In this weeks edition of Fatherly Advice, an overwhelmed father who got some serious blowback after badmouthing his kids at a party, asks: is it ever okay to call your kids names, even when they’re not around?
I had a really bad week as a Dad. First off, I had a super stressful week at work with a couple of projects due and a boss breathing down my neck. Then, my kids are at the end of the school year and they were just going crazy. My daughter in second grade was basically having a meltdown every night, my baby wasn’t sleeping at all, and my Kindergartner was caught up in all the chaos and just being defiant. I was a hell week for my wife and I but we got a baby sitter on Saturday and went over to some friends for a game night.
While I was there I had some beers and I just started talking about my week and just blowing off some steam, and I called my kids assholes and jerks and was just kind of complaining about all the shit they put me through during the week. And then the wife of one of my friends started telling me that I was the asshole for talking like that about my kids and things got really tense.
The thing is, sometimes I feel like it’s good to get this stuff off your chest. Anyway, my question is, am I the asshole for talking about my kids like this? Is it bad to call your kids names when they are not around? —Jake, via email
Jake, I don’t know you well enough to determine if you are a bonafide asshole or not. That said, based on the context of your question, it would appear to me that you are just a normal Dad. However, I do understand why someone at a party would take umbrage to you blowing off steam. You’re calling little kids names. It’s not the best look, even if the impulse is completely natural.
Parenting is a hard and thankless task. Particularly modern parenting. We are encouraged to give more time and energy to our children than ever before. It’s expected that we are beside them constantly, guiding them, sculpting their little lives. Now, whether or not that’s the best way to raise a kid is debatable. If you ask me, it’s not. Nevertheless, this kind of intensive parenting is considered best practice by people from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds, according to recent studies.
That means that we, as parents, are literally closer to our children than we ever have been. That kind of proximity will naturally expose parents to more of children’s completely normal, but completely obnoxious behavior. Also, that proximity makes us our children’s social foils. Where once kids may have reserved annoying and defiant behaviors for the playground — where much of the social growth once occurred — those behaviors are happening under our noses. Why? Because they are always under our noses and our noses are always in their business.
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So, yeah, when your kids are being assholes (and make no mistake, they can be exactly that), you are going to experience it. Are they being assholes on purpose? No. They are making mistakes and pushing boundaries and figuring out how to live in the world. That sort of clumsy but necessary social education puts them at odds with polite behavior. And it’s stressful. It really is.
The question is how best to deal with that stress. You attempted to deal with it in polite mixed company. That didn’t go well. But let’s say, instead of calling your kids assholes at a party you called them little jerks in a social media post. Would that have been better? Nope. You may not have received the instant backlash, but your acquaintances would have still likely found it off-putting, placing you once more in the asshole corner. Also, those posts can live forever. You have to expect that someday your kid will read that stuff. So maybe keep your poor opinion of your kids on lockdown there, too.
So where can a regular dad get this stress off his chest? Where can he talk about it? I have two options for you. First, find a trusted confidant (probably not your partner) who is willing to commiserate one on one. Take the talk to a pub. Take it to a backyard. Take it to the gym. It doesn’t matter where you talk, as long as it’s in a relaxing atmosphere and your friend is willing to listen without judgment and sympathize. Also, be prepared to return the favor.
If you don’t have a friend like that, then I recommend a therapist or counselor. You might feel like that’s an extreme move just to talk about your kids, but it’s absolutely not. Your kids are a huge part of your life and your feeling about them and your ability to parent them are a huge part of your daily experience. This is the stuff that therapy sessions are made of. And unlike a friend, a trained therapist may be able to give you tools that you can use when the weeks get hard. They can give you ways to deal with stress and find some gratitude when it looks like the world is coming down around your ears.
There’s absolutely no harm in talking about it. Talking about it is good. And I’m not here to police your language, as long as you’re using that language out of your kid’s earshot. However, I will offer you this one caution: Language is powerful. The way we talk about and label our world can change our perception in powerful ways. There is a chance that the more you call your kids assholes, the more it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. You start expecting them to be assholes, and your kids, knowing what you expect start rising to the challenge. It can become a vicious and ugly cycle.
Does that mean your feelings are invalid? Absolutely not. Your feelings are your feelings. You just need to find an appropriate place to talk about them. I hope you find that place, and I hope you have many better weeks to come.