As featured in Huffington Post Parents
We all know the kid. They were in every class we had in school growing up.
They’re in our kids’ classes now.
Pushing kids on the playground. Refusing to listen to the teacher.
Getting sent to the principal’s office.
The bad kid. We always wonder, whose kid is that, and why do they act like that? My kid would never act like that, we think. Until they do.
I have an embarrassing confession to make: that “bad kid” is mine.
Children who act out can be easy to put in a box and to develop stereotypes about. We as a society are often quick to assume the child must be emotionally disturbed or have parents at home who don’t care or don’t try hard enough to teach their kids right from wrong.
Before my almost 5-year-old developed behavior issues in daycare at 3, I was a parent who judged parents of difficult children. “They’re probably the type of parents who let their kids walk around the house with a giant bag of flaming hot cheese puffs,” I’d think. Worse, I’d assume they screamed at their kids at home or ignored them entirely. Maybe even that the parents were physically abusive to their kids.
These were parents who shouldn’t have been, I thought, who fell pregnant and stumbled through dealing with the small humans who resulted from their carelessness.
This wasn’t me. I’d grown up in a loving home with parents who just celebrated 35 years of marriage. Most of my family are teachers. Getting my name on the board for talking once a year was as much trouble as I found myself in. I knew that when I’d have kids, they’d be good students, too. Why wouldn’t they?
My son was the baby everyone hopes they’ll have and few do. He was calm and mellow, sleeping through the night by six weeks old. He hardly fussed.
He blossomed into a bright, loving and active toddler.
When he turned 3, however, and moved into a new class at preschool as he struggled with potty training, his anxieties resulting from the transition surfaced. He became rough with other children and teachers while he struggled to make new friends and feel some control over his life. He began throwing temper tantrums.
My husband and I started to receive phone calls from the teachers when they found themselves unable to calm his tantrums. The preschool didn’t believe in timeouts. Instead, they’d just talk to him about his behavior, which proved ineffective.
As my son made friends and became used to the changing preschool structure, his behavior improved and the sweet, loving boy we knew him to be returned.
Recently, my son started transitional kindergarten, which is a sort of “kindergarten before kindergarten” for kids whose fall birthdays make them just barely too young for kindergarten in my state.
Here at last was the strict structure and behavior consequences I’d been seeking. There were behavior charts and clips that moved up and down them. There were stickers and small toys for good behavior, and timeouts and even principal office visits for bad behavior.
My husband and I walked my smiling son up to his first day of school, baby sister in tow. He was so excited. So were we.
Just days later, the first phone call came from the school.
Your son dropped an “F” bomb and wouldn’t listen to the teacher, they said. He was sent to the principal’s office. Already? We were devastated.
We talked to our son about his behavior. We took away his privileges after school. No TV. No treats after dinner. Still, he acted out. Coming close to bullying other children as he tried to make new friends again. Throwing temper tantrums and chairs as he tried to regain control of something, anything, in his new environment.
Then came the scheduling of a parent-teacher-principal conference. All in the first two weeks of school.
My husband and I showed up for the conference in our work clothes. Ready to listen. Desperate to help our child. Not at all the delinquent parents I’d thought “bad kids” have. The principal told us she found our son’s behavior “very concerning for a 4-year-old.” He was using curse words correctly, she said. He didn’t show any fear of her or the teachers.
Really, he’s a good boy, I told them. He’s just going through a tough time of transition. They looked at me blankly. Disbelieving. He was the bad kid, and they knew it.
At home he generally continued to be the sweet boy we loved. Sure, he could be moody and defiant, but mostly he loved to present his dad and me with his artwork gifts, and snuggle in bed at night as we read stories. He clearly wore his emotions, good or bad, on his sleeve. It was just who he was.
It broke my heart to know the school teachers and administrators thought of my child as the “bad kid,” a label that I knew from having so many teacher relatives could stick with him indefinitely. My precocious, smart, funny, affectionate boy, with his bewitching green eyes, could be forced to wear the “bad kid” label throughout his school years. All because of a rough patch as a young child.
Determined to help our son every way we can, my husband and I set up a system with his transitional kindergarten teacher in which she sends home daily letters on his behavior and we respond accordingly with rewards or punishment. So far, the daily follow up seems to be helping. As does piling on extra hugs and kisses and attention.
My experience with my son’s behavior has taught me that kids can act out for a number of reasons, even with devoted parents who are mortified by their child’s behavior. Even when the child is not seriously emotionally disturbed.
Most importantly, I’ve learned that “bad kids” generally aren’t at all.