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Is That My Kid?

At preschool orientation for my then 4-year-old, the principal reviewed policy: safety, pinkeye, naptime, bathroom readiness. During this last point, while several parents looked panicked, my wife and I sat smugly: Sam had long ago been toilet trained. But when the principal noted that, except for emergencies, teachers wouldn't enter the bathroom but rather would wait outside the door, I sought out my son's new teacher. I explained that, while my son was well versed in potty use, "we haven't worked too much on the wiping-by-yourself part, 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. All the kids had to."

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

He looked at me like I'm a sucker who answers to the name Daddy. "Yeah," he said."Then why have you been making me and Mom 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. "I don't know what tantrums you're talking about," the pre-K teacher shrugs. "She's an angel in class."

"No, I had no problem getting him to eat his greens -- I never do," says the babysitter matter-of-factly.

"A little alpha child at day camp?" you ask, incredulous. The same child who uses my leg as a lookout post when we step out into the world?

Cranky vs. Sweet, Bold vs. Shy, Involved vs. Solitary, Leader vs. Follower -- it can be confusing. And it's not unusual for a parent to be left wondering where, in the mixed messages, their real child resides. Some answers to our questions:

Andrew Postman, father of Sam, age 6, and Charlie, age 4, writes for a variety of national magazines.

Do all kids do the Jekyll-Hyde thing?

Pretty much. So stop worrying that your child invented the concept of one personality for Mommy and Daddy, another one for everyone else. It's common for young children to behave differently  -- often dramatically so  -- when away from parents or home, experts say. In a study about children and picky eating, only 1 in 12 kids was picky both at home and school, while 2 ½ times as many were picky in one place but not the other.

Usually, it's the worst behavior that's saved for us alone. "There's just something about Abi seeing me," Connie Walsh, of Wellesley, Massachusetts, says of her 3-year-old. "I step into the toddler room at daycare, where she's been just fine, and she spots me and has a complete meltdown. Suddenly she doesn't want to wear a hat, or she wants the blue hat, not the red one. Her teacher will watch her and say Abi never does that during the day."

Imagine, though, a child who behaves with remarkable sameness all the time. If a child were to behave identically with everybody -- whether family or strangers -- it might be a troubling sign. "Children who have developmental disorders often have much more trouble discriminating between different relationships and tend to be less aware that other people may have other feelings," 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 -- and it begins in infancy, when your baby cries at being plopped into loud Aunt Mary's arms -- it's a sign that she's developing a social sense.

But why do they act different?

Before turning the question on your child, look in the mirror: Do you act the same with your own parents as you do with your colleagues?

It's smart to change gears. It's self-preserving for the little boy with three older siblings to be a loudmouth at the dinner table, and just as self-preserving to behave like an angel when he waits for snacks to be distributed at school, or when he's got the sole attention of Daddy or Mommy.

The accommodations that kids make outside the home and away from parents and siblings are extraordinary.

Life in daycare and school means that all kids eat at the same time, all nap at the same time  -- and to fit in, you do what the group does. Studies show that even birth order -- sometimes 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 the home. The world beyond the nest is a chance to invent new selves.

"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."

Still, we can get frustrated and wonder if this is the way it has to be. "Parents should feel proud of themselves that their kids act better outside the home than in," says Elaine Heffner, psychotherapist, parent educator, and author of Mothering. "They have to realize that their kids are developing autonomy and, little by little, personhood. So a disconnect like this shows that all the good things they're instilling in the child are taking hold."

Our behavior -- as parents, as human beings -- is also environment-sensitive, if more nuanced. We toe one line at work and another at home. "I see whiny and upset children all the time at my practice, and to get them to cooperate for an ultrasound or other procedure, I have an infinite amount of patience," says Felice Heller, M.D., a Hartford, Connecticut-based pediatric cardiologist and mother of two girls, ages 5 and 11. "But when I come home, I may have just had it, and I don't quite exhibit the same patience with my own children."

That doesn't mean that kids can't be primed to behave the way you'd prefer them to in a new setting. Says Randall de Séve, mom of Paulina, 5, and a former Brooklyn elementary school teacher, "I told my daughter, 'I want you to be friendly with the new babysitter and play with her.' Within three seconds of meeting, they were throwing a ball around, which is pretty much out of character for Paulina." Elizabeth Pantley, author of Perfect Parenting: The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips, suggests not only reviewing behavior you want to see prior to getting where you're going, but also, with really young children, role-playing beforehand (serve a formal meal at home -- tablecloth, full silver, napkins, even candles -- and dress up; pretend you're at a nice restaurant, and allow everyone to exaggerate his or her best manners).

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. We tap our spoon against the coffee cup after putting in the sugar; they want to clink, too. 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 a shy kid or a particularly shy adult," says de Séve, "and at first I just didn't get that my Paulina was naturally shy. When she was two, we'd have full conversations at home, but then out in the world she wouldn't answer a question, so I'll admit that I pushed her. But now I've learned to step back. She doesn't thrive on pressure -- she does things when she's ready and feels secure."

At least that's a discovery of who the child truly seems to be. 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 for our child may differ from other caregivers'. Raquel Schaffer, of Randolph, New Jersey, was dismayed when a teacher reported that Schaffer's 7-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was "very quiet, kind of to herself, 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 little worker bee, focusing on 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, siblings, friends, teachers, cultural flotsam -- is her new amniotic fluid. What matters is not so much who and what contributes to this blend of influences, but the results. Says Elyse Schatz, an Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, mom of two and a special-education teacher, "As an educator, I'm happy to see my kids switch gears. That ability to adapt is huge -- not just in school, but in the world. If a kid in a new situation is able to cope without our intervention, great. And if that adaptability doesn't make you glad, then you need to ask yourself what it is you want for your children. Do you want them to be dependent on you?"

The Real Child exists -- but she or he is not a static creature. The light shifts, the tides shift; in the end, the shifting nature of our child's real personality is in fact a marvel of adaptation. And the ultimate compliment to us. Our children will change as they grow, and will continue to reinvent themselves even into adulthood.