A man got on a bus with three children. They must have been about 11, 7, and 5. All of them found seats. The children were noisy and boisterous. They insisted on shouting and jumping around the bus whenever it stopped, heedless of whom they elbowed or whose body they banged against or whose toes they stepped on. After about 5 minutes, everyone on board the bus was disgusted. Two old ladies who were sitting in the seat immediately ahead of the children were bearing the brunt of their misbehavior.
The man accompanying the children seemed lost in some faraway world – unaware of both the children’s unacceptable behavior, and the disapproving looks and muttering of the passengers.
Initially, the old ladies grumbled to each other about the father’s (they assumed he was the father of the children) lack of awareness at how badly his children were conducting themselves. When they found no response from him, they increased their volume, till, during a sudden lull, their penetrating tones were clearly heard by everyone on the bus, “Just look at that man! Can’t he do anything to control those monstrous children of his?”
When the man didn’t twitch a muscle even at this, one of the old ladies tapped him smartly on the arm. He jumped. “Excuse me, Sir. Your children are making a nuisance of themselves. Can’t you do anything to subdue them?” she demanded.
He looked at her a moment. “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. Their mother just died and we’re getting back home from the funeral. They don’t quite know what to make of it all, and I’m wondering how I’m going to raise them all by myself and hold down a job as well.”
“Oh, you poor things!” the lady exclaimed. She immediately turned to the youngest child, inviting him into her lap so he could see better out of the bus, while her friend began looking in her handbag for some candy for the children.
In those few sentences, the mood of sullen resentment and dislike that had hung heavy in the back of the bus dissipated, leaving a feeling of fellowship and caring. The other passengers wanted to pitch in too. In a few minutes, order was restored, with the younger child pointing happily at colored things he could see through the window, and the elder two children engaged in conversations with other passengers.
The father looked at the lady who had tapped him with tears in his eyes. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
The lady found her own eyes wet with tears. “No. Thank you. At my age, I should have known better than to presume I know what is going on. Thank you for reminding me that I don’t. And don’t worry about your children. They are fine kids. They will do you proud.”
Every now and then, your child will go off the rails. Out of the blue, he will behave so ‘badly’ that you wouldn’t believe it unless you’d seen it yourself.
Initially, you grit your teeth and try and ignore it, or bear with it, but after a while, you blow your top too, and then there’s a slanging match between you two or there’s nagging or sullen silences.
The next time, you might want to keep the above anecdote in mind. Something must have happened to make your child behave so uncharacteristically. Why not try and find out what it might be?
See, she’s expecting you to blow up at her, so when you don’t (not when you’re pretending that you’ve got your temper in hand, but when you genuinely can set aside your emotional reaction to her misbehavior and be concerned about what is causing it), she will be astonished.
I was driving some of my daughter’s friends to a party, and after a bit, they forgot about me and began chatting in earnest. One voice rose above the others. “Isn’t he awful? Everybody hates him. We’ve complained to the teachers and they’ve given him a talking-to, but this guy just doesn’t understand!”
Another voice pitched in, “You know, he was even sent to the Principal? He still refuses to get it – he just can’t behave this way!”
“He’s troubling people all the time, disrupts classes and gets us grounded for no fault of ours. We haven’t had PE or Games in a month! Why should we suffer because he can’t control himself?”
“I think they should just send him out of the school – expel him!” said yet somebody else.
I was startled at the universality, vehemence and virulence of feeling against this child.
When we got back home, I asked my daughter who they’d been talking about. “Oh! …, you know. I’ve told you about him – he’s simply incorrigible!”
I knew from this child’s mother that things had not been going well between his parents for the past year or so. I had been expecting some out-of-control behavior from the boy, but I didn’t know that everyone at school had turned against him. I had promised the mother I wouldn’t tell anyone about the situation at their house, yet this child was being vilified beyond belief, made more lonely, with nobody to share in his pain.
Without telling my daughter the details, I said, “He’s going through some problems at home. He’s not getting enough attention, and things are difficult for him right now. Maybe that’s why he’s acting this way. When all of you gang up against him, it probably brings out the worst in him. He might feel, ‘All my ‘friends’ don’t like me anyway, so what do I have to lose by being mean? At least they are all focused on me – I have their attention, even if it is negative.’”
My daughter was adamant, “But this has to stop. I mean, nobody is going to give him a chance unless he changes his ways.”
“Quite the reverse, my dear. He won’t change unless somebody gives him a chance. See what you can do – if you want to do something about it. And you can’t tell anyone anything about his situation at home. I wasn’t supposed to tell you even this, but I did because I know you can keep it to yourself, and so that you can understand that sometimes, when we’re going through difficult times, we all behave a little crazily. And at such times, it’s nice if our friends cut us a little slack.”
“I do want to do something about it – not for his sake, but for our own – we don’t get to do any fun stuff at school now. We’re perpetually grounded!”
The next day, my daughter co-opted a couple of others saying, “We’ve tried scolding him, explaining to him, shouting at him, not talking to him and it hasn’t worked; let’s try being friendly.”
A small group ate lunch with the boy. Not a word was said about missing the 3 ‘fun’ periods of the day because of his shenanigans. They shared their food and made conversation about the latest movies they’d watched, the funny way one teacher spoke, the awesome way another one taught…
As the group continued their friendly ways over the next few days, the group grew larger and the boy calmer. He was always a hell-raiser, but the nastiness had seeped out of him.
An unexpected bonus: I was in the middle of a blistering tirade about someone. I turned to my daughter, looking for understanding. She coolly said, “Well, maybe they were having a bad day.”
Like the old lady on the bus, I said to her: “Thanks for reminding me!” 🙂
Sure, you know your child. But you’d be surprised at how much you don’t know. The child you meet in the evening is not the same child you sent to school in the morning. There has been incredible (truly frightening) amount of growth and learning during the day. It is this evening child who’s misbehaving. And there is a reason for it.
All you need is enough love to look beyond the misbehavior. And if you have enough love, you will know more about him. You will be able to teach him (be honest, aren’t you skipping with joy? You can ‘teach’ him something! 😉 ) that we unwittingly misread people and situations, causing so much grief to others, but most of all to ourselves. You will strengthen your relationship with your child. You will be happier together.
A lesson in happiness! Encore, I say! 🙂