"Sam is doing great," his teacher told us. We beamed. Our first-ever parent-teacher conference. Our first time perching on tiny chairs for what we thought would be a rave review of our fabulous firstborn. "He's a wonderful boy. But you..." she paused. Us? She was grading us? "You people have got to get him here on time."
We shuffled our feet and promised to improve, and a year later found ourselves looking at a kindergarten "report card" that told us that our amazing oldest child was "acceptable" in all areas. I noticed a number at the top of the page: 50. Fifty what? I followed the line over to the left and read it fully. Absences: 2. Tardies: 50.
"They can't know that," my husband, Rob, scoffed. "It's not true. They don't keep track. They're just guessing."
I called Sam over. "Do you have to do anything special," I asked, "when you're late for school?" "Oh, yeah!" he said, with enthusiasm. "You go to the office, and they give you a pass. They know me. They say, 'Hi, Sam!'"
I would like to say that that was a reforming moment, and it was -- for at least a week. Or maybe a day. Well, I'm pretty sure that the next morning we were probably on time. But we fell, as we always did, back into our old patterns. Two years later, Sam's younger brother, Wyatt, who's 3, believes that music class begins when he arrives. His sister Lily, at 4, is happy to arrive for her soccer game 15 minutes late, wearing her shirt backward and clutching a volleyball.
But Sam is 7 now and far less sanguine. "Are we going to be late?" he asks almost every time we leave the house. "We have plenty of time," I tell him, but he goes through the calculations just the same. "What time are we supposed to be there? What time is it? How far is it?" I'm always reassuring. And then, for a variety of reasons -- the dog didn't pee, and I can't put him in his crate until he does, Wyatt did pee, and now he needs new pants -- we are, in fact, late. No matter what he does. It's not that we want to be late, or that we don't feel bad about sending him running across the field to join baseball in progress. It just somehow happens. Because we are late for... everything.
This is the way we are; this is the way we have always been -- or, at least, the way I've always been. Friends order without me. I bring dessert to book group, not appetizers (and never, ever the wine). My husband puts it all down to me, but it's worth noting that he was the person who drove Sam to kindergarten at least half the time. He can take a slow cruise down that river in Egypt if he wants, but when it comes to punctuality, we both have a problem -- and, more important, we're creating a problem: for Sam, who really, really doesn't like being late anymore.
Apparently, I shouldn't be surprised. "By seven, most kids have begun to see themselves in relation to their peers. They don't want to stick out," says Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids and punctual mother of twins. "When they walk in late, literally all eyes are on them. They feel responsible, but, ultimately, you control everything. He wants to do what's right, and you're letting him down."
I don't want to let Sam down. And if that wasn't enough, I'm tired of this myself. I am tired of being stopped for speeding, of having to keep track of which excuses I've made to which friends, of shouting "Run, Sam, run!" when I drop him off instead of kissing him and telling him to have a good day. And this year Sam's new school comes with a new rule: tardy more than twice in a quarter and the parents have to come in for a conference. That may not sound like much of a threat, but I fear there will be shunning. Or that they will make us run the citrus sale. So no kidding around this time. New school year, new start. It's time to change. My goal? Four weeks to a better, more punctual life. Here we go...