By Tiffany Duncan
I started racking my brain for behavior problems. Certainly Andrew was not the model of exemplary behavior. There were plenty of times when he misbehaved—pushed kids, snatched things, covered his ears and said “blah, blah, blah…” when I talked to him, kicked and screamed his way to the bath, etc. He even confided one day that sometimes he acted like a bully at school. (When I asked him if he enjoyed being a bully, he—I don’t know exactly how truthfully—said, No.)
I knew that in the classroom there was a group of roughhousing older boys. Andrew was attracted to them and longed to be accepted into their group (he was closer in age to them than to most kids in his own group). They were bigger and tougher and made no qualms about showing the younger kids who was in charge. Andrew occasionally reported that this one kicked him, or that one punched him. I have the pictures he drew of them doing that. But he never really complained about them. He actually liked them. Once when I asked how come he didn’t tell the teachers that those boys were rough with him, he said: “But they’re my friends. I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
I kept my ears open but did not interfere, apart from reminding Andrew that if he didn’t like the way those boys treated him he didn’t have to hang out with them. For all their roughhousing antics I thought they were perfectly fine boys. I wasn’t about to teach my son to tell on his friends or run crying to his mom, especially when he voluntarily got into scrapes.
But were there behavior problems we did not know about? The only example I got was that he was “mean” to James. When I apologized about this to James’s mother, she told me that she had explained to James that his words hurt Andrew (“I don’t want to be your friend,” “Neil is my friend, not yours,” that sort of thing) and that made Andrew mad. I was very sorry about my son being rough with another kid but in this particular case I think James’s mother and I saw eye to eye. Our remedy was to try to arrange play dates and generally bide time until the boys got a little older and wiser. We both thought that these kids were going to be together until 8th grade and that there was going to be a lot of time for their friendship to mature.
The daycare teacher spills the beans
By coincidence, a couple of days after the labeling session with one of the head teachers, I ran into one of the day care teachers on a cigarette break outside of school. (I always knew you could trust a smoker!) When I mentioned what the teachers had said about Andrew, she was surprised. She hadn’t noticed any particularly bad behavior. She mentioned the James and Neil conflict of interest and that Andrew sometimes was rough with James. “But James is no angel either,” she said. “We can see that.”
Then casually she added: “From the beginning of the year we decided that since Andrew is older and bigger than the other kids in his group he should have a leadership role.” And what this meant was that bad behavior was going to be “nipped in the bud,” and that for Andrew “it was not going to be three strikes and you’re out, but one strike and you’re out.”
I will always be grateful to this teacher for her honestly crude words—she captured the spirit of Andrew’s treatment. (Incidentally, she is the only teacher of whom Andrew has good memories.) So it turned out that since the beginning of the second year Andrew had been put on strict discipline—to which he had responded very poorly. It was done in the name of making a “leader” out of him. (What next? Military invasion of a country to impose democratic leadership on it?) And again, we had never heard a word of this plan. If we had, perhaps we could have signed an agreement absolving the school from beating leadership into our kid.