It's the best of times; it's the worst of times, ergo: Kids are awesome; kids are dicks. Just like adults! A kid will hand you half of their brownie to share like some angelic little benevolent sugar fairy, and then snatch it right back from you and lick it. Parents are intimately familiar with this Jekyll and Hyde routine (it's what we signed up for) — but a complete stranger has no such inside track. So how are you supposed to know when a kid is just being a normal kid, and when that kid is an asshole? Allow me to help.
Look, it ain't always easy to call (more on that later!). Even when you have a kid, it takes a while to figure out. With a stranger kid, you don't know their backstory, the hand they were dealt, the parents they were assigned. But nonetheless, although all kids test boundaries at some time or another, most of them still demonstrate a kind of predictably unpredictable behavior all their own that runs on a familiar trifecta of needs: food, exercise, and most importantly: sleep. When those things are taken care of, you certainly can't always guarantee good behavior — not by a long shot, but you can usually control the behavior easier. Big, fat, USUALLY.
When you don't handle those needs, well, look out: As a lawyer-type person I know once said, "Having your sleep fucked with is the insanity defense for kids." That's because sleep deprivation, in my experience, is the numero uno impetus in the trifecta of needs that will turn even the most darling child into a fucking nutbag.
Will a well-rested, well-fed, well-exercised child still be a dick? Absolutely. As this handy list illustrates, the sheer number of things that might make a kid freak out are as random and irrational as the recent defenses of Paula Deen's racism.
And while you could certainly argue that normal child behavior IS being a dick, but that said, there's a difference between highly irritating but normal kid activity, and consistent, repeated, outright Dildo Child behavior. In these latter scenarios, it's about intent and/or violence: The asshole kid is perfectly well fed and rested, but is directing their behavior to innocent strangers, i.e., anyone who is not their caregiver (who should be immediately correcting the behavior).
And what's more, the asshole kid has learned what buttons are being pushed and going for the jugular, which you can usually identify with a smirky, boundary-testing look toward their parents while engaging in said assholery. Plus, they up the ante as parents grow more and more weary/exasperated/provoked.
Sights, Smells, and Sounds
NORMAL: Smells like milk.
ASSHOLE: Pours milk on your head.
NORMAL: Farts freely.
ASSHOLE: Farts in your face.
NORMAL: Yells sometimes when feels they aren't being heard.
ASSHOLE: Yells EVERYTHING THEY EVER SAY THINK OR WANT OUT LOUD AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS ALL THE TIME NO MATTER WHAT.
NORMAL: Briefly argues/whines, attempts to negotiate any verdict he/she is unhappy about.
ASSHOLE: Refuses to stop arguing/whining until worn down parent relents out of sheer exhaustion.
NORMAL: Picks nose, wipes it on self, eats it.
ASSHOLE: Picks nose, wipes it on YOU, laughs.
NORMAL: Cries when he doesn't get a toy.
ASSHOLE: Cries, stomps, grabs toy, smashes it, runs around, screams head off as if being tortured until appeased with new toy.
NORMAL: Pees on self.
ASSHOLE: Pees on self on purpose because you asked him to try to use the potty when he didn't want to.
NORMAL: Kicks chair in front of him until parents successfully stop him.
ASSHOLE: Kicks on chair relentlessly, giggling maniacally, while oblivious parent nearby is completely absorbed in iPhone.
NORMAL: Runs in circles around nearest pole, having a blast (kids LOVE poles).
ASSHOLE: Circles pole while kicking anyone who comes within their radius in the vicinity.
NORMAL: Cries when bored.
ASSHOLE: Throws self on floor in fit of bored rage and hits you when you try to pick them up.
NORMAL: Stares at strangers or anyone who looks obviously different to them.
ASSHOLE: Points, stares, asks out loud repeatedly what is wrong with that person over and over and over and over.
NORMAL: Wants to eat another kid's grapes.
ASSHOLE: Grabs other kid's grapes, throws in sand, stomps, runs off.
NORMAL: Bites child out of anger during a short phase.
ASSHOLE: Terrorizes other children in the vicinity with gleaming chompers poised at the ready.
NORMAL: Cuts in front of other kid to get on the swings.
ASSHOLE: Pushes kid out of the way and charges to the swings, totally oblivious to sobbing child on ground.
NORMAL: Wants to watch cartoons before bed.
ASSHOLE: Requires fucking production of entertainment including but not limited to cartoons, snacks, back rubs before he or she will even discuss bedtime.
NORMAL: Wants to pick out her own clothes.
ASSHOLE: Screams no to every outfit you suggest while throwing each item down one by one on the floor, sobbing.
NORMAL: Throws tantrums sometimes.
ASSHOLE: Throws tantrums every time she doesn't get what she wants.
Yes, I anticipate your responses:
Isn't the parent the asshole here?
Like I said, yeah. Maybe? Probably. But assholes have a tendency to raise little assholes, so even though it's not the child's FAULT, the child is now being an asshole. And that's sad.
But all kids are assholes SOMETIMES, right?
Yeah. Pretty much. You might hear of the occasional kid whose parents claim they never threw tantrums and were model children, and that's likely sometimes real. But having now spent years around other kids as a more observant adult, I can say that certain kids seem to be assholes a lot fucking more often, and after a while you can call it before it even happens. See above.
Isn't it possible some of these kids grappling with developmental disorders and YOU are the asshole?
Maybe? It's hard to say. I find that in general, all you want is a parent to acknowledge they find the behavior inappropriate either by saying or doing something immediately that upholds the social fabric. I also find that in those circumstances — the ones where parents are managing a chronic or recurring behavior that is their normal — that parents do often a lot of damage control. That definitely switches your asshole-o-meter to a compassion-meter. (One genuinely, genuinely hopes.) But it's not always clear, and sometimes your kid is in the line of fire, and what do you do? Your first instinct is to shield your kid from the behavior, first and foremost.
Case in point: I attended a birthday party once where I encountered something I'd never seen before: A baby hater. It was a kid who hated babies. He was probably 5 or 6 years old, and was seated at a table next to children who were 2 or 3. They all ate cake and ice cream together. Then the comments started: He began to complain that it was so gross that he had to sit next to these stupid younger kids who were such messy eaters.
I thought it was funny at first, and then odd. My husband and I exchanged a quick glance, but chalked it up to normal kid behavior — too much sun, too much cake, whatever, kids are dicks sometimes. But it didn't stop.
One of the younger girls eating ice cream coughed, and his tirade picked back up. In full view of all parents involved, the kid started complaining about the germs, how gross she was, how he would probably get sick now because this gross baby coughed near him. The gross baby's mother actually started to talk and I thought she was going to defend her kid, but instead she nervously tried to make a joke, remarking that she could see how it was gross to have someone cough near you, and apologized. The parent of the baby hater made a joke back, but didn't apologize for her son's behavior.
He kept going. Then finally the mother of the baby hater whispered something to the child, he kept eating, I let it go. But then he KEPT GOING AGAIN. This time, he moved onto target other children younger than him. Next it was my daughter: she was eating SO SLOW, because she was a dumb baby. Look how GROSS it was. His mother gently pointed out that she was younger, and hadn't learned to use her hands as fast yet.
But he went on, and my mind reeled to try to figure out what was actually happening: Did everyone know something I didn't? Was everyone here the employee of the mother with the baby hater, afraid to contradict anything or correct the child? Why wasn't the mother removing the child? Why weren't the other mothers correcting him or defending their children? And why wasn't I saying anything at all!?!?
Eventually, after several more comments to the effect of how absolutely DISGUSTING it was for this kid to have to sit near children younger than him — I kept compensating for him in my mind: Was he acting out? Was there a new sibling in his life? Etc. etc. — the mother removed him from the party.
A week or so later, I spoke to the party's host again, and finally had a chance to ask casually what the deal was with the baby hater. She said she thought the kid might be on the spectrum. And that was that. I still am not sure if I should have asked what was up, or simply removed my child. It all happened so fast and was so out of sorts, and everyone reacted so strangely that it made it confusing.
Did it still seem like the kid was being a big jerk? Yeah? I mean, I don't other children should have to be berated, but I had to allow for whatever complex response his mother had to dealing with his behavior as doing what it needed to do. But in the end, it shuts down the asshole ruling, and proves that asshole behavior is still asshole behavior, but as a parent, it's still on you to be better.