IT WAS a scene straight from a Liane Moriaty novel. One minute Melbourne mum Sally* was dropping her son off at school, kissing him on the head and telling him to eat all his lunch. Next thing she knew she was being confronted by angry Hipster Dad, a man she barely knew.
“Your son is a bully,” Hipster Dad said, furious.
“He is not,” Sally replied.
The two shared an awkward conversation that ultimately led nowhere. Sally then rushed to her car and burst into tears.
The worst part was, Sally couldn’t say for sure that Hipster Dad was wrong. Her son, Jamie*, was in his first year of school and things weren’t going as smoothly as they had with his big sister. There was that time Jamie wrote the f-word on the classroom whiteboard. And then there was incident when he bit his friend.
The little boy Sally had nurtured and loved and adored was now, well, trouble.
“Jamie was only a few months into his first year of primary school and I began to dread every time my phone ran in case it was the school. I’d be like, ‘What has Jamie done now?’”
This is a scenario Emily McDonald, a Practice Manager at Relationships Australia Victoria (RAV), comes across all too often.
Emily is the kind of woman you sense has seen it all when it comes to parenting. She’s quick to point out there is always a reason for a child misbehaving and there is always a solution. At the same time Emily knows how painful it is for parents to hear that their child isn’t behaving the way you might want them to.
“Parents have to remember that yes, there are some kids who develop consistently, predictably, and they are the easy ones,” Emily says.
“There are many other children, however, who do not develop this way. They might read early but be emotionally immature. Or they might have a big physical growth spurt but struggle cognitively. These kids are more likely to experience behavioural difficulties and that can be tough for parents.”
Tough, Sally reiterates, is an understatement.
Modern-day parenting can be a competitive business, fuelled by insecurity and the secret fear harboured by so many parents that they are not doing a very good job. When you happen to be the parent of a child with a reputation for misbehaving, Sally says it’s difficult not to feel judged.
“Parents can be horrible,” Sally says. “I think it’s human nature for people to compare themselves to others and, I know it’s egocentric, but I couldn’t help but feel that Jamie’s behaviour said something about me as a mother and that other parents were looking at me smugly thinking, ‘my kid would never do that’.”
To make matters worse, Sally felt extra pressure to excel at motherhood. She is a deputy school principal, dealing with a range of little personalities every day. She knew first hand what teacher’s reflexively said about naughty kids, that there must be something going on at home.
“My husband was always telling me not to worry about what other people think about Jamie, that they don’t know him the way we do. But he wasn’t the one sitting with Jamie every morning at school, trying to keep him away from the other kids in case he did something stupid.
“He wasn’t the one having parents approach him saying things about Jamie, or getting phone calls from Jamie’s teacher pointing out yet another negative aspect of Jamie’s behaviour.
“Looking back, I probably took it too personally, I know my husband was right, but it’s easy to lose perspective when it’s your child.”
As Emily says, “I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t worry about their child at some point. But parents should not think that there’s something wrong with them or their child. The best approach is to seek help from the school, a community centre, a professional. Do this early. Don’t wait until things get out of hand.’”
Jamie was never malicious or nasty, but he was prone to swearing and being silly. His teacher disagreed that he was a bully, but Sally felt the stigma.
After two years Jamie’s parents decided to move him to a school with a more traditional structure and stricter boundaries.
“It’s been two years since Jamie moved schools and it’s taken me a long time to let go of those early years. But that fresh start, where Jamie could be himself without all the other stuff, made all the difference.
“Jamie is the kind of kid who needs strict boundaries and he’s thriving now. Just recently he won an award at school for being the best all rounder. He’s really happy and I can feel that our entire household is more relaxed.”
*Names have been changed