Not too long ago I was with a couple of other mommies and they were trading war stories of instances of their kids being rude and misbehaved. We all have those, right? I certainly do, in spades. But these moms had just met me and didn't yet know our family's rich history of terrible behavior. I was gearing up to add a few of my own tales to the pot when this happened.
This one mom sighs and says of my 5 year old son "Big A is so good. He never misbehaves...you're so lucky."
I am not making this up when I say I almost laughed in her face. I don't mean this figuratively. I mean I literally almost lost control of myself and began going "Hahahahaha!" right up in her grill as I slapped my thigh and tears streamed from my face. I had to settle for biting my lip and grimacing so it sort of looked like I was about to take a really big shit.
Some kids are born wonderful. They're mellow and lovely from the get-go. It's unfair, but true.
Unfortunately, the stork didn't bring me one of those kids.
What the stork brought was a high-strung, emotional and demanding little critter whose looks of pure disgust as an infant caused his aunt to dub him "The Angry Fisherman".
As new parents, my husband and I handled our difficult child the only way we knew how. By always and consistently letting him have his way. Often at the expense of others and our own sanity. I'm not proud of it, but it's true. We were learning. And believe me, we learned. The hard way.
By the time Big A hit pre-school, he was hitting. He was scratching. He was intimidating other kids with his size and taking their toys away. He was screaming AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS when he didn't get his way. He wasn't going to win any prizes for Mr. Congeniality, that was for darn tootin'.
I was mortified. I went around doing damage control, apologizing to the parents of his many victims and generally feeling like an incompetent loser in the game of parenting. But the biggest loser in all this? Big A.
I was unsurprised, but nonetheless heartbroken when I heard one of his classmates, Suki, say to her mother in the parking lot, "Big A destroyed my sand mermaid today. I hate Big A!"
"I don't blame you Suki!" I wanted to yell. "And I'm so sorry about your sand mermaid!"
After many instances of Big A's less-than-charming behavior toward his classmates, we were called in to meet with our pre-school's director (and also his teacher) to get a full accounting of his crimes. I began sobbing like a Real Housewife who's had her Botox taken away. It was a combination of feeling like a failure as a parent, my embarrassment at my son's behavior and my sadness that he was being mean to other children.
"HE'S A BULLY?" I wailed at the top of my lungs.
"No, he's not a bully," the director assured me, "he's only 3 years old."
"Do you think he's going to have...you know...EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS?!!!????" I blew my nose loudly into a tissue as my husband looked pained. "Do you think this means he's ..like...emotionally DISTURBED!??" I sobbed noisily (as I'm sure both teachers were thinking Big A might very well have a genetic propensity for just that very thing.)
"No, I don't," the director assured me. "All it means is this. You and your husband will have to worker harder with him. That's all."
We would have to work harder with him? That's literally the first time it occurred to me. This parenting thing which has brought me unspeakable joy, adorable Christmas photo cards, unlimited snuggles and taught me to love unconditionally and blah, blah...it's work? I did not know that.
My hubby and I went home and discussed. I cried to my mom and my sisters. I berated myself for being such a jellyfish of a mother to the detriment of my child. The blame lay squarely on our shoulders. And though it was humbling, there was some empowerment in that.
We went back to the preschool the next day and said "Okay, clearly we are part of the problem, but the good news is that this means we can also be part of the solution. What do we do?"
Both the pre-school director and the teacher looked flabbergasted. The teacher said that usually parents are defensive. They offer excuses instead of solutions for their child's bad behavior.
Fer serious? we said.
Fer serious, they said.
We talked about providing rewards for good behavior and most importantly, (and most difficult to enforce) consequences for bad behavior. We talked about accountability not just in Big A, but in ourselves in order to get him on the path to righteousness.
As the year went on and Big A's bad behavior got better, I noticed the birthday party invitations came trickling in. He began being asked on play dates. And what's more, he seemed so much happier. He wasn't angry and lashing out all of the time, because he was no longer tasked with the anxiety of having to set his own limits. That's a lot for a little kid.
Big A seemed comforted by knowing what the rules were and by the consistant consequences that would follow breaking them. He knew if he hit another child at school his beloved trains would be in timeout for the rest of the day. He knew if he screamed into the face of a classmate that we would not, in fact, be going over Grandma's for cookies. That deterred him and helped him to control his behavior. And mostly, we talked about feelings. Not his feelings of how unjust it was he couldn't always have his way. But rather, we talked about the feelings of others. How he might feel, for example, if he joined another child to play in the block corner and that other kid shoved him out saying "Go away!"
5 months later, around Valentine's Day Suki's mom mentioned that Suki said she loved Big A and he was her valentine. She also explained that Suki wanted Big A to be her business partner one day in a chicken nugget venture. It was a huge turning point and something I will never forget because it seemed to be a mile marker of his progress. Suki used to hate him, and with good reason.
When I think back on that agonizing pre-school year, I can't believe we got through it. It was SO HARD to always be managing my son's behavior to help him improve. But honestly, what was the other option? We do nothing and let him stampede about the classroom, being mean to other children and turning himself into a miserable and lonely social pariah?
I look back at that time 3 years ago and I wonder what kind of a first grader Big A would be if I had opted out of the hard work of teaching him how to treat others with respect. He surely would not enjoy his wide circle of friends that leaves us with rarely an afternoon where he doesn't have someone to play with. He surely wouldn't be as happy. Because no one would have wanted to spend any time with a tantrum-throwing, hitting, toy-grabbing, shrieking 6 year old.
It's possible, sure, without my husband's and my interference Big A would have worked things out on his own. But knowing the emotional nature of my son, I doubt it. I shudder to think I could have been part of creating such a lonely future for my wayward child.
Because what we've ended up with, in Big A, is a child who is complimented not on being a superior athlete or the best artist or the smartest in his class. What I hear again and again whether it's from parents, his teachers or even occasionally other kids is what a sweet and respectful boy our son is towards others. And knowing how hard his road (our road) has been, no compliment could mean more.
So if you have a kid who's acting like a punk like mine was, please don't give up on him. You can help bring him through that phase...just keep at it!
So, I'm brought back to that day not too long ago when that mom said to me:
"Big A never misbehaves...you're so lucky!"
Of course he misbehaves. Still. And big time. He's a kid.
But after all the tears (both his and mine), doubts and agony we went through with him as a little kid, after all the play dates I had to drag him OUT OF for being mean to another kid (where they were freshly baked scones, mimosas and desperately needed adult convo, might I add), after the many times I wanted to throw in the towel and give him his way, BUT I DIDN'T, I say thank you for such nice praise to my son.
But what I don't say is that if you knew him back in his wild years, you'd know that luck had very little to do with it.