Believing in Children's Goodness

It had been a rough day of parenting, full of challenges to my authority. In the late afternoon my daughter and I were shopping for Halloween costumes. With great excitement she showed me her choice, a white satin robe with gold trim, wings, and a halo. I thought it was cute. But a loud thought in the back of my mind disturbed this lovely moment. I heard myself thinking, "No, honey, you are not an angel anymore."

When the innocence of early childhood begins to fade, it can be a challenge to continue to believe in the goodness of your child. Their growing repertoire of behavior is bound to include new possibilities for premeditated deviousness. Believing in a child's goodness does not mean you expect them never to do wrong. It means you assume that deep inside, they really want to do good. And you trust that they are always doing the best they can, given whatever challenges they may be dealing with. Believing this is a matter of faith. No one can prove that a person, or people in general, are innately good, innately evil, or some mixture of the two. It is up to each of us to decide what we believe. That choice is communicated daily to our children. It is in our tone of voice every time we speak to them.

There is a purely functional reason for believing in your child's goodness. It just so happens that when we treat children as if they were wanting to be good, they tend to strive for goodness much more than if we assume they are regularly plotting out selfish misbehaviors. Our expectations, good or bad, have an important effect on our kids.

I have never been able, however, to believe in something just because it may be expedient. If I am to believe that people are basically good, I need some way to explain the horrible things people often do.

I was challenged with this in my first job as a therapist at a counseling agency for violent men. In one intake interview I met a young man who had already spent six years in prison for beating another man to death with a 2 by 4. I tried to assure myself that he probably wouldn't do that to his counselor. I asked him if he had been abused as a child. He thought not. I asked how he used to get punished. He allowed as how his dad would beat him. "With a belt?" I asked, knowing that practice was common a generation ago. "No, with a 2 by 4," was his reply.

There is a reason for everything we do. And when people do bad things, the reason lies in how they themselves have been hurt. Virginia Satir, the grandmother of family therapy, said "No one who feels good about himself, has any reason to hurt another." She believed in the inherent goodness of human beings. She had confidence that if each person in a family could get what they needed, they would in turn, treat each other with caring and respect. But she also knew how much we have each been hurt

Children are particularly vulnerable to getting hurt or feeling scared. When they misbehave it probably is due to conditions they feel powerless to change in more acceptable ways. Oh how I wish my daughter could articulate the struggles she faces. If she could tell me what is hard for her, then perhaps I could better understand when she disappoints me. This evening she lied. It wasn't a white lie. It was a bald face lie. I wanted to make her see that she shouldn't lie. Instead, I think I made her scared to ever get caught lying. I feel bad about that.

I forgot that she already wants to be honest whenever she feels safe to. I don't have to teach her not to lie. Her inherent goodness already strives for honesty. Instead, when she lies, I can help her by trying to figure out what she is scared of. What is not going right for her? What makes her feel that dishonesty is her only viable option?

The limits to my compassion and my faith in her goodness point me to my feelings about myself. Do I really believe that she is doing the best she can? And do I give myself the same credit?

© 2007, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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