge that we aren’t actively being an asshole. We need be better than that!
Over the past few years, as my sons have gotten older, the opportunities to discuss asshole behavior have increased. Usually, these conversations involve something that happened on the playground at school, or maybe something we’ve seen in a TV show or movie. Other times, it involves things capturing the news headlines or the public behavior of politicians, sports stars, or celebrities.
Like most parents, my husband and I try to use these situations as learning tools. Most of the time, our children can easily point out the injustice, meanness, and assholery. Most kids can.
But what they need to be reminded of is that it isn’t enough not to be the jerk in the playground. You need to also stand up to the jerk on the playground. You need to support the person being bullied by the jerk. You need to find help when the jerk is making everyone miserable. You need to make sure the jerk doesn’t hurt people any more than they already have.
My sons and I have been working our way through reruns of The Wonder Years , and in a recent episode, Kevin Arnold was part of a group of students who organized a walkout at their middle school to protest the Vietnam War. Before the walkout, the principal told them that if they walked out of class, it would go on their permanent record.
“Why would they be punished?” my son asked.
“Well, they were technically breaking school rules by walking out,” I said. “Standing up for what you believe in isn’t always easy. There are sometimes consequences.”
I told my son that sometimes it’s hard to stand up for what you believe in. It can be hard to tell someone, especially a friend, to stop being a jerk. It can be hard to tell an adult that they aren’t behaving appropriately. It can be hard to say, “No, this isn’t right.”
I’m a self-professed people-pleaser, and I genuinely hate conflict. I want people to agree, get along, and be happy. I’m a nice person, for heaven’s sake. But sometimes doing the right thing, doing the good thing, doing the kind thing, means shaking things up, getting in trouble, and pissing people off. Sometimes you need to tell “nice” to eff off so you can do what’s right because not being the asshole isn’t good enough; you need to stand up for what’s right as well.
A few weeks ago, my son and I had plans to go to dinner and a movie, and then I found out about the protests happening at O’Hare International Airport. The previous day, the president had signed the “Muslim ban” executive order — something that affected our family in a personal way and which we were deeply opposed to.
“We can still go to a movie if you want,” I said. “Or we can go protest. We can use our voices to let people know this isn’t right.” We talked, again, about how it’s not enough to not be an asshole (after all, we weren’t the ones invoking or supporting this travel ban), but you need to also stand up for what’s right. You need to fight back against the assholes and stand up for the vulnerable people being actively hurt by the assholes of the world.
“I want to go to O’Hare,” my son said. And so we did.
Lately, I see so many parents washing their hands of conflict with the “just don’t be an asshole” mantra, and quite frankly, I think it’s a lazy cop-out.
Whether it’s confronting a mean kid on the playground, standing up for injustice, or advocating for the voiceless, it’s not enough to not be the mean kid or the one actually committing an injustice. We need to stand up to those people too, and we need to empower our kids to stand up for what’s right as well.
Don’t get me wrong, standing up to the mean kid or fighting injustice is not carte blanche to be mean or resort to violence. I am a pacifist to the extreme and believe that most (all?) conflicts can be resolved through nonviolent means. But sometimes you need to get your hands dirty to be a good human. Standing up means not looking away when we see something that isn’t right. It means using our voices, loudly. It means resisting, with kindness and courage. It means lifting people up and taking care of each other.
Even though it sometimes feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket and it can be easy to fall into the “people suck” mindset, I don’t buy it. There are far more good and kind people in the world than there are assholes. But being a good and kind person — not being an asshole — just isn’t enough anymore. It was never enough, really. We need to actually do good and kind things. We need to stand up to the assholes, and we need to empower our children to stand up as well.
It’s time to reframe our “don’t be an asshole” mindset. It’s not enough to not be an asshole. We need to take care of each other.
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