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My Son Doesn't Act Out on Play Dates and I'm Not Necessarily Happy About it

While my heart overflows with pride, love and appreciation for the little man I'm raising, it also burns with pain.
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I have no interest in rule breaking. I've lived my life trying to abide by a set of unwritten rules. Constantly spinning my wheels in an attempt to identify The Rule, always fearful of being outed as the one who didn't know that we're not supposed to do That -- whatever That may be -- in a new workplace, country or simply with a new group of friends. Most certainly not driven by conformism and being a fairly tactful person who very rarely puts their foot in their mouth, I am not sure where this fear of doing the wrong thing derives from, but I do know that what lies underneath it all is a very basic need for acceptance.

I've been watching my son, Four Year Old, trying to similarly identify rules, relying on us, his parents, as mediators between him and World. World comes with SO many rules: behavioral, physical, legal, religious and he's trying to construct a replica of that, complete with explanations, in his head. While my own search for unwritten rules where they don't even necessarily exist is often restricting and de-liberating, my son's represents a stage in his development. It is not my son's search for rules which I'm concerned about, but rather the search for acceptance through learning them, or to be even more exact -- him often putting acceptance above other values.

I love watching my son interact with other children during play dates. He is respectful, playful and engaging. Ever the gracious host, he usually won't let his friends leave without gifting them one of his toys. As a play date guest, he is polite and while he usually has a pretty good idea of what it is that he wants to play, he will never argue or "go on strike" if the host is on a different page. His friends' parents often praise him for his manners and his teachers comment on his level of maturity. While my heart overflows with pride, love and appreciation for the little man I'm raising, it also burns with pain.

His teachers get to see the shiny and appealing external manifestations of something I get to see the darker insides of: raw fear. Fear of not being loved.

Last summer, we visited our older family friends in their home. The water sprinkler and hose were switched on for Four Year Old and he was having the time of his life pretending to try and spray the owners of the house. Until he succeeded. From the porch overlooking the garden, one of the grownups noticed that something was wrong. I looked down and saw the hunched-over figure of my 4-year-old. I rushed to comfort him as he was weeping uncontrollably. He thought the owner of the house, one of the most delicate and pleasant people I've ever met, was mad at him for spraying her by mistake and he wasn't going to come upstairs with me and talk to her because he was scared. Despite my son's talk of fear of punishment, I knew it was actually something else that was holding him back. We never practice punishments at home, nor was he exposed to them in school as yet. The punishment he was fearful of was losing love, or worse yet, losing love to his 1-year-old brother, his number one rival at the time.

You may argue that other kids would react the exact same way in a perceived altercation with an adult and you are absolutely right. I use this as an example of an extreme manifestation of something I see occurring on his play dates on a much smaller scale. While Four Year Old's friends will allow themselves to occasionally act out, sometimes be grumpy and very rarely plain rude -- usually toward whoever occupies the non-coveted younger sibling guest spot -- Four Year Old is always controlled and I just wish he wasn't. I wish he'd just let himself be. I wish he knew what I understand now. In putting acceptance above anything else you surrender control over your feelings, sometimes even over your self-definition to others. But how do I explain this to you, mature as you may be, my wonderful Four Year Old? Let this be my birthday wish to you on the (almost) eve of your fifth birthday, wonderful Ben. May you share many playful, intense, imagination-filled, thrilling, roll-on-the-floor-laughing moments with your friends. And every once in a while don't forget to act out, apologize, forgive yourself and let go, my love.