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My (Im)perfect Child

It was our first parent-teacher conference, and we were feeling rather smug.

Our older son, Jonah, was then 3 1/2 and halfway through his first year at nursery school. My husband and I came to the meeting with high expectations. After all, this was our Jonah, who'd known all his letters before he was 2 and could count to 20 by 2Ú. In our minds, he was clearly a brilliant and extraordinary child, and we expected his teachers to extol his obvious virtues.

As we sat across from them in our child-size chairs, we waited for the heaps of praise to flow from their lips. Mrs. Briston spoke first. "You know, you might consider sending Jonah to school in elastic-waist pants in order to encourage him to use the potty," she said kindly. "And perhaps you could begin working on his potty skills at home." Then Mrs. Ulferts added that this would also be a good time to set up one-on-one playdates with some of his classmates to encourage social interaction and development.

My husband and I looked at each other. After an awkward moment, I managed to stammer out some lame question about keeping Jonah challenged at school. Of course Jonah's very bright, they responded offhandedly, but this year they were mainly focusing on teaching the children to play and cooperate with one another. Deflated, my husband and I unfolded ourselves from our uncomfortable perches and shuffled out.

That was a shattering moment. Through my rosy mom lens, Jonah was the embodiment of beauty and perfection. To his teachers, he was merely a good kid who needed some friends and underwear.

Like many kids, during his first few years Jonah was exposed almost exclusively to such easy-to-win-over audiences as grandparents and other doting family members, as well as good-hearted strangers in the supermarket. Then the "real world"  -- preschool  -- intruded. Suddenly, Jonah was no longer the focal point of the universe. He was just one of a large group of children, some of whom also knew their letters early.

During Jonah's second year in nursery school, things got worse. As I was dropping him off one day in the fall, his teacher, Mrs. Klok, pulled me aside. She grasped my hand in hers warmly, as if to physically pad the blow, and said, "We'd like to schedule a conference with you and your husband to talk about Jonah."

Apparently, Jonah was hitting. In gym later that morning, in fact, he whacked some innocent kid over the head with a plastic bowling pin. That afternoon, there was a message on my answering machine from the nursery-school director informing me that Jonah had been sent to her office no fewer than three times that day for hitting.

I had to listen to the message twice to be sure I'd heard it right. How could it be that my utterly engaging little boy had morphed into a headstrong bully? There must be some mistake. My first instinct was to justify his actions: He must have been provoked by someone else's little brat. It was self-defense.

"Perfect" Takes Practice

Despite my skepticism, a few days later my husband and I were back in those undersize chairs again. Mrs. Klok began gently: "Jonah has a wonderful, inventive imagination. But certain issues have come up." She described his tendency to retreat into his own little fantasy world and then lash out at those who attempted to burst his bubble.

From her description, it sounded as if Jonah's typical reaction to unwanted attention boiled down to one of two responses: hit or ignore. "If he's being a lion," Mrs. Klok said, "he won't even speak to us unless we're lions too." Well, that's logical, I thought  -- lions don't talk to people, after all.

But later, at home, I asked him why he sometimes hit other children. "Because I'm angry, and I don't want to live on this planet anymore!" he said. "I want to be a spaceman and fly out." Attempting to use all the current pop-psychology terms I'd learned, I launched into my spiel: "We do not hit. Hitting hurts and is not acceptable behavior. If you're angry about something, use words..."

Interrupting, he held up his hand like one of the Supremes singing "Stop! In the Name of Love" and said to me sternly, "Stop your face." I couldn't help it  -- I cracked up, totally destroying my credibility as an authority figure.

We managed to deal with the hitting, and Jonah got over this phase. But as much as I try, I can't seem to see him as a "discipline problem" or a child with "issues." I see him as an imaginative, funny, one-of-a-kind being who is intimidated by no one. And I secretly admire his unfailingly strong sense of himself.

When we were at a barbecue over the summer, Jonah was in the playroom constructing an elaborate train out of blocks. Two 5-year-old boys came over to him and began to criticize his project. "That's not a train," one sneered. "That's not where the driver sits," added the other. "It is the driver," Jonah calmly insisted, then continued working. It took all my strength not to shake the boys by the shoulders and yell, "How dare you? This is a masterpiece!"

Why, I wondered that day, did this bother me so much? I didn't philosophize about it at the time, but considering my wounded responses to the encounters with Jonah's teachers, I now understand that my parental ego was tangled up in Jonah's behavior. I was taking it all personally.

The way the outside world saw Jonah was, I felt, a reflection on my husband and me. Criticism of our son translated into a damning pronouncement of our parenting skills. But this view, I eventually realized, wasn't fair  -- either to us or to Jonah. He is, despite the eternal, invisible umbilical cord, his own little man.

And, I recognize, this lesson is a painful but necessary step on the road to helping Jonah become the kind of human being I want him to be: someone who will consider the feelings of others, who can stand up for himself, who doesn't always need his mommy. But I'm always available to roar like a lion, upon request.

Abby Margolis Newman wrote "The 6 Biggest Parenting Myths," in the September 2002 issue.