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.
But why be so different?
Think about it: The accommodations that kids make outside of home, away from parents and siblings, are extraordinary. In daycare and school, all kids eat at the same time, all sit in a circle at the same time -- and to fit in, you do what the group does.
"At home, the squeaky wheel gets the grease," says Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. "Outside, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."
Kids become good at this behavioral costume change. Studies say even birth order -- often easy to divine when watching kids in their home environment (bossy + intellectual = firstborn; rebellious + emotional = second-born) -- is hard to pinpoint when observing children outside of it.
Okay, but why must they save their best side for others? Elaine Heffner, psychotherapist, parent educator, and author of Mothering, says parents should be glad that's how it is. It shows that the child feels safe enough to act out at home, she notes, and "that all the good things they're instilling in the child are taking hold. Parents should feel proud."
Meanwhile, look in the mirror: Our own behavior -- as parents, as human beings -- is also environment-sensitive, if more nuanced. We toe one line at work and another at home, for instance. "I see whiny children all the time at my practice, and to get them to cooperate with a procedure, I have an infinite amount of patience," says Felice Heller, M.D., a Hartford, CT, pediatric cardiologist and mother of two girls. "But when I come home, I may have just had it, and I don't quite exhibit the same patience with my own."
Rachel Bachman, a Brooklyn mother of three school-age kids, also points out a "silent conspiracy": She believes we parents at times collude, if unwittingly, to keep our kids acting like kids -- tying their shoes, say, well past the age when they need it. "It keeps alive childhood and dependency on both sides. Who can blame us, given how fast the years go?"
Kids at times seem to feel that way, too. In fact, some of the most emotionally savvy among them toggle between worlds precisely because growth is so disruptive. Lisa Albin, a Brooklyn-based designer of children's furniture and the mother of two girls, ages 6 and 10, says that when her older daughter comes home, "she's happy to play and create this little world with her younger sister: cuddly teddy bears, dolls. Outside the home? She wouldn't be caught dead doing or talking about that kind of stuff."
Who's the real child?
Kids are miniature versions of us. Sure, they have their way of doing things, but we see ourselves in them, and we see how much of us they take in. Their imitative behavior is not just charming but confirmation of where they come from.
So it can be discomfiting when we discover they're not us. "I was never particularly shy," says Randall de Sève, mom of Paulina, 10, and a former Brooklyn elementary school teacher. "So at first I just didn't get that Paulina was. I'll admit that I pushed her. But I've learned to step back. She does things when she's ready and feels secure."
More troubling is the idea that our kids are formed partly, even largely, by imitating "strangers" (friends, TV characters, nonfamily) -- coming home with a slang expression, for instance, or suddenly considering shorts with buttons uncool. It makes us unsure of where the roulette wheel of their developing self will finally stop.
The "real child" may also defy capture because our standards may differ from other caregivers'. Raquel Schaffer of Randolph, NJ, remembers being dismayed when a teacher reported that Schaffer's then 7-year-old daughter was "very quiet, and not very interactive with some of the children. The teacher even used the term 'outsider.' It shocked me. That's not at all what Jennifer is like with me, not what she was like the previous year at school. So I went to class to watch. What I saw was Jennifer as a little worker bee, getting her tasks done so that when playground time came, she felt like she could interact. The teacher saw her just doing her work, not fitting in. I saw why she was doing it."
Perhaps the best way to "get" who our child is: Be comfortable with the idea that everything in her environment -- parents, friends, teachers, cultural flotsam -- is her new amniotic fluid. What matters is not so much who and what contributes, but the results. The light shifts, the tides shift; our children will change as they grow, continuing to reinvent themselves even into adulthood.