My Kid is a Sweet Pain in the Butt

My Kid is a Sweet Pain in the Butt

Dear Sujatha,

My son is in the 6th grade. He is sweet, loyal, really handsome, hilarious, good at heart, but also immature, aggressive, quick to anger, impulsive, manipulative and sometimes he tells lies, though he can also be remarkably truthful! Here’s my problem: yesterday I got a letter from his homeroom teacher. She said he is being disruptive (making rude noises and telling inappropriate jokes to make people laugh and to get attention), that he deliberately does things that could cause minor injury (backing his chair hard into people as they pass behind him, shoving etc.). He’s becoming the class clown in a bad way. This is not the first time I  have had a note from the teacher over the years. I mention that he is exceptionally handsome because honestly I think he gets over with some adults with his beauty. There are many teachers who love him and for whom he will do anything and has no behavior problems. When I say he is truthful even though he will lie, I mean, for example, I’ll ask him about his day and he’ll say everything was great and there were no troubles with the teacher. Then thirty minutes later the email from school comes through. When I confront him, he totally owns it but he always has an excuse. “So and so shoved so and so on the playground, so I backed a chair into him.” “I told this great joke and everyone laughed and the teacher too, but then I told another joke later and the teacher got mad. It’s not my fault he got in a bad mood.” He often seems genuinely perplexed as to why I or his teacher is upset with him. He never thinks anything he’s done is a big deal and he always has an excuse that involves something outside his control. I could give you example after example. If it means anything, we get along great and he’s a happy, wonderful guy even though he can also be a gigantic pain in the ass. Oh, I just reread this and I want to make it clear that he will lie about all sorts of things, not just those kinds that could be explained away by his not really having a bead on the class dynamic.

Frustrated

 

Dear Frustrated,

First let me tell you that I am not at all surprised to hear that your son has a little Jekyll and Hyde going on. We all do, and not a word you wrote is ridiculous to me.

You said your son has had teachers for whom he will do anything. He shows no behavioral problems for these teachers. There is a lot of information in that statement. You get along great with your son he is a wonderful kid even though he can be a pain in the butt. There’s a lot of information in that as well. Here’s what I see: Your son wants what we all want: to be loved the way he is, to be understood, to have high and reasonable expectations placed on him, and to be noticed when he does well.

It is amazing how much wonderful we can pull out of ourselves for a person we feel likes us just the way we are.

So yes, your son might be a little immature and impulsive (banging chairs into classmates) but also with a fundamental sense of fairness (he does these things to people who have  bothered other people). Those are seeds of rudimentary justice and that often grow into a strong sense of ethics. He indeed sounds loyal, but his method of exacting justice is immature, and his reaction to sensing his teacher might not like him is counterproductive.

For some kids, the emotional/behavioral language of school comes effortlessly. But there are lots of kids who don’t navigate the gauntlet of school easily. Your boy isn’t alone there and you’re not the only person getting notes home about a boy you find a happy, wonderful guy despite sometimes being a pain in the backside. ‘He told a joke and everyone laughed and the teacher laughed too but then he told another joke and it fell flat and he got in trouble.’ To tell jokes in class one must be able to simultaneously A. tell when is and isn’t the right time for a joke, and B. quickly and correctly discern the mood of the room, and C. prejudge before opening our mouths what the reaction will be based on the full audience and context for said joke.

Tall order for a boy who is a little immature for his years. But fear not! Your son seems very capable of being a delight to people in authority. This is very good news. The problem seems to be that this school year, he has a teacher who doesn’t find him as charming as he finds himself, or as other teachers before have found him. And he’s over there thinking, “Hello? this joke killed last year! Is this mic on??”

It’s only the beginning of the school year and your son is searching for a narrative he can live with.

Children will go to great lengths to be liked of by someone they admire who sincerely like them. But once they feel they cannot win, they will go to much greater lengths to avoid that shaky, confused feeling of being disliked for something they don’t understand. They will create a problem in the narrative that they can pin the blame on. She doesn’t like me because I made these noises, bumped the chair into his legs, cursed her out. But what she doesn’t tell you is that I did those things to stick up for X. I did this to defend the honor of Y who was so rudely treated earlier by Z. In his own mind then, he has behaved laudably and it is grossly unfair that Mrs. Grumpky called you at all; she doesn’t know the full story: Searching for a narrative he can live with.

Okay so all that is backstory but what can you do about this to make everyone’s year better?  Please keep in mind the metaphor that your boy is writing a narrative he can live with.

 

  1. Get a notebook, a whiteboard, something to take notes that he can look at with you.
  2. Make a numbered list of the problems the teacher brought up on one side of the paper. Tell him these are the things that can’t happen anymore but tell him not to worry. On the other side of the paper you are going to brainstorm what he is going to do instead to get what he wants. 

We often engage in the same behaviors over and over, assuming we are getting the outcomes we desire. Without analysis, we have no way of knowing if our behaviors are effective in achieving our goals.Your son is engaging in some attention seeking behavior, and it’s resulting in his teacher getting frustrated and sending notes home.

I can pretty much guarantee that since this is not the first time it’s happened, that whatever consequences you have employed as “punishment” don’t work, and whatever systems you have used to try to “reward” improvement also have not worked.

But what do we know? We know that when he thinks the teacher loves him, he will  go to great lengths to preserve that relationship. He won’t act out, he won’t cause harm to others, he won’t distract and disrupt class. Why? Because he wants that teacher to keep liking him and because he really likes that teacher. What you do or don’t do has nothing to do with it. Your consequences are irrelevant. Your son is so authentic and so sincere that, in this issue anyway, he is entirely intrinsically driven. And that means that he always wishes his teachers loved him and understood him like that. This is really great stuff.

So you get that notebook and you say, “These are the things you can’t do anymore,” but Mrs. Grumpsky and I have talked and she said she think’s you’re so smart and great and she wishes you liked her better and that she knew what she could do to have a really great relationship with you.”

Obviously, first you talk to Mrs. Grumpsky and ask her what your son could do that would make teaching class so much easier and better, both to teach him and to teach the class at large. Ask her, “What can my son do to make your classroom better and happier?” She will say some things, you likely already know what these things are. You translate those things into specific behaviors for your son. For example:

“Mrs. Grumpsky said that it would help her so much if when you have seen someone hurting someone else on the playground that you let her know that it might be time for a class meeting. She has said that she notices how the children all look to you as a leader in class, but if you try to exact justice yourself, you are setting yourself up to get in trouble because there are rules about hitting and shoving. But if you were to let her know we need a class meeting regarding aggressive behavior, that she could initiate such a forum. Then you would be able to help keep the peace without ever getting in trouble yourself.”

“Mrs. Grumpsky noticed that the kids really look up to you and that you’re sort of a leader in class. She asked if when you see someone doing good you would be sure to let her know. She knows she can trust you to have an eye out for the whole group to see who is trying hard to be a good friend.” 

In helping to negotiate a pro social solution for your boy, you are teaching him how to deal with problems like this maturely, using strategies that will allow him to shine in his teacher’s eyes, and which will allow his teacher to learn to love him better. Once she loves him better, her energy will shift, and once her energy shifts, he will feel it and once he knows she loves him, he will be able to run the gauntlet successfully on his own.

 

 

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