Angel at school, devil at home: Why do kids save their worst for us?

Writer Kristin Kalning and her son, Binyam... the little angel.
Writer Kristin Kalning and her son, Binyam... the little angel.Courtesy Kristin Kalning / Today

I was picking my three-year-old son up from preschool when the head teacher approached.

“Binyam is so well behaved,” she raved, helping me buckle him into his car seat. “He stays on task, listens very well and follows directions.”

I stood there, mouth agape, wondering who she was talking about. My son? The one who, just hours ago, resisted all entreaties to get dressed, opting instead to roll around on his bed, giggling like a lunatic? The child who, the night before, lost one of his two bedtime stories  for calling me “poopyhead?”

We’ve all heard that kids “save” their worst behavior for their parents. But is that actually true? Or just something we tell ourselves so we feel less guilty?

Totally true, said Dr. Heather Wittenberg, a Maui-based child psychologist. Young children in preschool or daycare tend to stay on a sort of neutral, energy-saving setting throughout the day, she said. And when they get home, it’s “safe” for them to let loose, unleashing the stress of the day.

“They’re struggling mightily to learn all of these complicated social rules and expectations, and can only hold out for so long,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Young kids also don’t fully grasp the concept of time, so they can’t reassure themselves by counting down the minutes until you arrive. “They just have to wait and wonder,” said Wittenberg. “So it’s easier to bide their time by throwing themselves  into the projects and activities available to them at school, being ‘good’ like they are supposed to.”

Also, they miss you when you’re gone, and yes, they’re mad about it, too – even if their preschool is wonderful or their babysitter is more awesome than Buzz Lightyear. They’re powerless in this instance, and they’re punishing you a little bit, said Wittenberg.

But acting out after pickup isn’t just a toddler phenomenon (as any parent of a ‘tween can attest).  Your first grader may smack his baby brother for the slightest transgression when he comes home from school. Your 13-year-old may transform from a sparkly, social butterfly into a sullen grump within two minutes after getting in the car.

The driving issue, said Wittenberg, is the same: Your child is being plunked into a situation not of their choosing, forced to get along with other kids, their teacher and the mean cafeteria lady. When they get home, “they’re having difficulty transitioning from one social situation to the other,” she explained.

So what should you do when your little one melts down during the “witching hours” between 5 p.m. and bedtime? Or your fifth grader runs amok through the house after school?

With a younger child, it’s understandable to be embarrassed, angry and guilt-ridden when your kid goes ballistic. But it’s better to validate those feelings, maybe sit on the driveway with them for a few minutes and let them know that you understand that it’s hard when you leave. The more your kid feels that you get it, Wittenberg explained, the less they’ll need to prove the point.

Older kids are a little trickier. They need a way to digest their day, but they don’t yet have the skills to do that – which is where you come in. “Allow them to process their day and set limits around it, so they know the boundaries,” said Wittenberg.

For instance, it’s not OK for your wound-up third grader to hassle the dog, but it’s fine for him to grab a snack, change his clothes and run around outside. Not acceptable for your teenager to be disrespectful to you,  but totally OK to chill out in her room with “The Hunger Games.”

Let your kids know, said Wittenberg, that you want to hear about their day, and then “take little trial steps to put words to what you guess might be your kid’s experience,” she suggested.

Of course, trying to get an adolescent to talk about her day can feel like ramming your head into a brick wall. “In the moment you may feel like you’re not making progress, but day after day after day, you’re sending the message that you’re there,” said Wittenberg.

And take heart: Parents get the worst of their kid’s behavior, but they also get the best of it, too. “We get the lows, but we also get the highs. We get the real stuff,” Wittenberg said.