When Max's kindergarten teacher called early in the school year, I figured it was to regale me with stories about his general delightfulness or to discuss my duties as room parent. As usual, I was more than a little bit wrong.
In an effort to entertain a new group of pals, Max's sense of humor had shifted from charming and semi-silly to downright obnoxious. He refused to sit still at circle time, was overly physical with his mates, and spent a fair amount of time in the hall with authority figures discussing his behavior.
It wouldn't have been so bad had it not come as such a shock. In the five and a half years leading up to kindergarten, our son had been a uniquely trouble-free child. He'd always been energetic, but he was so naturally good-natured and sweet that safety was about the only issue we had to deal with.
And he'd always been a team player. On cleanup Saturdays, he peeled carrots for dinner, tossed laundry down the chute, pulled vines in the yard, whatever it took to lighten the family load. In fact, on his fifth birthday, his favorite gift was a set of pint-size cleaning tools -- broom, mop, dustpan.
But at some point in every child's life, he realizes how small he is, and how big -- and scary -- the world is. Max reached this realization the first day of kindergarten, when he was thrust into his first full-day school experience, complete with a roomful of new faces. His options for dealing with this newfound insecurity were the same as anyone else's: retreat or overcompensate. He chose the latter -- in spades. Maybe he figured there was safety in being the center of attention, even if the attention was negative.
And so the honeymoon ended. Since this was Max's first shot at really being a problem, our solution cupboard was bare. But I knew we had to solve this mysterious new issue pretty quickly.
Raising a child is one of life's most humbling experiences, since it offers the opportunity to be wrong dozens of times each day. Still, my eight years of fatherhood have taught me a few things. For instance, I've learned that patience and benign neglect are often the best responses -- even though my gut reaction may be to treat whatever behavior one of my two kids is going through as an inexorable slide toward juvenile delinquency.
But this time doing nothing wasn't an option. I thought about how to help Max want to behave better at school. The first thing that occurred to me was that his life had been marked by a series of obsessions, from elephants to tools to his current passion: sports. (I admit to greeting his latest choice with greater enthusiasm than the others.) So I started searching for a sports metaphor that Max could use in his new digs.
When I put him to bed that night, I explained that his class was a team, and when he acted out and made the teachers spend time trying to control his behavior, he was hurting the team. I invoked Juan Dixon, then the University of Maryland's star basketball player and Max's personal hero. "It would be as if Juan Dixon threw the ball out of bounds on purpose,"I said. Max didn't say anything right away, but eventually he warmed to the idea of treating kindergarten like a basketball game.
The next morning at breakfast a lightbulb flickered somewhere in my head once more. "What if I drew a basketball on your hand to remind you not to throw the ball out of bounds?" I asked him. This was a wildly popular idea, offering three separate bonuses:
* It would help him be a better team player, which he dearly wanted to be.
* It would allow him to look at a picture of a basketball at any time.
* And it would involve one of his parents' violating a household rule by writing on his body with a marker.
Off he went to school, with his hand marked up and our fingers crossed. When he bounded home that afternoon, I asked him how his day went. "Our team won," he said, with a smile. According to his teacher, the shift in Max's behavior was dramatic. Of course, I had to trot out Juan Dixon a few more times, but luckily it always worked, even if Max's hands were never truly clean.
And now when things go awry -- as they do on a daily basis -- I try to remember the lessons of this peculiarly successful episode: Sit, think, and find a solution that really resonates for my kids.
As parents, we have such a wealth of experts and resources to help us deal with all kinds of issues that we sometimes focus too much on a one-size-fits-all approach. Kids, even really little ones, are individuals, with idiosyncratic sensibilities that often demand idiosyncratic solutions.
Things won't always click for me and my children, as they did in this case. Sometimes even the best, well-executed ideas don't give the results you want. But at least this kind of thinking keeps me in the game.
Jonathan Kronstadt, a dad of two, has written two kids books on sea life.