My son Boaz, who turns 6 in August, spent the last two weeks of his four-year preschool career beating up kids left and right. He pushed a classmate at a birthday party for reasons unclear. He elbowed a skinny pigtailed girl because she allegedly cut him in line and socked another girl because he thought that she called him the wrong name. He lunged at a boy in the Kidspace Children's Museum after going berserk that he'd lost a tricycle race that wasn't even a race but a timed 4-minute turn around a chalk-drawn track with miniature fluorescent orange cones.
"I lost!" Boaz wailed, hurling his helmet on the ground after a staffer in a green polo shirt asked him to hand over his tricycle to the next kid in line. Fists clenched tight, he stomped off toward Bugsy's Diner, a pint-sized restaurant exhibit featuring insects and arachnids, and pummeled a random kid playing with a plastic plate of fake beetle dung.
The little boy's mom pulled him aside to make sure he wasn't seriously hurt as Boaz continued to box the air, teeth barred, erupting into a panicky chorus of "I lost! I lost!" My husband grabbed hold of him while I apologized profusely, assuring the boy's mom that we've practically made a career out of trips to Boaz's psychiatrist, psychologist, occupational therapist and speech therapist in a combined attempt to understand and manage his aggressive behavior and mercurial outbursts.
"He's got a label of 'emotional disturbance' on his school IEP form," I offered by way of quick explanation, because if I've learned anything in life, it's that parents whose kids your son whacks respond best when you lay all of your kid's challenges out on the table, even if it doesn't make anything any better. It's like when my dogs bark at the postman; I wag a finger and order them to heel, but I know that it's pointless. Eight years of obedience training and nothing has stuck. Still, I've got to do something to prove I'm not one of those lazy, remorseless pet owners. Same goes when you're parenting a kid with anger management issues.
I knew it wasn't my fault that Boaz was going on a hitting rampage, but it was a little my fault because I had him, right? I'm responsible for his behavior. When you decide to have a kid, you're essentially signing up to be somebody's handler. Your kid is the rock star and sometimes he behaves badly and trashes the penthouse suite at the Chateau Marmont. Your job is to clean it up and explain the mess to hotel management and hope they don't slap you with a giant-sized bill and that the incident doesn't land on Page Six.
"He's got poor coping skills, unpredictable mood swings and high anxiety," I further informed the boy's mom, as if this wasn't obvious. "We're really trying hard to sort out all these issues."
The mom was fairly easy-going about the incident and we left the museum. Eventually Boaz calmed down and drank a cup of cold lemonade, and my husband and I did our best to explain that violence was never the appropriate response to feeling frustrated.
"No hitting, no punching, no slapping, no pushing," said my husband.
"No hitting, no punching, no slapping, no pushing," Boaz repeated before asking to watch Pokémon.
The next day we got a call from the director of Boaz's preschool, alerting us to a follow-up incident in which he hit the same kid he'd pushed at the birthday party a few days prior. The boy was now complaining of a headache and the boy's father was on the verge of going "ballistic," which is the exact moment I began to freak out that this scenario might play out like the scene in Roman Polanski's filmic adaptation of Carnage in which Kate Winslet pukes her guts out in Jodie Foster's apartment following a tussle between their two sons that results in Foster's kid getting his teeth knocked out.
I agreed to pick up Boaz at school, not to teach him a lesson (it was pretty clear by this point that he was in a state of personal crisis and punishing him would only make things worse), but to promote a safe environment for his classmates and, mainly, to protect my family from any potential lawsuit (a brief note here: Boaz is no heavyweight contender; he's skinny as a string bean and you can see his ribs when he lifts up his arms to slide out of of his t-shirts).
Turns out the kid wasn't concussed -- he had an ear infection. But, over the next week I fielded three calls from the preschool principal asking me to pick Boaz up from school on account of him hitting, slapping, punching and pushing.
On each of these three days, we had an hour or two to kill before having to return to school and fetch Boaz's little sister, also a student. One day we went shopping at Trader Joe's, another day I let him pick out a plastic pirate sword at the dollar store and on the third day, his psychiatrist ("The talking doctor," we call her) squeezed us in last-minute and Boaz dug through a box of toy car parts in her office and afterwards we went for grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles at his favorite restaurant in Hollywood.
I could have spent this time teaching Boaz that hitting is wrong, but I didn't feel like it. Besides, would it have done any good? An outburst could come at any minute, and I relished our quiet time together. We sat in our green leather booth, the one he always picks because it's next to the little machine that spits out plastic rings and little rubber aliens when you pluck in a quarter. Boaz focused intently on his sandwich, pulling apart the slices of nine-grain rye and licking the melted cheese off the bread.
Two days later at Boaz's preschool commencement ceremony, parents crouched like paparazzi in front of the auditorium stage snapping photos as one by one the graduates -- the girls in tulle skirts and sparkles; the boys in Baby Gap button-downs -- collected their diplomas. Some of the moms sniffled, mourning the passage of time, but all I wanted was for Boaz to make it through the procession without knocking anybody on the ground.
When they called his name and he crossed the stage, my husband and I were on the edge of our seats (literally). The preschool director handed Boaz his diploma and a small blue stuffed teddy bear, and he looked at us. With a bashful smile, he politely shook her hand.