The dreaded call from school is never good news—it usually means either sick kid or hurt kid or, in rare cases, a trip to the principal’s office. So when I answered a midday call from my daughter’s school, my stomach was uneasy. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher was on the line, “Is now a good time?” she asked. For a moment, I breathed easier thinking she was just calling to discuss the logistics of bringing in my daughter’s birthday treat the following day.
But she wasn’t calling about classroom birthday party logistics. My daughter wasn’t sick or hurt either. Instead, I learned she’d been the cause of two disturbing behavior incidences in one week. The first included a throwing a fit and hurting a classmate’s feelings; the second drew blood and sent her to the principal’s office.
As a mom, especially a mom to a daughter, my mind went into protective mode. Was she just defending herself? Did the other kid start it? Surely, this couldn’t be coming unprovoked from my own sweet child. But after hearing more about what had happened, I learned that she was unequivocally in the wrong. I was so naive to think my kid would never be mean to another child at school.
I was so naive to think my kid would never be mean to another child at school.
As I talked more to her teacher about the incidents, I felt myself drifting into new uncharted parenting territory. Minutes beforehand, I’d been lamenting how quickly time passed and couldn’t believe I would have a 6-year-old the very next day. She’d be a full-blown kid, and I wasn’t prepared for what that meant at this moment.
What to do when your kid is in the wrong
First, I asked her teacher how to make it right with her classmates. We discussed strategies like writing an apology note complete with a picture of the other classmate’s favorite animal (they were only 6, after all). Then, I called my husband. While my first feeling upon hearing what happened was shame, his was anger. Both of us knew this wasn’t a quick fix—it wasn’t something to be solved by less screen time or a time out. This was going to include some tough conversations and daily reminders.
Maybe, beneath the shame and anger, we were also both a little scared because this challenge signaled the start of something else. The early days of keeping our kids fed, clothed, and loved weren’t enough anymore. Our responsibility as parents had shifted to helping them become good people. And maybe, we were failing.
The early days of keeping our kids fed, clothed, and loved weren’t enough anymore. Our responsibility as parents had shifted to helping them become good people. And maybe, we were failing.
Advice from parenting articles swirled through my head—I wondered which one was appropriate:
Treat others the way you want to be treated
Lead with kindness
To have a friend, be a friend
Open the circle
My husband and I decided to focus on what it means to be a good friend. This focus opened our daughter up to talking about the details of the incidents, and we realized the root of her behavior was actually uncertainty and anxiety about her friendships at school. We were relieved to learn we weren’t raising a bully, but it was still hard to work through.
Tips for teaching your child to be a good friend
We checked in with her teacher often and made it through the rest of the year without another call from the school. In the end, it was her teacher that offered us some real-talk wisdom during one of those check-in conversations. “She is still a work-in-progress,” her teacher said. “But we all are.”
My husband and I were still learning too. And I suppose this is what we signed up for when we decided to become parents.
It’s not always going to be easy, and life can’t be lived without learning from mistakes. In hindsight, we realized how lucky we were that this first lesson was at 6, not at 16. Maybe by getting our first test now, with lower stakes, we would lay a foundation for dealing with more difficult issues when the stakes are higher. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children,“Helping children understand their social world and develop ways to meet their emotional and social needs is a critical part of early education.” Here are a few ways we continued to work on being a good friend at home:
Practicing kindness with siblings
I grew up with three brothers, so I remember a rough and tumble childhood. I thought sibling rivalry and physical conflict was just part of growing up. But after the incidents at school, I became more attuned to how my oldest was handling conflict at home. For example, I realized she tended to escalate things quickly and would physically lash out at her younger sister instead of talking to her first. We stepped in more often and encouraged her to talk to her sister before things got physical, and if needed, separate them to give her space to cool down.
Acknowledging their emotions
Especially right after the incidents, my husband and I tried to talk about feelings—a lot—to help encourage empathy. We’d share how we were feeling, acknowledge her feelings, discuss hypotheticals and scenarios we’d read together in books or watched in her favorite shows to relate to her experiences.
Making space for open communication
After we read bedtime stories, my daughter and I always have a few minutes of snuggle time while she’s tucked in bed. It’s one of my favorite parts of the day and when richer conversation usually happens. In these moments, she confessed her fears about first grade, asked “how babies actually get inside moms’ bellies,” and shared other thoughts and questions she never shares when we ask about her day around the kitchen table. Like me, I think she needs time to process and the snuggle feels like a safe space to talk. I hope as she grows we find another safe space to keep our communication open.