Parenting: How to Avoid Truancy with a 9-year-old

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So uh, yeah. That title. Parenting is not easy, it’s not fun sometimes and being “creative” and not murderous is a lot of work on less than a half-cup of coffee. Nonetheless, I prevailed. I always do.

This his how my morning went:

7:10 wake-up — we are all groggy. I was at a board meeting for a sports team last night until 10. I had a salad at 10:10 and tried to pass out at 11:24. My bedroom was quite warm, so that meant I either passed out from food coma or heat exhaustion. School starts at 8:40, I like to leave the house at 8:25 so we can have a nice leisurely walk and chat along the way. This is my last year walking to school with Thing 2; he’ll be off to middle school next year. Thing 1 is a freshman in high school; he’s gone in three years. It’s all a little much for me to not rail against the thieves of time.

7:25 — Thing 2 who is 12 wakes up; he’s like a little squirrel once he’s up: smiling and cheerful. Thing 3 protests. School is for losers.

7:45 — Thing 3 who is 9 continues his protest. He wants to stay home. He hates school. He hates his class. He wants to stay in bed. He wants to stay in his pajamas. He wants today to be a “mental health” day (which we take usually sometime in late April because the fourth quarter doesn’t have many breaks).

For the rest of this post, I will lay it out for you as a play; a comic tragedy, a tragic tragedy, a masochistic exercise in maternal restraint ultimately evolving to a state of jealousy that humans don’t eat their young.

Me: T3, it’s time to come down. It’s 7:50.

T3: I’m not coming. I’m not going to school. You can’t make me.

Mother scratches her head and kicks baseboard of front hall landing, sighs and wrings her hands.

Me: Well, yes. I understand that. You don’t want to go to school today and you’re sort of right that I can’t make you. But you can’t stay home without someone calling the school and because you’re not sick, you will have to make the call and tell them why you’re not coming.

T3: But that’s stupid.

Me: Yeah. It’s stupid. But they have to know you’re not coming or they’ll hold up the day for you and then no one will learn anything.

T3: Why can’t you make the call?

Mother winces and looks out glass-front storm door. Horny squirrels chase one another and make odd barking sounds; cardinals are diving at family cats beneath their nests. Daffodils are smiling at the sun and gently swaying in the breeze.

Me: I can’t make the call because it’s not my reason and I don’t agree with you. You have to call. If you don’t call, you will have to sit in the principal’s office when they bring you in for not calling and I will have to go before a judge.

T3: That’s stupid.

Me: Yes, it’s stupid, but it’s how it goes. You also have to adhere to my rules: that you can’t come down here to use the phone until you’re dressed and had some breakfast. (T2 snickers in the background, giving mother “thumbs up” gesture and wry smirk.) Mother whispers, Stay out of it, T2.

T3: Ohhhh maaaaan! That’s the worst! I have such a horrible life!

Me: sipping from warm, half-drunk coffee. I hear you, this is the worst and you have a horrible life. Listen, it’s 7:55 now, five minutes to eight and I want to be out the door at 8:25. So, you have less than 30 minutes to get dressed, eat some food and make the phone call or else you will have to stay home and sit at the table all day.

T3: All day?? At the TAAAABLE??? Wha?? I want to STAY HOMMMME!

Me: Well, you will be staying home. You just won’t be doing anything. Luckily, I don’t have anywhere to go today, otherwise you’d have to go somewhere else. But before you stay home, you need to eat and get dressed and call the school and tell them why you’re not coming in. Why aren’t you going in again? I forget.

T3: Because school is stupid.

Me: Right. Because school is stupid. Fine. So, call the school, after eating. It’s an easy number, I’ll tell you what it is because you have to dial it — these are the rules — and then you just tell them. Be sure to tell them your name and your teacher’s name and the reason of course and then hand me the phone. I’ll be down here. If I have to come up and get you, I’ll just take you to the principal’s office and you can tell her then.

T3: I’ll be right down.

T2’s grin quickly fades as he starts babbling about how it’s not fair that T3 gets to stay home and how come he can’t. Mother becomes ephemerally unhinged and barks at him to mind his own bloody business; that this stuff is hard enough as it is and that going forward, for each time he uses the phrase “it’s not fair” it will cost him 20 push-ups. T2 murmurs unintelligibly and concentrates on his veggie sausage link and scrambled eggs.

Me: It’s 7:59, T3. You have less than 25 minutes now, bud.

Thudding footsteps echo throughout the house. T3 begins his descent. He enters the kitchen in adorable striped Celtic soccer jersey, khaki shorts and sneakers. His hair is disheveled but his freckles are all present and accounted for. A plate of now-tepid, syrup-soaked Eggos, veggie sausage links and orange juice awaits him.

T3: Growling. This is stupid. STOP LOOKING AT ME, T2!!

Me: T2, keep it together, man. I’m talking to myself right now as well. Let’s just let T3 eat his food in peace before he makes his call to the school to explain his reason for his absence, that “School is stupid,” right T3?

T2, who is usually loquacious and deliberately extra cheerful and compliant during moments of T3 unrest is uncharacteristically well-behaved.

T3: Right. What happens if we don’t call?

Me: Well, if we don’t call, I’m sorry, if YOU don’t call, then they come after me. Not right away, but you know, in a week or so. More than three unexplained absences will send out an alert on your file at school and then they have to wonder if you’re safe or still living here or if I’m ok, or that our house hasn’t been taken over by forest creatures, because only irresponsible or confused or lawless people don’t send their kids to school. It would definitely be my fault.

T3: But I’m the one who says school is stupid.

T3 begins eating his Eggos and takes a sip of his juice.

Me: Yes, that’s true. But Because you’re a kid and I’m an adult and I’m your parent… it’s a little complicated, but I’ll try to explain. Until you’re 18, everything you do or don’t do as far as laws are concerned, is because I allow it.

T3: Going to school is a LAAAAW? Oh maaaaan!

Me: Yes, going to school is a law. In fact, a president made one a few years ago, called the “No Child Left Behind Act” that requires that all children in America get an education all the way through high school. So if you don’t get one at school, then I am required by law, to give you one at home. Here at home, I don’t have a music room, or paints — well, that’s not true, I have paints, but I don’t have clay or real good paints or pipe cleaners. I don’t have a gymnasium either, but you know, we’d make do. But you’d have to spend most of your time at the table here.

T3: A LAAAAW? Why can’t you just say I’m sick? We don’t know I’m not!

T2: T3, don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s disgusting.

Me: T2, OMAIGAAD. Mind your own business and shut your pie hole. It’s time for you to leave to get to school on time; you don’t have to stay here. I want to walk with you, but go to the crossing guard and get going. I’m sorry; this is going to take a long time and T3 will have to make a good case to the school when he calls, so…. T3, you’re not sick because your food is almost all gone and you are well enough to argue with me. Say goodbye to T2.

T2: I get it. Good luck with your phone call, T3. I’ll see you here at the table (winks at mom) when I get home from school today.

T2 stands to clear his plate and mother sighs. During a long hug, she sniffs his hair and kisses him on his head. He has eight more weeks and then he will be done with elementary school. Her stomach churns at the thought of him growing up; all of them growing up so fast, he hugs her back and turns to leave.

T3: Bye T2. Hey Mom, so if I miss three days without a call what happens to you?

Me: I will have to go in to the school and talk to the principal and we know how that goes. Then I’ll get interviewed by someone called a “truant officer” and that’s a kind of police officer for the schools. They go around to houses where the kids are blowing off school and if they are under 18, the parents have to go with the truant officer and talk to a judge. Some parents can get in a lot of trouble. It looks like you’ve eaten all your breakkie.

Lifting the phone from its charger, gathering his back pack and slowly walking toward the front door looking out on the horny squirrels.

Are you ready to make the phone call now? Remember: your name, your teacher and the reason — oh, and today’s date. It’s April 10. Your lunch is ready and I have your backpack. I will walk you all the way in. But, if you decide to make that call, then that’s your first day of three. Today is Wednesday, so then I will have the weekend before it’s three days and then next week, I will have to …

T3: I don’t want to go to school. I don’t want to make the call, but …

T3 crumbles emotionally and starts to cry.

Me: What’s wrong? Why are you so sad? I’ll tell you the numbers. Here’s the phone; it’s not that hard to use the phone. Holding out phone for T3 to take.

T3: I don’t want you to get in troubbbbbbllllle … wuuuuh-huuuuhaw-huuuuaw-huuuaw…. I just want to not to go to school…. It’s so stupid. You wouldn’t believe what we have to do in P.E…. the ball is flat and it doesn’t go … and Percy Fartnagle is picking his nose …

Mother and son move over to the foot of the stairs by the front door. They sit on the second step from the floor. He is very upset and is terrified his mother will be in trouble for what he chooses to do. Mother calms him down, places him on her lap and strokes his back and hair gently rocking side-to-side on the step.

Me: Well, it’s up to you. All of this is and yes, until you’re 18, it’s me who would take the heat for your weak choices, but you who gets the credit for making strong choices, and I like it that way. But now we’re really getting late; so if you don’t get going, you will have to get a tardy pass too.

T3: Ok. I’ll go.

So on the walk to school, they hold hands and watch the horny squirrels do their mating dances and odd tail-twitching on the tree trunk behavior. Mother capitalizes on the calm to say the following:

Me: You know, I get it: you think school is stupid. But going to school is a law. I am a little angry about what happened this morning. I love you very much, but I will say this: T2 won’t be walking to school with us anymore after this school year. So every time you are late and he has to leave without us just to be on time, you’re taking away from me those moments to walk with him, too.

He is my son, just like you are, and he’s growing up much too fast for me. So while I am glad you chose the right thing to go to school today, I will also warn you now: from now on, I will work out an arrangement with someone up at school that for every time you make me not be able to walk to school with him, I will insist that you sit in someone’s office for 10 minutes and write one sentence for each minute we’re late. Are we clear?

T3: Yes mom.

Me: I love you. Have a good day.

And that’s how I got him to school today. I really don’t plan on asking the school to intervene, nor do I think I can make such a request; but creative and empowering parenting is exhausting. We have to empower them to see the options before them. While both options are unappealing to them, one is way worse. It reminds me of when they were tiny and I’d give them the option to move their body themselves or that I would do it for them.

Thank you.

14 responses »

    • i was wiped out. i have been reading the melissa meyer (yahoo ceo) stuff and glass ceiling debates and all that stuff. and while i try hard to avoid frays like that, i think people who think all SAHM’s are just bon-bon poppers are nuts. this experience this morning was TAXING. if i had a job, it would have been frenzied and horrible and hard on all of us. he didn’t win, he didn’t get what he wanted, but it’s my job, really, to DO this… to hear him out, to let him make his case and then give him realistic and harmless options that are so unappealing that he will choose to do the right thing, chagrined or no. he’s at this age, it’s beginning and they all went through this at about 9, when food is so important and he’s going through a growth spurt so i have to be careful not to let him spin out of control, but also be mindful of the fact that he’s got an opinion and while most of it is subterfuge and noise… if he feels i’m constantly against him, then it will never be good.

      so, yeah. thanks! 🙂

  1. I felt like I was with you right there in the house. Parenting is THE HARDEST job in the world. I so appreciate your ability to eloquently convey such a parenting moment.

  2. Gillian went to kindergarten and never went in to class. She and a friend decided to play on the playground all morning. Scared me to death when she wasn’t at school to be picked up, and her teacher said she never showed to class. Kindergarten. Paul blamed me! Far as I know she never skipped again! All that said, she is working on her graduate degree at Auburn Montgomery!

  3. On the upside, you clearly must be a great mother. Even though you were probably so irritated on the inside I love your patience and helping him understand the logic and consequences of his choices. On the downside, are you telling me that the battles of willpower that I am dealing with with my stubborn 4-year-old are not going to go away when she starts elementary school?!? I need to mentally prepare myself.

    • Uh, yeah. This is just the beginning. I was patient; it came from a place I’m completely unfamiliar with, but it was nice. Today he was flawless. I hope I can remember yesterday when he pulls more crap in the future. NnnnnnNnnnNnnn.

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