01/14/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2012

My Kid Is Easier For Other People

I've noticed a suspicious pattern.

My husband and I went away for the weekend recently and left our three-year-old with my mom and aunt -- an amazing, dynamic-duo babysitting team. From the minute we walked out the door until we arrived back, we heard nothing but rosy, idyllic updates from them: "Building sand castles. Slept 'til 8. Huge breakfast!" "Lunch on Main Street. Great day. Nothing but smiles!" Two days later, we came through the door excited, and our little guy jumped into our arms and got busy showing us all the cookie-making, holiday-decorating projects around the house.

And then, a switch flipped. On a trip down to the car, my 35-pounder insisted on being carried. I, very pregnant and already carrying two bags, said no. He let out an enormous whine, stomped his foot, and tucked his little hands on his hips: "Then I'm never gonna be your friend!" When we sat down for lunch, he went into a whine-spiral again and insisted on frosted cookies exclusively.

My mom looked at me, puzzled: "Huh. We haven't heard anything like that all weekend."

But the Jekyll and Hyde didn't surprise me -- I've seen it before. After tuck-in, for example, my son will call my husband and me in for water refills, blanket adjustments, and to share random, after-dark musings like, "Did you know, mama, if I pull the curtains back, I can see airplanes?" Any one of the babysitters in our rotation put him to bed, though, and he's silent and in REM within five minutes. When I pick him up at preschool, the teachers are beaming about the great day he had. We leave all perky and jolly, climb into the car seat, and within minutes a minor mishap, like me unwrapping a fruit roll-up the wrong way, trips an emotional grenade.

It's a fact: My son is easier for other people. Always has been. This alternates between being frustrating (for obvious reasons) and being a great comfort, since I know that as long as I leave him with someone trusted and loving, he'll be just delightful.

Why is this? Well, for one, with other adults, there must be a certain motivation to get with the program -- keep the edges smoother, the peaks and valleys less dramatic. Especially in school, I can tell my little one spends a lot of energy being on a schedule, sticking to the rules, and managing his little friendships. He holds it all together, and sometimes, in the transition home, he lets it all go again. I'm pretty sure he feels most comfortable showing my husband and me his wild range of three-year-old emotions without the slightest attempt at a filter.

It makes good sense, really -- maybe it's one of our kids' many smart survival strategies. Imagine you were a wee one in the time of our early human ancestors. If you were roaming with a pack of adults who were not your parents, you'd want to fall in line and not cause too much trouble for the group, otherwise you could get left and end up in the jaws of a saber-toothed tiger. But with your parents, you know you're safe -- they have an evolutionarily programmed bond that keeps them close and attentive no matter how crazy and difficult you get.

That's the flip side to our children's deep attachment to us. As their parents, we get the best intimacy and the hilarious and quirky moments that no one else will ever see or quite understand. But our kids also know that they can show us their most complicated, chaotic, and downright ugly sides too.

And, in fact, that's an important part of how they learn to be loved and to love back. Kids are constantly testing our relationship to find patterns: If I act this way, what does mom do? When I build a tower of blocks and look at her, does she share my joy? And then... what if, on a whim, I unearth a totally illogical request and follow it up with a mess of irrational emotions? She's still here! That safe parent zone gives them the space to figure out their very complex and growing little mental lives.

I try to keep this in mind when I'm with my son. Earlier this week, I arrived at school before he saw me and I noticed he had an ice pack on his knee from a tricycle collision. There he sat on a bench, composed and dry-eyed -- a real trooper. When he finally saw me, though, his bottom lip started to quiver, he reached out his arms, and he burst into tears. I scooped him up.

Our kids definitely challenge us more than they do other people. That's part of what makes this job so tough. But I also like knowing that, as much as my son will stay composed and self-controlled when he's out in the world, when mommy is there, he can really let it all loose.