A Child Called "It"

A Child Called "It" Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3: Bad Boy


Dave's relationship with his mother drastically changed shortly after this; it began with discipline that spiraled into "a kind of lifestyle that grew out of control" (pg. 21). He notes that it became so bad that he had no strength to fight it.

Dave notes the things about him as a child that may have influenced the way she treated him, including his loud voice and his propensity to get caught during mischief. His mother's own behavior changed rapidly; when his father was away all day at work, she would lie on the couch in her bathroom and watch television, only getting up to go to the bathroom. She started to yell at them, losing her nurturing voice. Dave was able to determine what kind of day he would have based on how she was dressed–when she was put together and wearing makeup, that would be a good day.

Dave's punishments began to evolve. It started with having to sit in a corner of the bedroom, and progressed to the "mirror treatment," in which she would smash his face against the mirror and force him to say he was a bad boy. When their father was away at work, she would have Dave and his brothers search the house for something she lost. These searches continued until Dave was the only one doing them, and she would beat him when he asked what they were looking for. He never found any of the things for which he was supposedly looking.

His father became his protector, because his mother never hurt him around him. She would dress up and relax around him, and Dave would follow him around whenever he was home. One day he left for work, warning Dave to be a "good boy" on his way out. In that moment, Dave knew he was a "bad boy."

He remembers his parents' 3PM "Happy Hour," when they would sit in the kitchen and drink alcohol. They were happy during these times, but the situation soon got worse. His mother would get drunk and beat him for no reason, and he would have to pretend as if nothing had happened. One time it was so bad that she dislocated his arm, and she took him to the doctor, shouting about how he had fallen off the top of his bunk bed. The doctor could tell it was no accident, but Dave was too afraid to speak up.

School was Dave's haven, as he was away from his mother. One day, though, his mother told him he was being held back from the first grade, even though he knew he was doing better than anyone else in his class. As a punishment for this, she banned him from watching television forever. That summer, Dave was inexplicably dropped off at his Aunt Jose's house while the rest of his family went on vacation. He tried to run away from his aunt's house, but it did not work, and his mother punished him with a beating later. She also shoved a bar of soap down his throat, and from that point on he was barred from speaking unless he was spoken to.

That Christmas, he only received a couple of gifts, and none from his immediate family. His mother told his brothers that Santa only brings gifts to good children. His father had bought him two small paint-by-number sets, which made his mother mad, and she yelled at him that she was responsible for disciplining "the boy.” His mother pulled him out of Cub Scouts after getting angry at him one afternoon because she had allegedly seen him playing on the grass during recess, something that her rules forbade.

Things went a step farther when she turned on the stove and held his arms in the flame, telling him, "You've made my life a living hell, now it's time I showed you what hell is like!" (Pg. 28.) She told him to climb on top of the stove, but he kept himself off of it for as long as he could until his brothers got home. He realized that he could use certain tactics to beat her and win, if he wanted to live. He had to think ahead.


The title of this chapter draws attention not to Dave's mother, but rather to Dave himself. "Bad Boy" directly contrasts the "Good Times" title of the previous chapter, but it emphasizes Dave’s own actions. At the beginning of the chapter, Dave searches for explanations about why his mother mistreated him so much, primarily focusing on the things he may have done wrong. This, along with the choice to title the chapter "Bad Boy" rather than "Bad Mom," indicates that at the time, Dave largely blamed himself for the way she treated him.

Aside from the obvious physical aspect, one way in which Dave's mother abuses him is by singling him out and separating him from other people. Before, she treated him and his brothers equally, giving them love the way a mother should. Now, though, she has singled Dave out as the bad one, making the ways she abuses him even worse because he must watch as his brothers are still treated kindly. She distances him from people in other ways, too, such as forbidding him from going back to Cub Scouts and refusing to take him on their family vacation, to the place that had always been Dave's place of happiness and safety. Dave only feels safe when he is at school, surrounded by others—when he is alone with his mother, all hell breaks loose.

Along these same lines, Dave uses his father for protection so that he is not singled out in the same way as when he is alone with his mother. But the time will certainly come when Dave's father must pick a side: protect his son, or support his wife. His warning to Dave to be a "good boy" suggests he is not fully on Dave's side, and that he thinks that Dave is responsible for the way his mother treats him. With this kind of rhetoric coming from his father, the one person Dave thought he could trust, it is no surprise that Dave has begun to blame himself as well.

Dave is dehumanized in this chapter just like he was in the first chapter, this time in the way his mother refers to him as "the boy." By refusing to call her son by his name, she is stripping him of his identity and relegating him to a status below his brothers, below people who are worthy of their names. This theme of dehumanization by stripping Dave of his identity is so important that the title of the book itself reflects it: A Child Called "It."

But the end of this chapter provides a small glimmer of hope when Dave realizes that, as long as he stands his ground and thinks clearly, he can beat his mother. He recognizes that she will not treat him so badly when other people are around, so he uses this knowledge to his advantage by stalling to keep himself off of the stove while he waits for his brothers to come home. This newfound ability to beat his mother at her own sick game in order to stay alive keeps Dave going: without the knowledge that he can use certain tactics to outsmart her, it is doubtful that Dave would have been able to keep going.