Is My Kid The Asshole?

If you’re a parent, you probably sometimes wonder if you’re doing it wrong. Like when your kid tries to light his sibling on fire and you think, geez, how did I raise such an asshole? In 2020, Melinda started a free Substack newsletter, Is My Kid The Asshole?, that uses science to answer parents’ (sometimes literally) burning questions about obnoxious child behavior, what it means, and what to do about it.  Is My Kid The Asshole? has been featured multiple times in The Week magazine’s Best Parenting Advice.

The goal of Is My Kid The Asshole? is to make life as a parent easier and to provide simple strategies that will keep parents and kids happy and healthy.

If you have a question you’d like addressed in the newsletter, please submit it here.

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Recent posts

Why kids have terrible table manners

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

I know dinner is supposed to be a time for family bonding, but in our house it’s feral chaos. My six-year-old can’t sit on her bottom to save her life, rarely remembers to use utensils, and wipes her hands on her pants instead of her napkin every damned time. Help!

Sincerely,

Kids Are Gross

OK, I’m just going to admit that this question didn’t come from a reader — it came from me. A few weeks ago, I tweeted about my kids’ awful table manners, and I was flooded with responses encouraging me to write something on the topic. So here you go. You’re welcome.

Every night, I’m shocked anew at how hard it is for my kids to consume food in a way that is not wholeheartedly disgusting. But when I did a little digging and spoke with two therapists who work with kids on related issues, I discovered that quite a lot is required for proper meal etiquette — good core strength, shoulder stability, body awareness, and fine motor skills, among other things — and that these are skills that kids don’t often have yet. Read more…

What parents can do to help kids thrive

For today’s #ParentExpertQ&A, I was very excited to interview educational psychologist Michele Borba about her wonderful new book Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. I’ve always felt a connection with Michele, not least because we share the same publisher (Putnam) and the same amazing editor (Michelle Howry). And, when I read Thrivers, I discovered that it shares some themes in common with my book coming out next month, How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes. I asked Michele about her book and some of the surprising insights I learned from it.

What inspired you to write Thrivers?

The number one reason was my dad. All I knew about my dad was that he was a successful human being who was a superintendent and a writer and married my mom. I never knew about his childhood. But there was a moment once when I came home from college and saw him holding up a Newsweek magazine. It had three babies on the cover and said that the first three years make or break a child’s chances of succeeding. And my dad said, “Michelle, don’t buy into this, because I’d be dead today if this was true.” Read more…

Why kids don’t follow directions

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

No matter how hard I try, my kid doesn’t do what I ask. I’ll say, “Hey, when you feed the cat, please put her in the kitchen, and then you can finish vacuuming the den,” and my kid will say “OK.” Then, ten minutes later, the cat has been fed in the wrong room and the vacuum hasn’t been touched. Why can’t my kid follow simple directions?

Sincerely,

Pulling My Hair Out

Dear Pulling My Hair Out,

Just this morning, I told my son to put his socks on three times before he actually did, so I hear you loud and clear on this one. What is it with kids not being able to do what we ask? Are they defying us on purpose? Trying to drive us insane? Read more…

How to be a feminist dad

In this #ParentExpertQ&A, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jordan Shapiro, a senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, whose new book Father Figure: How To Be a Feminist Dad was published two weeks ago. It’s a fascinating book that weaves together philosophy, biology, cultural analysis and feminist theory to help guide fathers down the path of self-reflection and self-intervention. I asked Jordan about the book, its inspiration, and a few of the concepts and patterns it explores.

What inspired you to write Father Figure?

I always wanted to write a book for men, and this was the moment that seemed to make sense for it. As I watched the last few years, not just in the U.S., but but all over the world, what was really clear is that there was sort of a backlash to changing notions of gender — the question of non-binary and trans but also #metoo — making the ways we think about gender no longer stable. What became clear to me was that men who got their sense of identity from patriarchal images didn’t have something to replace it with. I really wanted to say, “Hey, here’s a way to make sense of a different time.” Read more…

Why your kids don’t hear you

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

Help! My kids don’t listen to me. I will literally be five feet away from them and yell their name 18 times before they respond. And if they’re on the iPad or Switch, forget it — nothing gets through. I can’t figure out if they’re ignoring me or just practicing selective hearing. What should I do?

Best,

HELLO?

Hair photo created by karlyukav – www.freepik.com

Dear HELLO?,

I’m so glad you asked this, because my kids’ inability to listen has been driving me bonkers, too. My six-year-old will be doing an art project three feet away from me but act like she’s encased in soundproof glass when I ask her a question. My son and I will be mid-conversation when he’ll suddenly float into ten-year-old la-la-land and stop hearing me. What gives?

To find out, I called up Lori Leibold, director of the Human Auditory Development Lab at the Boys Town National Research Hospital in Nebraska, and Emily Buss, an auditory science researcher at the UNC School of Medicine. Read more…

How to raise kids in a prejudiced world

Welcome to my third #ParentExpertQ&A, this time with U.K. journalist Uju Asika, author of the very important book Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World, which was released in the U.S. last week. Publisher’s Weekly gave her book a Starred review, calling it “a powerful take on an attentive, thoughtful, and anti-racist parenting philosophy.” I highly recommend that all parents read it — it’s beautiful and inspiring — and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Uju for my newsletter.

 

What inspired you to write Bringing Up Race?

The initial push came from a relative and I was quite resistant at first. I didn’t want to write about race, I certainly didn’t see myself as a “race expert” or anything of the sort. However, I’ve come to recognize that a whole lot of my hesitation was what Steven Pressfield would call “Resistance.” In his book The War of Art, he describes Resistance as the unseen force that pushes back whenever you’re about to create something truly valuable. Read more…

How to support your miserable teen

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

In general, right now, things for my teen are looking up: Classes are back in-person, it’s almost the end of the school year, and I hear vaccines are going to be available for adolescents soon. But my teen is still miserable and grumpy, and I don’t know what to do. Help!

Sincerely,

Worn Down

Dear Worn Down,

I honestly cannot imagine parenting a teen right now. But I think it might be worse to be a teen right now. Adolescence is a time when kids are supposed to pull away from their parents and gravitate towards their peers, when they are supposed to assert their independence and develop a sense of identity. Yet the pandemic has made all of these things impossible. Teens are stuck at home with their parents and warned to avoid their peers; they have to follow strict rules that rob them of their friendships and their budding independence.

In other words, the things teens need most are the very things the pandemic is denying them. Read more…

How to protect kids from addiction

Welcome to my second Parent Expert Q&A, which I’m so thrilled is with author and educator Jessica Lahey. You might know her first book, The Gift of Failure, which is exceptional and a New York Times bestseller. On April 6, Jess’s new book, The Addiction Inoculation, went on sale. I read it as soon as I could and I highly, highly recommend it.

Based on the latest science, the book explores in detail what parents can do to protect their kids from addiction — but Jess’s advice will have more broad-reaching benefits, too. Among other things, it will help parents develop open and honest relationships with their children and nurture them in ways that will build their self-efficacy. And lest you think the book is for only parents of tweens and teens, it’s definitely not: The conversations parents have with even young kids can shape their relationships with their bodies and their decision-making skills in long-lasting ways. Read more…

I asked Jess a handful of questions about her book and about how parents should handle substance-related issues with their kids. There’s so, so much more in her book, so I encourage you to check it out!

Why does my kid hit me?

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

Question for you. Is my two-year-old a sadist? Sometimes, if she does something that hurts me, like hit me in the head with a toy, I say “Ouch! Please don’t do that, it hurts!” She then gets the most evil grin on her face and it becomes her MISSION to do the thing that hurts me as much as possible for the rest of the day. What do I do?!

Sincerely,

Bruised

Dear Bruised,

I’ll tell you what to do. Go get yourself an ice pack. And then hold it against your aching head while you read on, because I have good news: Your kid’s antics are not a sign that she’s on the express train to the penitentiary. Little kids hit their parents for so many reasons, and it’s actually quite normal. Read more…

Are American parents doing it wrong?

With this inaugural Parent Expert Q&A, I’m thrilled to have interviewed NPR science journalist Michaeleen Doucleff, the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent, which came out last month. To report the book, Doucleff and her two-year-old daughter, Rosy, spent time in a Maya village in Mexico, an Inuit village above the Arctic circle, and a Hadzabe village in Tanzania to learn how these indigenous cultures parent — and, let’s just say, their approaches couldn’t be more different from how American parents do it. I asked Doucleff more about the techniques she observed and what happened when she tried them out herself. Read more…

 

My kid pretends everything is a gun.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

All my son ever wants to do is play “Superhero Wars.” Everything he finds morphs into a gun. Pew pew pew, you’re dead! It makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t know what to do. Should I make a house rule that gun play isn’t allowed? Is my kid the asshole?

Sincerely,

Pacifist Mom

Dear Pacifist Mom,

This is such a good question, and one I’ve asked myself over the years. (My son is almost ten and he’s still obsessed with Marvel superheroes.) But as much as I dislike violence and the idea of my child ever holding a real gun, I believe, based on the science, that pretend play like this is developmentally appropriate and even beneficial for kids — with a few important caveats. Read more…

When Your Shy Kid Comes Off as a Jerk

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

My kid is shy to the point of seeming terribly rude. When adult friends of mine say “hi”, he flees like a chased squirrel. It’s really embarrassing, and I’m not sure what to do. Help?

Yours,

Mortified Mom

Dear Mortified Mom,

Welcome to the club! My kids used to be so, so shy — to the point of refusing to engage with adults and crying if I nudged them to say hello. Then I had to deal with a screaming child and an offended adult, and, well, that was no fun at all. Read more…

Why Is My Kid So Bossy?

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

My daughter bosses everyone around these days: Me, my husband, her brother, even her friends when she plays with them at the park or online. She’s otherwise quite well-mannered, but it’s like she thinks she’s in charge of everyone. What do I do?

Sincerely,

Pulling Out All of My Hair

Dear Pulling Out All of My Hair,

I’ve received this question from three parents over the past several months, so it’s high time I addressed it. But it hasn’t been easy. Over the past four weeks, I’ve spent waaaaaaaay too much time sifting through the academic literature trying to understand the roots of bossy behavior in children. But as I quickly discovered, “bossiness” is not, in fact, a clinical term. As far as I can tell, nobody studies the ubiquitous behavior that drives parents up the wall — although researchers do study related issues, like peer relationships, temperament and controlling behavior. Read more…

Why Anxiety Can Make Kids Act Like Assholes

I’m going to break with newsletter tradition today and start with a short preamble. It’s been a month. I mean, everything is fine. I’m healthy, my family is healthy, and we are doing pretty damn well for being a year into a pandemic. I’m just a wee bit overstretched, probably because I’m taking on reporting assignments, dealing with book edits, and recently started teaching a graduate class at NYU. Also — although my kids are attending in-person school and I’m oh-so-very-grateful for that — we have only had four full school days in all of February, because winter.

I know I’m not the only one who’s stressed right now. You probably are, too. Heck, I’m even seeing it in my sources. I had grand plans to tackle a particular parenting question here today. I contacted seven researchers over the past two weeks in the hopes of interviewing them (see how dedicated I am to you, dear readers?), and guess how many of those seven had the time to talk to me? Not a one. So…. needless to say I have shelved that particular question for now. Maybe another time.

Instead, I’m going to address an issue that has been on my mind lately, given that so many of us, including our kids, are worried about Covid-19, about school, about friendships, about money, about all the things we have lost out on, about getting all the things done. That issue is anxiety. Anxiety can sometimes make people act like assholes. I know, because I’m often anxious, and so is my nine-year-old. My anxiety sometimes manifests as short-temperedness; when I’m stressed or worried, my fuse gets shorter. My son also gets grumpy and agitated when he loses a sense of control. When his typical schedule gets upended, he becomes more challenging and has more meltdowns, because he’s struggling and has less of an emotional reserve available. When he has to do something new and potentially scary and doesn’t know what to expect, he teeters on edge, too. Read more…

Why kids struggle at bedtime

Dear Is My Kid The Asshole,

My daughter is often an angel during the day, but at bedtime she turns into the devil. She starts bouncing off the walls when she’s supposed to get tucked in, and she refuses to stay in her bed. Help!

Sincerely,

I Am Losing My Mind

Child Crying

Dear I Am Losing My Mind,

I have been there. I think we all have been there. I remember one week that was particularly harrowing: I was eight months pregnant and my husband was out of town for work. Out of the blue, my then three-year-old son, who was normally pretty easy at bedtime, totally lost his shit for a few nights. He refused to stay in his room at lights out; as soon as I closed the door, he opened it and came trotting out. This happened over and over and over again. I remember, at one point, standing outside his room holding the door shut with all my pregnant might while he was on the other side trying to pull it open. If you had seen me, I’m sure you would have laughed. I, on the other hand, was crying. Read more…

Why Screens Turn Kids Into Demons

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

When my kids play video games together or online with their friends, they’re funny and charming and cooperative. But afterwards, they get angry and mean. Why do video games turn my delightful preteens into demons?

Sincerely,

Screens Are Great Until They’re Not

angry screen boy

Dear Screens Are Great Until They’re Not,

I feel you on this one. Santa gave in and got the kids a Nintendo Switch this year. For the most part, it’s been fun. Just Dance 2021 is now my go-to weekend exercise regimen (although I do wish they had disco). And video games sure are a convenient form of pandemic childcare. But I’ve noticed that game-playing sometimes turns my kids into jerks. After they play, they’ll stomp upstairs, yell at everything in their path, and slam their bedroom doors. I’m often left thinking: Why did we — er, Santa — think this was a good idea? Could video games be poisoning my kids’ minds?

To find out, I reached out to doctors, psychologists and media researchers who advise parents on issues related to screens, and the answer I got was a reassuring no. I’m not going to delve into the controversy over the long-term effects of screens (if you want my take, pre-order my new book, which includes a chapter that dissects the science). But I do think that many of the seemingly scary short-term effects of screens on kids get less scary when you take a minute to put them into context. (By the way, if that recent New York Times article on the explosion of kids’ screen time during the pandemic freaked you out, here’s a Twitter thread that might make you feel better.) Read more…

I did all the things to ensure my kids had a nice holiday. Now they’re grumpy and whiny.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

We tried our damnedest to have a decent holiday this year, and I think we mostly pulled it off. And I know we have so much to be thankful for. But now, my kids are moping around the house, listless and complaining and driving me nuts. Come to think of it, I feel pretty down in the dumps too. Is my kid — and am I — the asshole?!

Sincerely,

Scrooge Dad

Dear Scrooge Dad,

Nobody’s the asshole here. Actually, that’s not true. 2020 is the asshole. 2020 has been an obnoxious, despicable asshole.

But no, your kids are not the problem, even if they’re legitimately driving you insane. And I promise, you’re not alone. Remember the Instagram video you saw of your friends’ children politely taking turns opening gifts on Christmas morning? Today, those kids probably threw pancakes at their parents’ heads because they didn’t have enough maple syrup on them. Read more…

Why do my kids turn into monsters over the holidays?

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole:

Why is it that mid-December, every year, my kids morph into psychopaths? This is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, not the most deplorable. And yet, here we are. Help!

Sincerely,

Grinch Mom

Dear Grinch Mom,

As soon as my six-year-old came downstairs this morning, she had a meltdown and locked herself in the basement. So I hear you. I do.

My friends do, too. Yesterday, one of my friends told me that a few years ago, on Christmas eve, her three-year-old decided to re-enact the Wet Bandits portion of Home Alone. “He stopped up a sink and flooded a first-floor bathroom so badly that water was pouring through the basement ceiling,” she recalled. Another friend with three-year-old twin boys (bless her) says that she’s now living a particularly hellish version of Groundhog Day. Each morning, the boys decide that they MUST HAVE something specific and weird — a fuzzy gingerbread man, a Raffi puppet — and they start having tantrums if she doesn’t conjure it within hours. The next day, it happens again but with something else.

Why do our kids lose their minds in December, and what can we do to make it stop? Is this year going to be even more intolerable because of course it is? I have answers. Read more…