I heard about your son last week - from other moms whose children were pushed or knocked down by your little boy. I'm sure you are horrified. I'm sure you have always taught your boy to keep his hands to himself and not to push other people. And I'm sure he understands the rules of the school.
And yet, when the phone number on your caller ID is our school's number, your heart sinks. You may find yourself punishing him - because the school and other parents want to know that he is "held accountable" for what he's doing - so that he learns how to behave. And for some reason, people believe that you must not be talking with him or holding him accountable for his behavior. As if!
I've been there. It sucks. You don't know who to be more upset with - your child, your school, other parents, your partner. The stress in your home and your life is palpable. You talk with your son. You talk with the teacher. You apologize to the other parents. You are really agitated.
Call me. Write me. You are not alone.
6 or 7 year old boys are not sociopaths. In fact, a very small percentage of the population are actually sociopaths who enjoy causing other people pain. Your son is not a sociopath. But if you don't figure out what's upsetting him, he may not naturally (or forcefully by you) just figure out how to behave.
All children are born with an innate desire to learn and to please adults (although I'm told this desire reverses, as nature intended, upon reaching puberty). Boys often like to please other boys - and being silly or physical is very entertaining. All children push limits - they are supposed to. But continued incidents convey that your child is communicating with the adults in his life that SOMETHING IS WRONG in his environment.
He knows right from wrong, but he's not able to consider that before he acts.
This is developmentally normal. Just like kids learn to walk and learn to read at different paces, they also develop self-control at different paces. Girls develop it years earlier than boys.
Its worth it to figure out what's exhausting or irritating him at school (and at home if it happens there - in our personal story, it was a school-only behavior problem). There are some good resources our there like 4 goals of misbehavior explaining why your son is doing what he's doing. Some possibilities you might consider exploring:
- He is not inspired by his learning - possibly because he's very bright or the material doesn't speak to him. Hours (or minutes) of frustration while holding it together can lead to "release" when on the playground
- He has a learning difference and he's not keeping up or not hearing directions clearly
- He needs more structure so that he has fewer choices and more opportunity to be successful - many choices and no structure makes many children very anxious
- The classroom (or playground or other environment) is too chaotic and he doesn't know what to expect from moment to moment - which makes him uncomfortable
- He needs adults to supervise and redirect him when he no longer has the energy to make good choices - scaffolding him until he realizes that he can be successful anywhere, anytime
- He has an attention development delay - and he needs more breaks during the day and other support to help him pay attention (be careful on this one - it's incredibly overdiagnosed - check out The Drugging of the American Boy)
- He is lonely. He wants a friend or to fit in. And if there isn't anyone who fits him at his school - find another school
- He needs to know that he is good. He needs to be recognized every time he is good and following the rules - so much so that he realizes he gets 10x more attention when he is good. The results of the Nurtured Heart Approach are compelling and its very logical
Parents who never had a child with a learning or emotional development delay likely don't understand. Justifyably, they are worried about their child's safety. We live in an era where bumps and scrapes (don't even think about black eyes and bloody noses) are causes of great consternation. Wish we didn't but that is our era and our community. You won't get sympathy or support from those parents. But you will from those of us who have traveled this road. And there are a lot of those parents through Parents Education Network (PEN).
The first step is to insist upon A/B/C reports (source: Kansas Institute of Positive Behavior Support) - antecedent, behavior, consequence. For every incident - and it must be completed by an adult who was there. This is about decoding the pattern to figure out what might be triggering your child. Frankly, the school should be collecting and analyzing this data, not you. But it's your child and you are their partner in understanding your son.
From the A/B/C reports you'll likely have an idea of what's happening and can ask the adults to do something to support what you think is the problem. And you certainly can engage a behavioral expert to test and observe for more precise analysis of the situation. We ultimately did that and the answers were simultaneously frustrating and fascinating.
I don't know who you are. I could ask my 1st grade daughter which boy(s) are getting in trouble or having problems...but I don't want to teach her to gossip or pay attention to such things. My boys are in 5th and 7th. They are not perfect and neither is my daughter. They are children and even when they are adults, they will still be works in progress. They take steps forward and fall backwards too. The journey is not easy - but there are teachers and camp counselors and coaches who will be the lights and will bring out the best of your boy. And there are parents who believe everyone develops at their own pace and teaching a child where he is, is best. And that letting kids deal with the consequences of their behavior among themselves is often the fastest way to learn what is acceptable and what isn't.
Good luck. Reach out.
My children use the Kindle, iPad, iPhone, skype, computers and Xbox better than I do and I work in the industry. For years, we have restricted the amount of time they are allowed on a screen – 2 hours per day on the weekend, no time except for schoolwork during the week.
They loose track of time on the machines. They are angry when told that they have to stop using the machines. And they are distraught when machine time is over because they worry that they’ll have nothing to do.
It’s compulsive behavior and when your child hides their usage, lies about it or simply is unhappy unless they are online, it’s scary (although it is not a DSM-5 mental health disorder so I'm not sure "addiction" is the right word and I'm certainly not using it in any clinical/diagnostic type way - just descriptive). For some background on the topic, please see internet addition in teenagers and depression, ADHD and internet addition.
It’s not new – we had video games when we were kids and some people spent hours on them. The difference is that the machines are pervasive today. And a lot of our kids don’t have the judgment and discipline to moderate their use of the devices. Virtually every parent I talk to is struggling with how to manage the pervasive digital onslaught.
My son’s school gave him a MacBook in sixth grade (which is an incredible privledge). And he is distracted by it, constantly. Even if its just switching tabs in Chrome, he’s compelled to do it in the middle of a sentence and loses his train of thought. He races through his work so that he can sneak more time watching YouTube movies of Minecraft and Pokemon. He’s too young for Facebook and we didn’t let him put SnapChat on his phone. He doesn’t write down what he has to do for homework because he can check the computer – and then he doesn’t remember what he reads on the computer and has to check again.
We’re trying to teach him that he needs time to focus and complete his work. We’re trying to figure out how to motivate him to do a good job – not race to get to the finish line so he can do something more entertaining with his computer or phone.
We needed to create times when playing with the computer is simply not an option. One option was to watch him (literally, over his shoulder) do 1-2 hours of homework a night and ensure he isn’t stroking his pleasure cortex with movies or games. Not a sustainable option - so we’ve been implementing tools to help set boundaries that I can slowly loosen as he develops judgment and digital self-control. It may not be what is right for every family, but hopefully this information can help some of you.
First – dealing with the smartphone he used his birthday money to buy.
- We have the password.
- No phone in the car, so that he communicates with the other passengers.
- No phone in his room.
- ParentKit, a subscription iPhone app, lets us control when he can use apps on his phone (or download apps, make in-app purchases, etc.).
- Verizon FamilyBase lets us control when he can text and call – and who he can always text and call. That would be me, my husband and our au pair.
Second – the computer.
- The phone is not used in his room.
- We have the password.
- Skydog, a networking device, will control what URLs he can visit and when. It will also show me what URLs he has visited.
Computers and smartphones are powerful tools and they distract adults with the maturity to better allocate their time. How many times do you realize you’ve wasted 30 minutes or more when you thought it was five? Magnified by the maturity of an adolescent. What tools are working for you?
It was heartbreaking to realize that my son believes, in his core, that many adults see him as a bad kid. Instead of giving up and proving them right, he chooses to argue with these adults to prove them wrong when he perceives he’s being judged.
Curiously, he doesn’t argue vociferously at home. My son knows in his core that his father and I believe he is a good boy. We love his cleverness and celebrate his intensity and athleticism. We recognize his competitiveness and applaud his sportsmanship and leadership. In our home or when one of us is with him, our son believes that he is a good boy and that belief makes him calm(er) and reasonable.
He knows that his best friends’ parents know he’s a good boy and appreciate him. Both at their homes and at ours, he knows he must follow the rules – and he does, because he’s not “fighting for his life”. Same when he’s at my office. He is appropriate with coaches who also believe he’s a good boy.
But when he makes a mistake or is involved (as victim or provocateur) in an incident, our son perceives that other adults in his life judge him as a bad kid. It began at school when a significant learning issue – central auditory processing disorder – went undiagnosed for two years and my son became very disruptive. Teachers predictably became frustrated and he was frequently punished as efforts were attempted to reduce the disruption. His behavior is especially common among boys with this disorder according to Dr. Gerard – Hearing is Behavior.
The teachers who couldn’t manage him became curt and frustrated with my son – conveying, in his mind, that they judge him a bad kid. Every criticism and every question about an interaction became, for my son, a crisis where he has to prove through arguing with the questioning, doubting adult that their judgment of him is wrong. And to him, it felt like his very existence depends on it.
It’s frustrating when a child doesn’t do what he is asked. It’s frustrating when a child seeks attention by disrupting his classmates. The sages teach that we must seek first to understand. Understanding that this boy feels considerable social anxiety because he preceives that adults and peers believe he is bad is the clue to how to adapt the behavior. The teachers who had success with him conveyed they believed he was good. And he strove to be good for them.
Our approach now is mutli-facted:
- Teach our son awareness that he’s reacting and arguing because he thinks someone believes he’s a “bad kid” – and that he needs to simply answer their questions or do what he’s asked – he doesn’t know what someone else believes.
- Encourage and advocate for adults in his life to convey, especially when giving criticism or exploring an incident, that they know he’s a good kid and they want to understand what happened.
- Give him a fresh start with new school, new teachers, new kids – where he can create a new story.
No child should believe he is a bad boy. Sure, he may make bad choices or behave badly at times – and he should be held accountable for those choices and behavior. But to allowing a child to believe they are “bad” is barely short of psychological child abuse. As a community, we need to support each other and our children by seeking first to understand and conveying that we see the image of G-d in everyone – and that image, and that child, is good.
On How to Encourage Your Son to be a Gentleman, author Ken Myers provides six suggestions to teaching your preschooler how to act with good manners.
One of the suggestions is to realize that good manners start with compassion and empathy. Modeling compassion and empathy is critical and very hard. Our kids hear us when we make a comment about another driver. They hear us if we disparage a waiter or waitress. I find myself needing to remember that there are ears everywhere and everything I do is teaching my children. Treating people with respect and managing my own frustrations are among the most important things I can do to teach my sons how to be gentlemen.
But realistically, while I hope my husband and I are the most influential of my childrens' teachers, we are not the only ones. We aren't even the ones with the most time with them during the week. A lot of learning to be a gentleman (or a lady) will come from the expectations of their social circle. Our kids hear other people (kids) make comments about themselves. Elementary school kids experiment with sarcasm and humor. It's not natural to expect that to stop. The question is how to teach your child the impact of their behavior and language while they are constantly exposed to other children doing exactly what I've conveyed (and teachers convey) is unacceptable.
I've begun to believe that there is a role for honor codes. Explicit. Articulated. Discussed. A code describing what is acceptable behavior for a group or class. A code that can provide a framework to discuss changes to the code and behaviors or words that may not fit the code. Honor Codes are visible. They go beyond behavior and into values and principles. The ones I see are about cheating.
This is a good thing - but that doesn't cover what it means to be part of a honorable community.
But they are simple. Done well, they are short, memorable and referenced constantly by students, teachers and parents. I see them in boys schools, military academies - but not frequently in co-ed or public schools. I'd love links to honor codes that are effective - does your school have one?
What do you think - how does the village teach children how to be well-mannered adults?