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How I Finally Realized That I’m Enabling My 4-Year-Old’s Bad Behavior

Flickr / Graeme Maclean

The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line

He’s not a bad kid. Don’t get me wrong. Our 4-and-a-half-year-old is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Got a sore back or a bruise? Apollo wants to put his sweet lips on it. And he kisses everything: his toys, his shoes, his bike. At his core, he is a good kid.

He just pushes my G.D. buttons.


“Booty butt! Booty butt! Booty butt!”

That was him the other day in the family room – I was in the kitchen putzing around.

Apollooo,” I sang in the same tone I apply every time he gets caught in one of his loops of pseudo-profanity-filled indoor yelling. “We don’t say potty words unless we’re going potty, and we always use our inside voices inside. Thank you.”

“Booty butt!”

“Apollo!” I snarled, now marching into the family room. “Did you hear what I said?!”

“Booty butt.”

I treat everyone as a potential ally in this war we call Life. And I have a hard time saying no.

I admit. I’m probably partly to blame for the weird dynamic that’s developed between us. I have always attracted bullying behavior and bullies. I am a pleaser. I treat everyone as a potential ally in this war we call Life. And I have a hard time saying no.

And my son, who as a child navigates relationships chiefly via instinct, may merely be slipping into the role that I have unintentionally laid out for him.

That of Daddy’s antagonist.

I have been an engaged enough parent over the past couple of years to have picked up a couple of rhetorical tricks. In similar crisis situations, I often channel my wife, who is the polar opposite of me – she does not suffer fools gladly and actually seems to enjoy saying no. Crouching down, I placed my hands on our son’s shoulders, gently but firmly, and I got right up in his business.

“Talking back!” I growled. “Is not okay! Do you understand?!”

And, as with previous battles, and certainly with future ones, there were tiny tears, and then there was peace. And there is always peace until the next time he disses me.

(Please don’t bring up spanking. All kids learn from violence is that it’s a potential acceptable solution to problems large and small.)

Being unable to say no made my childhood miserable. From first through probably sixth grade, I always ended up getting called on by either older, bigger kids or smaller, younger, dorkier ones. I rarely got to spend time with the kids around my age whose company I truly enjoyed.

Confrontations? Teachable moments? Stuff that might get in the way of what little me-time I may have? No, thank you.

There I was, too young to be taught fractions or cursive writing but old enough in Bobby D’Amico’s eyes to listen to his colorful, in-depth descriptions of the texture, shape, and scent of female genitalia. (Mind? Blown.) There I was, about to be a high school freshman, trying to convince Jimmy Visconti that the Hulk would whoop Superman’s ass in a fight (the Hulk is, like a wild animal, uninhibited) when all I wanted to do was either talk about female genitalia or be awkward in the general vicinity of some. I just couldn’t say no.

And I still can’t. Hanging out with the wrong crowd isn’t the problem now. (I simply don’t hang out anymore. Problem? Solved.) What I’m not saying no to in adulthood is laziness.

I work hard, and I try hard, but I am incredibly lazy. Or maybe “lazy” isn’t the right word. How about “entitled”? I just want everything to go as smoothly and easily as possible. Confrontations? Teachable moments? Stuff that might get in the way of what little me-time I may have? No, thank you. Let’s just pretend they’re not happening. These Bud Lights aren’t gonna drink themselves, folks.

Through much contemplation over many domestic macrobrews the other night, I had an epiphany. My wife is right: I don’t follow through. Why should my son believe me when I say talking back is bad or tell him to use his inside voice inside or not to say potty words outside of potty time? I’m the same person who just the other day told him, “I’ll play with you later” but did not, the same person who said, “We’ll go get frozen yogurt this weekend!” but then forgot, the same person who keeps promising the kid’s mother that, yes, I will call the plumber/dentist/therapist this week. And who keeps promising. And promising.

Doing what you say you’re going to do is huge. All our loved ones crave is consistency. The good news, for me, is that it’s not too late to begin following through. Starting with some one-on-one playtime with my son.

Anthony Mariani is Editor of the Fort Worth Weekly.