Each of us is born into an intricate web of familial patterns unconsciously handed down through generations. Since infancy, I was labeled the “good girl” by my mother, while my older sister was branded the “bad girl.” This began when my mother arrived home from the hospital with me in her arms to find my 13-month-old sister upset, withdrawn, and difficult to comfort. From my mother’s perspective, her older daughter was making her life difficult, while I was an easy baby—not colicky, as my sister had been.
Because the world we see is largely shaped by our own projections, as the days and years passed, my mother continually found evidence confirming her biases, and she treated her daughters accordingly. Certain that my lovability hinged on always behaving perfectly, I grew up in constant fear of falling off my precariously high pedestal into the abyss of rejection, while my sister felt perennially frustrated and deeply hurt by her inability to prove her goodness.
Now, at 60 and 59 respectively, my sister and I are both tackling our entrenched early conditioning. On the challenging journey of repairing childhood wounds that many of us face, the wisdom shared by clinical psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Becky Kennedy is a powerfully transformative and enlightening resource.
The Belief in Essential Goodness
Dr. Becky, as she is known to her millions of followers, believes everyone is good inside—that at our core, all humans are compassionate, loving, and generous. In her best-selling book, Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, she writes, “The principle of internal goodness drives all my work—I hold the belief that kids and parents are good inside, which allows me to be curious about the ‘why’ of their bad behavior.”
Dr. Becky highlights the importance of disentangling who someone is from what they do. Rather than viewing difficult behavior as a confirmation of “internal badness,” she sees acting out as a sign that big emotions have overwhelmed a person’s ability to cope. When we view a child as a “good kid having a hard time” (instead of being mean, out of control, or spoiled, for example), it helps us intervene differently—with kindness, compassion, and curiosity instead of outrage and anger.
According to Dr. Becky, helping children develop emotional regulation skills is an essential job of every parent. Punishing kids when their behavior exhibits a lack of these skills is not only unfair and hurtful, it also leads to shame and shutting down instead of growth and connection. Because the primary way children learn to manage their feelings is through the direct experiences they have with their caregivers, adults often need to grow their own emotional regulation capabilities alongside the children they care for.
The Power of the Most Generous Interpretation
If we want to evolve into our best selves and help our children do the same, Dr. Becky offers a simple but exceptionally powerful tool that immediately broadens our perspective: Seek out the most generous interpretation (the “MGI”) behind every behavior.
“Finding the good inside can often come from asking ourselves one simple question: ‘What is my most generous interpretation of what just happened?’” Dr. Becky not only asks herself this question when it comes to her own children, she also looks for the MGI in her interactions with friends, her husband, and with herself. “Whenever I utter these words, even internally, I notice my body soften and I find myself interacting with people in a way that feels much better.”
Dr. Becky explains that finding the MGI teaches parents to focus on what’s going on inside their child (big feelings, big urges, big sensations) rather than what is going on outside of their child (big words or big actions)—to view behavior as a clue to what a child might need, not as a measure of who they are.
When we shift our orientation inward, we teach our children to do the same. “Self-regulation skills rely on the ability to recognize internal experience,” writes Dr. Becky, “so by focusing on what’s inside rather than what’s outside, we are building in our children the foundation of healthy coping skills.”
Children respond to the version of themselves that parents reflect back to them, and then they act accordingly, which is why Dr. Becky writes, “If we want our kids to have true self-confidence and to feel good about themselves, we need to reflect back to our kids that they are good inside, even as they struggle on the outside.”
Breaking Intergenerational Patterns
There are numerous reasons why finding the MGI can be challenging, especially when we’re triggered. “First,” Dr. Becky writes, “we are evolutionarily wired with a negativity bias, meaning we pay closer attention to what’s difficult with our kids (or with ourselves, our partners, even the world at large) than to what is working well. Second, our experiences of our own childhoods influence how we perceive and respond to our kids’ behavior.”
It is common to respond to children in a similar way to how our own parents responded to us, and many people were raised by parents who led with judgment and criticism instead of curiosity and understanding. Additionally, we can be easily triggered by the specific behaviors that we learned to shut down in ourselves when we were young—such as crying, whining, shyness, or expressing anger or disrespect. This is why Dr. Becky emphasizes that it requires an intentional effort to course correct and not let history keep repeating itself.
In my case, it turns out that when my mother began sorting her daughters into polar opposite roles, she was repeating the same pattern that had shaped her growing up. As the elder of two daughters, my mother had been permanently cast into the role of the “bad” child by her own mother, while her younger sister was held up as the angel of the family.
In Good Inside, Dr. Becky specifically addresses the importance of looking for the MGI of an older child’s behavior when a new baby joins the family. She asks us to contemplate everyone cooing over the baby while telling the older child how happy they must be feeling. What happens, she asks, if the older child begins to have frequent tantrums and yells, “Send my sister back to the hospital. I hate her!”
If a parent is committed to seeking the MGI, it will be easier for them to see that underneath the upsetting outburst is a child in a lot of pain, likely jealous and fearful as they observe so much love and attention being diverted to the new baby. How would that older child feel if they’d been gathered into their parents’ arms and offered an abundance of love, comfort, and reassurance versus being sent to their room after being told that their outburst was mean and totally unacceptable? What lessons would they have learned about feeling and expressing all of their emotions honestly?
Healing the Present by Envisioning a Better Past
Admittedly, we cannot change the past. However, it is healing to imagine how different it would have been for my sister if she’d been fully embraced as the good child she always was from the moment my mother walked through that front door 59 years ago with me in her arms. Doing so both illuminates and invalidates our mother’s negative assumptions that firmly took root so long ago.
Looking back at my mother’s behavior through the lens of the most generous interpretation, I can see that having a “good” and “bad” daughter was the dynamic her nervous system was most familiar with—the one that came so naturally, she never thought to question it. I can feel compassion towards my mother, who has lived her entire life with the great pain of believing she was “bad,” and the unfortunate ramifications of assigning that same label to many of the people in her life.
Whether it’s in relation to a child’s tantrum, a spouse’s emotional outburst, or a grocery clerk’s impatient mannerisms, looking for the most generous interpretation can open our eyes to what we were unable to perceive before. Most importantly, it can help us penetrate the filter of our personal biases and emotional triggers so that we are capable of recognizing another person’s essential goodness. This is an act of profound kindness towards others, as well as ourselves.
“There’s nothing more valuable than learning to find our goodness under our struggles, because this leads to an increased capacity to reflect and change,” writes Dr. Becky. “All good decisions start with feeling secure in ourselves and in our environment, and nothing feels more secure than being recognized for the good people we truly are.”
Explore more of Dr. Becky's wisdom on healing the inner child.