Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Was Once a 3rd Grader

I remember being a 3rd grader. I was new to my elementary school, my family moving just before the school year began to a new town (an old town to my parents -- they were born and raised there). I remember having very few friends. Those I did have tended to be the "bad" kids -- I recall vividly the joy I had shocking the little girls by uttering swear words I had learned from my new friends, and the corresponding guilt I felt later. I remember being in trouble at school often due to all this, and because I tended to get into fights with other kids.

I don't remember my teacher's name, or any friends that I had. I don't remember playing with any friends outside of school, either. I remember being a nerd, who did well in school, but struggled socially. I came from a big family, so I mostly just played at home with my siblings.

These memories echo very well what my oldest son seems to be experiencing at school (minus the moving part and the swearing part). He is struggling socially, but is doing well academically. He's been getting into fights and other trouble lately, lies nearly all the time because of it, and generally feels like everybody is out to get him. Indeed, he seems to be an echo of me, especially in all the bad ways.

So, I decided to call my Mom last night to talk about things a little. I asked her a bunch of questions about what I was like as a young kid, such as:

-- Did I lie a lot?
-- Was I an angry child?
-- Was I bossy?
-- When did I start noticing girls?
-- How well did I do in school?
-- Did I get along well with others?
-- Did I have a lot of friends?
-- Did I ever feel lonely as a kid?
-- Did I ever go on play dates?
-- Did I get into fights? How often?

Her answers surprised me, since my memory of those days are fuzzy at best, but after hearing what she had to say, I was shocked because what she said brought memories flooding back to me, and I knew she was right. As it turns out, I was *gasp* normal. Who would've guessed?! I sure didn't remember that.

Turns out I did lie a lot as a child. She says all kids do at that age, but particularly if they are backed into a corner. I was an angry kid, but exhibited that mostly at home, throwing tantrums. However, I was also very aware of public perceptions, so I managed myself well in public. According to my mother, I didn't start noticing girls until I was, like, 15 or something, which she was perfectly happy about.

My grades were always good, but even though I was (and still am) a nerd, I always had friends. She said I never had a lot of friends, but I always had several and would play with them on occasion. She listed them by name! She did confirm that I didn't play with these friends very often, because I did have a large family, but I did do so occasionally. My Dad was listening in the background and said that boys don't need a lot of friends, just one or two good ones. I can only concur with that assessment, as that's what I recall as I entered my teens, too.

I recall getting into fights regularly, but she says I only got into fights a few times, and she only had to come to the principal's office once -- and that wasn't even for a fight, it was because I was climbing the bathroom stalls (don't ask).

My Mom shocked me by mentioning things I did that I didn't know that she knew. She never pressed me about it in my youth, because she knew the truth, even though I would blatantly lie about it. I was shocked by this! Who knew that moms know everything?! I'm gaining an appreciation for that.

So what I learned was that my son and I, while much alike, aren't the same. His propensity for making inappropriate noises, gift for exaggeration, and flippancy about dishonesty are not genetically inherited traits. They are learned behaviors. My wife and I need to understand him better. We need to understand why he feels like everybody is out to get him at school, why he feels like he has no friends, and why he persists in anti-social behavior that drives people away from him.

My wife spoke with his teacher and had the idea that he should visit with the school psychologist (counselor? psychiatrist? whatever). I mentioned this to my Mom, with feelings that doing so would mark him as "the kid who needs mental help" and that he'd come out either blaming all his problems on himself or blaming all his problems on everybody else. She surprised me by suggesting it was a great idea, and even took it one step further by suggesting that if that doesn't help him then maybe we should pursue more professional help, as suggested by his pediatrician.

In any case, what is probably likely is that he is just going through a phase, experiencing an awakening of all his faculties and he's struggling to figure it all out. He's a smart kid, and will always be smart, with a brain that goes a million miles an hour -- he's got to learn to rein that in and use it to his advantage, rather than using it to annoy everybody around him and to cause trouble. Alternatively, it might be that there's truly a bullying situation going on, or worse, at school that he simply can not handle and that we are, as yet, unaware of. The aftermath of the events of a few weeks ago clearly haven't gone away, and he needs some support and adult guidance to get through it.

Regardless, it seems clear that he just needs time to work through this, a supporting environment, and our unconditional love. I'm willing to give him all three.

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