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Decode Your Child's Split Personality

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."