When Your Child Is Well-Behaved At School But A Wild Child At Home

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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A few weeks ago, I timidly walked into parent-teacher conferences, bracing myself for the truth about my 5-year-old son. Images of him the night before, standing on his chair during dinner to do his favorite Fortnite dance flashed across my mind. Or the other day when he tried to cook his own eggs. Or the morning after Halloween when he climbed the pantry shelves trying to reach the candy I had foolishly thought was out of his reach.

What, I wonder, is he like at school?

So I took a deep breath and walked in to meet his teacher. Here. We. Go.

But then his teacher said strange words that I could not comprehend. Words like “quiet” and “well-behaved” and “good listener” came out of her mouth. About my child. The pantry-climbing, chair-dancing, egg-cracking, stove-starting 5-year-old who still can’t be left alone, ever. Who makes me go gray daily. Whose ER bills come in the mail on a consistent rotation.

So naturally my response was, QUIET?! What the fuck? He’s QUIET? He LISTENS to you? (I mean, I didn’t actually drop an f-bomb while sitting in one of those absurdly tiny chairs talking to my child’s kindergarten teacher. But I sure thought it.)

I sat there, dumbfounded, feeling a mix of shock, pride, frustration, and relief as I listened to her describe how wonderful my son was in class.

It’s like he’s a different human between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. every day. I don’t get to see that human (a human I didn’t even even know existed, TBH), and that makes me sad. And jealous. But, after giving it some thought, also grateful.

Because here’s the thing about my little guy. He’s not like his older siblings. They flew through kindergarten without missing a beat. They could stay up late occasionally and not fall apart the next day. They sat, read books, colored pictures, and built Legos at age five. My third child does not. He runs. He jumps. And he doesn’t just run and jump. He runs into things. And jumps off of things. Or from one high thing to another high thing. If he has any free time before or after hockey practice, he’ll spend it playing football or baseball or tag or creating a very unsafe obstacle course. He plays so hard from the minute his eyes open until the minute they close, that I think the structure of kindergarten is actually incredibly challenging for him.

But he does it, every day.

He just makes me pay for it after school, every day.

I’ve thought a lot about this switch between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, between sweet angel cherub and demon spawn, and what that means about me as a parent. Am I a pushover? Do I have no control? Should I be disciplining him more? Using other methods?

And here’s what I’ve come to realize. When that little bundle of energy gets off the bus, he can take a breath. For the first time in hours, he doesn’t have to sit still, hold a pencil, stand in line, wait his turn, think really really hard about which way lowercase D goes, or how to make the number 2. And at that moment of freedom, my other son comes out. The one I get, not the one his teacher gets.

The truth is, my little boy does want to do well in school. He wants to please his teacher and be known as a kind boy who behaves and gets good grades. So he works damn hard to control his energy and make that lowercase D and that number 2. And he’s doing an amazing job and proudly tells me everyday that “the” is spelled “T-H-E, Mommy!”

But after school, his little body and tired mind need a break from rules and structure and routine. He needs the freedom to run, jump, yell, throw things, break things, and eat and drink when he wants.

And as his mom, I have to allow him that.

Sara Bean, M.Ed says on that my child’s behavior is actually quite normal, as home is his safe place, and I am his safe person. Home is “a place where kids typically feel secure showing their ugliest behavior to adults. They know that you’ll still love them and they’ll still get their needs met if they act out. While it’s good for kids to feel loved and secure, that sense of safety also makes tantrums at home more likely,” Bean explains.

Now before all the sancti-parents with perfect children come at me with, “Well, you should be disciplining him at home,” let me tell you that I have. Daily. We’ve tried all the tricks you got up your sleeve, Cathy. And that child has come a long way. He even sat in church last Sunday for an entire 20 minutes before climbing under the pew for the first time. #winning

We’ve gone from biting phases and hitting phases and lying phases to now having a child with endless energy. He listens better now, behaves better now, and understands consequences better now. And he hasn’t bitten anyone in a really long time! Again, #winning.

But no, if I had to describe our daily lives with my dimple-faced, Star Wars and baseball-loving kindergartener, I wouldn’t use the same adjectives as his teacher did. “Quiet?!” Unless we’ve allowed him to zone out on the iPad, no. Good listener? Wellllll… I’ll say “better” listener than he was at age 4. And well-behaved? Compared to his older siblings, I might say no. But compared to where he used to be, yes, for sure.

And do you know what? I’m proud of him. And I’m proud of me. That kid and I have come a long way, through lots of tears and prayers and wondering when in the hell I’d figure out how to parent him. But every night, no matter what kind of day we’ve had, I snuggle up next to him and we talk about who would win in a battle—Darth Vader or the Hulk, or what 5 + 5 is, or how to spell sea (“like where the fish live, Mommy”) and he and I both know we are doing alright.

So no, I don’t expect my kindergartener to follow all the rules and structure his older siblings did at age 5, because frankly, he can’t. His “rule” bucket is all tapped out by 4 p.m. on weekdays. Does he still have to eat his dinner and pick up his toys and say please and thank you and do his math worksheet? Of course. But is he allowed to get out of his chair every couple minutes to move around while he eats his chicken nuggets? And does he get iPad time or run around time every day before bath, even if his room is a mess? He sure does.

It’s my job to recognize each of my children for who they are and identify their needs. My older son likes to play independently, quietly, on the computer, or have his nose in a book. My daughter thrives on pretend play and imagination. My little guy, though, is a story all in his own. He’s not like the other two, but he’s exactly the way he was meant to be.

Also, thank you to his kindergarten teacher for being a miracle worker. I’d give you one million dollars if I could.

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