Insights from a Military Parent (Part 4): Responding to Misbehavior with Compassion

Insights logoToday we continue our series, “Insights from a Military Parent,” an ongoing discussion in which Rhonda, military spouse and mom of two young boys, responds to questions that arose from her telling of her family’s experience living through two deployments with two young children during our webinar presentation, “Intentional Connection: Establishing Positive Relationships Between Child Care Providers and Military Parents.”

In today’s post, Rhonda talks about the need for child care professionals to be willing to be compassionate and flexible with rules and expectations during times of transition or extra stress in a military child’s life.

Question: During the webinar, you mentioned a couple of situations in which teachers ended up “bending the rules” to accommodate your child’s temporary needs. What would you like providers to know about flexibility and accommodation?

During our first deployment our oldest child was attending private kindergarten because his birthday fell after the cutoff date for public kindergarten. He was four when his father deployed and seemed to be taking it in stride. However, as the months went by he began to show signs of anxiety and stress. Hindsight is 20/20, so at the time I wasn’t seeing his behaviors for what they were.

One of the initial signs of anxiety and stress was taking things. It is hard for me to use the word stealing, but I suppose that is what it was in a sense. It started with things at home. He would take items from my husband’s nightstand or from the home office and hide them in his room. They were usually small things that reminded him of his dad. A watch, a small model airplane, and a measuring tape were just some of the things I found hidden under his pillow or in the toy box.

toy carsThen he would start putting things in his pockets at stores. Small toys, usually die cast cars. The first time I observed this I asked him to hand me the toy, explained that he had to pay for it, and had him put it in the cart with our other items. Then I began noticing that it was becoming a regular occurrence and he was getting better at secreting the items away. Each time we went to the check-out line I would frisk him to make sure he wasn’t carrying a toy out of the store. If he handed it over willingly then I would let him put it on the checkout stand and pay for it. If he didn’t hand it over, it stayed at the store. I suppose that in the back of my mind I knew this was related to his father being away, but with everything else happening in our lives it didn’t make it to the priority list.

Then something happened that brought this behavior into full focus. I decided to pick the boys up early from school and treat them to an early dinner at Chuck-e-Cheese. Because it was earlier in the afternoon I was there when most parents were picking up their children. As we were getting his backpack and jacket from his locker a little girl marched up to us and demanded that my son return her pony. I turned to look for her mother, who was standing a few feet away and asked for clarification about the missing toy. The little girl said, “It is a pink pony and HE took it.” I explained that he didn’t have it and we didn’t have any toys like that at our house. She was adamant and said, “I know he took it. Everyone knows that HE takes things!”

Motherly instincts kicked in on both sides and the little girl’s mother stepped in and said, “Honey, he doesn’t have it. Let’s look at home again.” At this point I had subconsciously positioned myself between my son and his accuser. As they walked away I sat down at the table with him and asked him what she was talking about. As he hung his head I noticed the dark circles under his eyes and the deeply sad expression on his face. I asked him if he had taken toys from other kids and he just sunk lower into his chair. My heart broke for my little boy. We all know how it feels to be rejected by our peers. I hugged him tight and told him to get his stuff. As we walked out I stopped by the Director’s office and asked if we could speak in the morning. She had witnessed part of the confrontation and nodded yes.

The next morning she informed me that, yes, he had been taking things. He had taken toys from the classroom and had taken cars from a few of the little boys. In our household I am the rule follower. I became that way early on in life because no matter how small the infraction, I always got caught. My peers could be engaged in the same activity, but I was the one who was always called out. Funny how those things stick. So, being the rule follower, I took all the school policies and rules to heart. In the handbook it clearly stated that students were not to have toys or playthings from home. Being the rule follower I made sure that both boys were free of contraband before entering the school. Imagine my surprise to find out that OTHER children had these items on them.

Okay, in all fairness, I need to explain that the school also served as an after-school care facility for kids attending the area K-5 school. So, it wasn’t just his classmates that had contraband items, but kids who were in the after school program.  While I was frustrated about the rule breaking, it was my son who was taking things. That had to be the focus of the discussion.  I asked how long this had been happening and was shocked to find out it had been going on for over a month.

During this discussion I was experiencing multiple emotions – frustration that it had not been brought to my attention sooner, compassion for my son who had been labeled a thief by his peers, and shame for not being a better parent. I shared with the Director what had been happening at home and at school. Not being aware of how the stress of deployment can manifest in children, I fell back on my early childhood development knowledge and surmised that this was probably connected to his dad being deployed. I also reflected on what I knew about my son. He, like me, had an overly developed sense of fairness and obedience to the rules. I knew he felt bad about what he was doing; it was obvious from our conversations in the stores. He didn’t want to disappoint anyone, especially authority figures.

As we talked about him and the situation, we came to the conclusion that maybe he needed something to make him feel special while he was at school. The Director agreed to let him bring one toy to school each day. He was to keep it in his backpack during school, but could take it out when the after-school program started in the afternoon. We brought him into the office that afternoon to explain the new rules to him. There was an immediate change in his demeanor. He lifted his head and his eyes widened with what I felt was hope.

son with carThat night he spent hours trying to decide which toy he would take to school. The next morning he was still trying to decide between two of his favorite die cast cars. He finally picked the one he thought was the coolest and put it in his backpack. When we got to his locker I reminded him about the rules and he smiled and nodded his head. That evening he announced that everyone liked his car and thought it was really cool.

As the weeks went by there were no more incidents with stealing. His “security blanket” was all he needed to get through the day. The Director and I touched base weekly regarding his interactions with the other kids and things seemed to be improving. He was still quiet and withdrawn, but I was happy that he was no longer labeled by his peers and had a few regular friends.

Establishing rules is important to creating a safe, equitable, and productive academic environment. As an educator and a parent I support school rules and enforce them at home. However, I also acknowledge that sometimes rules can be bent to allow a student room to grow or improve in certain situations. We were lucky to work with a Director who was willing to make compromises that would be better for the emotional well being of my son. She appreciated how rigorously I was trying to enforce the rules, but she was the one to suggest letting him bring a toy of his own, since the after-school care kids were bringing in things of their own.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, why not just enforce the rule for all the kids? I agree that is the bigger picture in all of this, but what about the small picture? What happens when you punish the entire group because one person is having problems? What is that one person’s story? What would have happened if the approach had been to do bag checks every single day to make sure no toys were coming into the building? Don’t you think other parents would have learned the reason behind it? Might they have talked about it in front of their kids? What would those kids have said to my son? How would he have been treated?

As a rule follower, I had a few moments of apprehension. Would we be teaching my son that it is OK to break the rules if you play the pity card? Will he expect people to make accommodations for him in the future? Yes, I did, and do, worry about these things. However, the Director had the objectivity and experience to know that, in this case, the right thing to do was to bend the rules. And it worked.


Next week’s question: Given what you said about reintegration being a process that can take a while, what advice would you give a teacher/provider who wants to keep that parent involved in ways that are sensitive to his or her adjustment?

Part 1: The Power of Hearing Their Stories 

Part 2: Understanding Parenting Decisions

Part 3: Why I’m Reluctant to Talk to You

Part 5: Adjusting to Home Life after Deployment


This blog post was written by Kathy Reschke, Child Care Leader at Military Families Learning Network.

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