Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Problem Child

For boys the line between active and disruptive is thin

Jill remembers the very first time Ben got called to the principal's office. The kindergarteners were standing in line waiting for the bus home when Ben pushed a classmate to the ground. Then he encouraged a few of the other kids to start kicking. The boy wasn't down for long before a teacher, who had witnessed the whole thing, came over to intervene. Ben, the teacher later told Jill, seemed to think it was funny. Jill was horrified.

Ben and his collaborators were sentenced to five hours each of community service around the school during recess: cleaning dry erase boards, packing up balls in the gym. At home, Jill talked to Ben about what it means to act appropriately at school and to be kind to others, and continued to talk to him in the months following. He was a smart boy; he understood, she thought. After all, at home, he was generally well behaved.

And yet, three years later, Ben remains the undisputed class troublemaker. Teachers almost seem to assume that he'll act out. Often, Jill suspects, this is precisely the reason he does. He knows what's expected of him.

During the elementary school years, boys tend to misbehave more than girls, though girls catch up later during adolescence, in other ways. We used to say that boys were more "active," as if to excuse, or at least explain, misbehavior. But the truth is that the line between "active" and "disruptive" is thin, kids aren't particularly skilled at walking it, and disruptive is a problem. Parents of kids like Ben know that once a boy has been labeled a troublemaker at school, it can be very difficult for him to shake the label. Often, that's because he becomes the label; he, like Ben, lives up to the expectations other have laid out for him.

It's not easy for parents to admit their son is the one causing trouble, and can be even harder to reconcile when the child is well behaved at home. It's a natural impulse to defend kids, especially when you didn't actually see what happened, and want to help them argue their way out of trouble -- whether that's after-school detention or a speeding ticket. It's also natural for parents to want to intervene when their troublemaker finds himself an outcast among friends, as many often do. "Many of the boys stopped wanting to play with Ben at recess because it often meant they'd get into trouble, too," remembers Jill. "It was heartbreaking, but in a way I couldn't really blame them. It wasn't untrue."

If your child is the troublemaker, it's important to help set him straight sooner rather than later -- ideally before he gets labeled and before he finds himself losing friends. A few ideas to keep in mind:

Practice tough love (on yourself, too). Be honest with yourself about your son's behavior. Your job is to be his champion, but not his defender when he's behaved inappropriately. If he's the class clown, even if he's not "hurting anyone," you need to acknowledge that, and respect the consequences. Learning to develop the skills needed to be part of a group is a critical part of growing up, and something your son needs to learn. Maybe even the hard way.

Cooperate. The best results come when parents can work with, and not against, teachers. When you argue with the school, his coach, or the staff at the daycare, you're letting your son off the hook. You can support him without letting him avoid the consequences of his actions. The more you help him skirt the issue, the less likely he is to change. And if you do disagree with the way a teacher is handling your child, never discuss it in front of him. That will only further undermine her authority in his eyes. Take your concern directly to the teacher, way out of earshot of your son.

Be specific. When your son acts out at home or in school, don't just tell him what he did wrong. Have him tell you -- and then talk together about why that behavior was unacceptable. Teach him strategies to act better. One way to do this is to present specific scenarios. Set up micro-scenes and have him act out responses: What to do when he's bored in class, angry with a friend, feeling the urge to tell a joke during quiet time. Then remind him of all his positive qualities and point out when he does something right, like helping a friend or making his bed without being asked. Being labeled a troublemaker can be difficult on a child's self-esteem, so remember to give it a gentle boost now and again. If he thinks he only does wrong, he'll continue to do wrong.

Let things go...  If your son is losing friends because of his behavior, don't try to intervene, no matter how difficult it is to watch. Children have the right to decide if they're not comfortable playing with other children. Respect their decision and know that it will be a learning tool for your son, then talk to him about why his friends may be turning away. Learning how to get along with others is an important part of becoming independent, and while you can help him understand what it means to be a good friend, you can't force other children to overlook your son's problematic behavior. In fact, the less you help, the quicker he'll figure it out himself.

... But don't give up. If the pattern continues or gets worse, you may want to consider enlisting the help of your pediatrician or a counselor. Some kids have trouble adjusting to change, at school or at home. But if his behavior has been consistent over months or even years, something may be bothering him that he's unable to articulate.

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Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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