The Parent-Teacher Conference: From Golden Child to Problem Child

We could feel the “buts” coming. “He’s so smart . . . he’s so curious . . . he loves to play . . . “ The praise came without the easy, relaxed enthusiasm we were used to from all previous parent-teacher conferences. I could see the tension pulling behind the gracious smiles.

As much as our daughters test our limits and actively don’t listen to us at home, they have always coasted through every school setting since infancy. The extent of “behavior problem” was a little too much chit-chat with a friend during story time. We have never felt nervous about a parent-teacher conference, no concerns to anticipate, just a nice interaction with the adults who spend the day with them, feeling all warm and proud about what great kids we have.

Then the preschool parent-teacher conference for our son happened. We knew it was going to be a tougher conversation than we were used to, but I was not prepared for how I felt as the mother hearing my preschooler son talked about this way. I have a lot of empathy for teachers – spending all day, every day with a room full of kids of any age deserves compassion.

But when they tell me (or at least, I hear) that my child is the problem child, my compassion and empathy turned to my son.

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“He doesn’t listen.”

“He’s rough on the playground.”

“He can’t be allowed to play with his friend because they are so tough together.”

“He just won’t listen.” (They said that a lot.)

We have struggled with naptime at school for several months. He hasn’t napped at home for a year. The school is not equipped for him to not take a nap, because he won’t lie quietly on his cot while the others sleep. I get it, but this has turned into a power struggle that seems to be having repercussions for the teachers, and for him.

My son cries some mornings about going to school, and says his teachers are “mad” at him. He is 3, and he always appears happy and to be having fun when we pick him up, so we don’t completely take him at his word. But as I listened to the teachers give example after example of their difficulties with him, I realized he is feeling this feedback deeply in his 3-year-old emotional brain.

My husband and I left the conference feeling more empathy for our little guy than I think we ever have. We had this lightbulb moment about what it’s like for him to FEEL like the problem child, probably because we felt a new vulnerability as the parents of a problem child.

As our first boy, he has been different in many ways. He does act out more, he is more physical when angry and frustrated, and more impulsive. But his emotions are the same, and he is a sensitive being, just like both sisters, and just like us.

It has taken us awhile to learn that his amped up behavior does not respond to our amped up response; in fact, it makes it worse. We have learned that when we actually slow down and soften how we speak to him when he’s upset, he can calm down and express himself better. Setting more and more limits – which worked with our other kids – just makes him spiral more. It is very tempting to shift blame to the teachers and focus on what else they could be doing, but deep within us, we know he is hard. We are still figuring it out, and we share his DNA. 

Our son is a huge force in a petite body (we celebrate when he hits the 5th percentile on the growth chart). He mimics Bruno Mars, has a signature "booty-slap" dance move, entertains us with precocious wit, comforts his sisters when they cry, and some days sports an Elsa dress over his Batman pajamas. 

He has very big feelings in a newly developing brain that needs help managing those feelings. He idolizes his father, wants to spend every second with his big sisters, and knows mommy is always there for safety and comfort. His people matter to him, and he wants to matter to his people.

Since being a camp counselor as a teenager, I have always gravitated toward the “problem kids.” I knew there was a light in there that just needed to be switched on or turned up brighter. I knew there was an unexpressed suffering that fed into more problems. I still remember the names and faces of these kids from 25 years ago because they touched me, and motivated me to make a career out of bringing out this light in the darkness of all types of pain. As a mother now, even this hint of my son being misunderstood, or his strengths not fully seen, hurts more than I expected.

Although it was initially hard to hold compassion and empathy for my son and his teachers simultaneously, I know they are doing their best just as we are. What's hard is that as much as I know they care about him, there's no way for them to love him like we do, and understand on a deep level how his sensitivity shows up as defiance. It's hard to know the best path forward: do we keep working on this, or do we chalk it up to "poor fit" and take a gamble in a new environment? I hate when parenting doesn't have answers. 

I am fully aware that my preschool parent-teacher conference is the smallest taste of what many parents manage on a much grander scale, every day. This was almost nothing – for now. To all those parents – just know I see your children, and I see you. And to the teachers – your work is hard and has such impact. Your efforts matter. Your warmth matters. Your words matter. It all matters to these tiny people, and to their parents.

Update: One Year Later.

Our son is now 4.5 and getting ready for Kindergarten (he will be the youngest in his class — read about that dilemma in School Readiness). We just had our most recent parent-teacher conference about him, and it couldn’t have been more different than last year’s experience.

The teachers used words like “leader,” “happy,” “motivated,” and even this sentence: “He has become a positive role model for his classmates and a good helper.” What??

I have TWO WORDS that we should all use as a parenting mantra (especially in these younger years): Child Development. It happens fast, in bursts, and to all kids. I know — I’m a professional in child development, yet it can still blow my mind as a parent.

So, from Golden Child to Problem Child, back to Golden Child again . . . for now.