You Just Got A Text From A Fellow Parent Saying Your Kid Did Something Awful. What Now?
Some practical advice for handling this tricky (read: dreaded) situation.
Over the course of your parenting life, you will likely receive dozens of unpleasant phone and text messages. There’s the familiar “Your child vomited, please retrieve her within the hour”; the dreaded “Ma’am, we have your son here at the precinct”; and a billion curveballs in between (“I’ve decided Yale can wait: I’m going to clown college”). But few messages inspire the same blend of shame and bafflement as those of this ilk: “Hi, this is Joann, Billy’s mom. I thought you should know that your daughter punched Billy in the head today, then threw his lunchbox in the pond.”
If such a text hits your inbox, it’s natural to have one or more of the following thoughts:
My kid? No way. She must have it wrong.
It’s awfully nice to think so, but if someone has taken the time to text you something uncomfortable, it’s likely for a good reason. Almost no one enjoys confrontation. So, try not to get defensive, paper over your child’s actions, or sink into denial.
I’m a bad parent, and now everyone knows it.
This kind of text can be a real gut punch (or maybe a head punch?), not only because you’re horrified by your child’s behavior but also because you feel like you’re somehow in trouble, too. Though you grasp intellectually that you’re not responsible for your child’s every action, it sure feels like you are — or more to the point, it sure feels like other parents (Joann, for example) believe you to be. This incident isn’t just your child’s failing, but yours.
Here's the problem with that line of thinking: It helps nothing and no one, and it distracts you from the real work ahead, which is figuring out why this happened and how to address it. More on that in a sec.
My kid is a bad kid, and now everyone knows it.
As tempting as it is to catastrophize, it too is a waste of your time, and — assuming that this is an uncharacteristic incident — it’s also just plain inaccurate. Every kid, even the most angelic and well-adjusted, does something indefensible at least once. (Don’t you remember pulling off a few dastardly childhood deeds yourself?) It’s part of learning how not to behave.
Obviously, a talk with your child is in order. Not just to get the “real” story or to castigate them for their bad behavior, but to understand why they did it and make clear that unpleasant actions have unpleasant consequences. Ask them straight up: What made you feel this was a good idea? What might be a better approach? How did it feel once you saw that you’d hurt Billy? How would you feel if someone did that to you? Do you understand that your parent(s) are disappointed by this? Or that Billy’s mom was very sad that you hurt her son?
The goal isn’t to shame your child. It’s to tweak their empathy bone, course-correct, and remind them of the kind and goodhearted kid they generally tend to be.
Ugh, what a sanctimonious b*tch.
However reasonable it is for someone to complain that your child hurt theirs, a part of you may be annoyed to hear about it if you sense even a whiff of judgment. (Or even if you don’t: People love to shoot the messenger.) Joann is unhappy with your kid (and, by extension, you), and for some reason, human beings tend to get pissed when people are pissed at them. It’s not dissimilar to how we get annoyed when people disagree with us. Psychologists call this state of mind “attitude correctness,” in which we have the perception that most everyone agrees with us, causing us to assume that we’re right — which makes disagreement feel like a slap in the face. How does this apply here? We know our child is beautiful and wonderful and that their moments of crappy behavior are aberrations — so we assume everyone else knows this, too. Except that Joann doesn’t know your kid; she only knows what she saw go down at the pond. It’s painful and difficult to grasp the uncomfortable fact that, to at least one person, your kid is just a jerk.
If you’re feeling this way, take a breath. Imagine you were in the reverse position. You’d send that text so fast you’d break your fingers typing, yes? You can’t fault Joann for sticking up for her kid—or for expecting you to do what you can to prevent any future head-punchings. You’d likely expect the same. So, when you reply, rise above. Ignore any tone of judgment, even if it irks you. That’s not what’s important now. Instead, say the thing Joann really wants to hear: “Thank you for letting me know. That’s terrible, and I’m so sorry. We will handle this.” For most sane parents, this will be plenty reassuring.
Oh man, not again.
If this isn’t an isolated incident, and you’re getting these kinds of texts on the regular, it’s time to take a different tack. But it’s still not useful to catastrophize. As The Child Mind Institute’s research makes clear, even a bully is not a “bad kid.” In fact, their advice continues, “Many otherwise well-behaved children get involved in bullying.” Why? There are several possible reasons. Because they long to fit in with a group of kids who exhibits bullying behaviors. Because they don’t have a firm grasp on how their hostile actions or words affect their peers. Because their dominant personality type has slipped into unkind territory without them realizing it. Or because they’ve been bullied themselves in the past.
As with the previous scenario, The Child Mind Institute recommends talking with your child about the whys of the situation: “‘Your teacher told me you were involved in some bullying at school. Can you tell me what happened?’ Give your child space to explain what’s going on and how they feel about it.” If your child can’t articulate what’s behind the behavior, it’s well worth getting them in with a child psychologist for further evaluation. They may be dealing with bigger feelings than they, or you, know how to handle.
However you may be feeling upon receiving this information, and however things go down with Joann the next time you see her, here’s what matters: This text, too, shall pass. Your kid will move on from the incident, as will you, and if both your child and you need help to do so, that’s OK.
Someday, you may receive another text like this one. Or you may never receive another. You may have to send one yourself someday. But whatever the future holds, parents need to look out for each other — and even if it doesn’t feel like it, making sure we know how our kids behave when we aren’t around is, at its heart, a supportive act. It can help a lot to try to see it that way.