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Decode Your Child's Split Personality

When she's not around you, your child may behave in a completely different way (read: more angelic). And, actually, that's a good thing.


Several years ago, at preschool orientation for my then 4-year-old, the principal reviewed policy: safety, naptime, bathroom readiness. During this last point, my wife and I sat smugly: Sam had long ago been toilet trained. But when the principal noted that, except for emergencies, teachers would wait for the kids outside the bathroom, I sought out my son's new teacher. "We haven't worked too much on the wiping-by-yourself part," I explained.

"So if you'll just help a little at first, we'll work hard over the next week and I'm sure he'll get it."

"He already gets it," the teacher said. " We don't wipe anybody here. He did it himself all last year."

Stunned, I confronted Sam as soon as we got home. "So all this time you've been wiping yourself at school?"

He looked at me like I was a sucker who answered to the name Daddy. "Yeah," he said.

"Then why have you been making me and Mommy do it for the past year?"

He shrugged. Because I, um . . . could?

It's happened to you. Not the wiping part, maybe. But a version of it: Some moment when the kid who's being described to you seems radically different from -- even exactly opposite to -- the one you think you've been raising.

"I don't know what tantrums you're talking about," the fifth-grade teacher says. "She's an angel in class." "No, I had no problem getting him to eat his salad -- I never do," shrugs the babysitter. "An alpha child at day camp?" you ask, incredulous. The same boy who won't come out from behind his Nintendo DS when you step out into the world?

Cranky vs. sweet, bold vs. shy, involved vs. solitary -- hearing about one but knowing the other can be confusing for a parent. And it's not unusual to be left wondering, within the mixed messages, who the real child is. We asked experts and moms some of our top questions:

Do all kids do the Jekyll-Hyde thing?

Pretty much, experts say. It's common for young children to behave differently -- often dramatically so -- when away from parents or home. One example: In a study about kids and picky eating, only 1 in 12 was picky both at home and at school, while two and a half times as many were picky in one place but not the other. So stop worrying that your child invented the concept of the split personality.

Unfortunately, it's usually the worst behavior that's saved for us alone. Ed Pilkington's 10-year-old daughter, Tess, for example, is known in the family as "Messy Tessie," but after a recent school outing, a teacher singled her out for her "extraordinary table manners." Likewise, his 12-year-old son was praised as "a gentleman" on his last report card -- which would have shocked his beleaguered younger sisters. The Brooklyn dad consoles himself with something his mother used to say when he acted up: "She said she knew that the worse I acted at home, the better I'd be at school."

Another way to cope: Imagine a child who behaves with remarkable sameness with everyone -- whether family or strangers. It might be a troubling sign. "Children with developmental disorders often have much more trouble discriminating between different relationships," says Elizabeth Feigelson, M.D., a psychiatrist and school consultant in New York City.

So while we might not really know it, we want our child to treat different people differently. When your child starts to do so -- and it begins in infancy -- it's a sign that she's developing a social sense.