Monday, May 6, 2013

Bullies on the Playground

I am very confident about some aspects of parenthood: providing a healthy lifestyle, choosing a good education, teaching love for all living things, fostering a loving home environment.  There is one big aspect that leaves me quivering in my pumps (or clogs if I'm on call): discipline.  I would do almost anything to avoid confrontation, and even with my child, I am insecure at times.  Add another parent and her child to the mix, and I am totally hopeless.  Put me on a playground with a bunch of these people, and I want to cry.

Now, don't get me wrong.  We are actually really laid-back parents as far as the discipline goes.  We believe that children learn best when they experience the natural consequence of their actions.  We only intervene when there is actual danger.  We let Asher do all sorts of daring things that a lot of parents think are too risky.  We figure that if he gets a little bump on the head or is frustrated when he can't solve a problem, it  helps him learn about the world.  But we're also sticklers for manners and rules ("please" and "thank you," cleaning up after yourself, etc.) and are trying to teach Asher to use verbal communication to express his needs.  Too bad he's learning this from the queen of non-confrontation.

This problem became apparent about a year ago when I took Asher, who was just barely walking, to a playground in our neighborhood, where we met a little boy who was just a couple of months older.  They were interested in each other.  The little boy had a couple of big brothers running around, and Asher was fascinated by the three of them.  Until the little boy hit Asher.  And not by accident.  I had no idea what to do.  I quietly told the other boy that he wasn't being nice and then told Asher, half-heartedly, that it wasn't a big deal, hoping that he wouldn't freak out.  The other mother laughed it off, saying that he had learned that behavior from his older siblings.  Flustered and frustrated, I kept my mouth shut and, shortly thereafter, declared that my pallid child had been in the sun too long and that we needed to go home, and so we made a cowardly exit.  I realized that I had chickened out.

What I've learned in the last year is that I have a child who is by nature non-confrontational, just like his mother.  When other kids want his toy, he lets them take it.  If a kid pushes him down, he doesn't cry.  He might look bewildered for a second, but then he finds something new to do.  Similarly, if he's interested in someone else's toy and that kid won't give it up easily, he moves on.  He's one of those smiley kids that everyone wants to be friends with.  He's incredibly charming and incredibly versatile, and I never worry about how he's going to mix with other children. 

I know a lot of you are wondering right now how this could possibly be a problem.  Yes, having a child who is contented and easy-going and polite in his interactions with others does spare me a lot of the usual kinds of toddler discipline.  But it leaves me with a whole different set of problems: how do I teach my kid to stand up for himself without spoiling his happy-go-lucky attitude, and how do I keep the bullies from running all over him?  Today was a prime example.

I had the afternoon off after being on-call this weekend, so Nanny Becca and I decided to use a Groupon that I had bought a couple of weeks ago to take Asher to one of those bounce-house facilities where they have a bunch of inflatable slides and things to play on.  I was encouraged when we arrived that there was one other child there, a boy about a year or two older, and he seemed pretty energetic.  I thought he might be able to show Asher the ropes.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.  While his mother spent the whole outing on her phone, presumably checking email or playing a game or something, this kid set out to own the "playground."  Anything that Asher touched, he wanted.  And if Asher showed any interest in what the other boy was touching, the boy got physical.  I had no idea what to do, and this kids' mom was not doing a damn thing to teach her child how to play well with others.

At one point, I realized that Asher needed to learn to ask directly for what he wants, so we started learning a new phrase, "May I please...."  Amazingly, this bratty kid heard him and then responded by telling him what Asher could and could not touch.  I realized this was the key to teaching my less dominant child how to assert himself.  They were actually getting along.

Then Mom saw what was going on and, assuming that he was being his usual domineering self, yelled at the little boy and gave him a time-out.  And then she went right back to her phone.  And then he got up and again started taking things away from Asher and trying to push him off the equipment he was playing on.  And then, when Asher was happily running across the floor, he checked him (in the hockey sense).  I have no idea where the kid learned this move, but he was clearly an expert.  Again I was stuck in the same playground situation: what to do when another kid is nasty to Asher?  How do I make it not too big a deal for Asher while at the same time teaching the other child that the behavior is wrong? 

I am without an answer.  Again, I told Asher that the other boy's behavior wasn't nice but that he wasn't hurt.  Asher, who didn't cry or show anything besides shock at what had happened, started saying, "Sorry.  Sorry," because he knows that is what you say when you've done something hurtful to another person (or animal, as is most often the case in our house).  It broke my heart.  The little boy eventually was instructed by his mother to look at Asher and apologize "like he meant it," but I'm quite certain he doesn't really get it.

I don't want my child to learn to be a bully, but yet, I want him to learn to stand up for himself.  It's not my job to fight his battles, but I am responsible for giving him the tools to function in the world.  And here I am battling the enemy--the parent who doesn't provide these tools for her own child--myself.  What do I say to her?  How do I balance teaching my child how to get along in the real world without letting hers get away with nasty behavior?  How do I encourage mine to communicate his needs directly when all she does is punish hers for expressing himself physically?  How do I keep my kid "nice" without making him a target for the bullies?

Uncharacteristically, I am without an answer.


  1. I am not sure this answer is appropriate in every situation, but I think it is an ideal time to teach a child to report it to an adult and ask for help. We try to teach them that response later on, in the case of other types of inappropriate interaction. I remember asking my son to always tell me or any adult about other's behaviors he wasn't OK with. It seemed to be a step in learning to stand up for one's self. First he had to acknowledge being wronged or uncomfortable with someone's actions)then I would show him (by example)how to verbally handle it.

  2. I think works in some situations, particularly with older kids when they aren't being as closely supervised and someone's behavior is really out of line. I think there's a fine line between teaching that and creating a tattler, which doesn't help kids socially. But I definitely think helping kids learn to express themselves and stand up for their needs is key.

    I felt really sorry for that little boy yesterday. If his mom would get off her iphone for a minute and actually pay attention to him, I think his behavior would be a lot different. I'm sure she is nervous about bullying as much as any parent, but we always imagine that our kid will be the one bullied. I don't think she has a clue that she is creating a bully by not teaching him social skills. Poor kid.

  3. It is sad that the other mother couldn't pay attention to her own child. I also feel sorry for the child... and that mother one day may wish she had paid closer attention when she had the chance. I also worried about creating a tattler but as it turned out, he learned pretty quickly to risk being teased by the other kids only when it was really worth it. I see the same behavior at dog parks... people let their dog loose and ignore them. They are so busy on their phones that they don't see their dog bullying other dogs, etc. Perhaps they need to out law cell phones in the park? :)