As parents, we hear the issue about “bully culture” pretty regularly. Those of us with school-age children know this issue especially well, while those of us who still have diapers in the house may only know the topic from a peripheral standpoint, but either way- we all know it’s out there. We all want to prepare our children to handle it and we all hope to instill values and confidence that will help keep them above the risk. To help them to make good decisions when faced with a situation that could turn into bullying.
Defining the term “bully” is an important component of preventing the behavior. We know about the physical beating kind of bully, the “give me your lunch money or you get a black eye” bully, we are well aware now of the cyber bully and the emotional manipulation bully, the prank bully and the wedgie bully all on an academic level, we understand it and we know what it is… but would you know it if you saw it? I think adults sometimes see bully behavior but don’t recognize it for what it is. Maybe because, as a stand alone incidence, it’s not really being a bully, sometimes it’s just being bossy or a tattle-tale or making someone feel bad, but none of that on a stand-alone basis is necessarily “bully” behavior. So what is the definition? According to the Miriam-Webster, it is, “one habitually cruel to others who are weaker”.
Habitually. So, it has to be a repeat behavior. Does that mean repeated in one day? A few times a week? Should we wait till we see it happen more than once before we can consider it bully behavior or can we just act right from the beginning and not wait for a repeat?
What about the term “cruel”? What does cruelty look like? Is cruelty being hurtful? Vengeful? Deliberately, physically mean, like pushing, hitting, slapping? Or passively physically mean like, blocking someone’s way when they try to walk by, or telling someone they aren’t good enough to play? Does being cruel mean making someone cry or feel bad, left out or not important? Or is the word reserved for drastic circumstances like punching, kicking, name calling and obvious behaviors?
What about small kids? Like, ages two through eight? Can a four year old, a three year old, even a two year old really be a bully, or are they still just repeating bad behavior they have seen in others? Should kids be allowed to “just be kids” when that means they push, pull, steal toys, ruin things, exclude others or hit and yell at other children? Does their age give them a pass to continue that behavior?
All of these questions cause adults to stop before they act. Each of these “gray areas” prevent someone from stepping in, stopping the behavior and squashing the bully mentality in the moment. We feel somehow like we are overstepping our bounds when we challenge another person’s child and worry about the consequences if we are wrong. We worry about looking like a jerk to a child who is being a jerk so we allow them to be jerky kids to other kids so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable. So basically, we protect our own skin by allowing a child to act out against another child and we do so with justified conviction – “Its not my child, I have no right to parent him”.
I believe it’s high time we all take a step back and ask ourselves… Is that really appropriate? That sort of hands off attitude? My feeling is a parent has an obligation to do something, EVEN IF it isn’t our child. Why? Because doing nothing tells them it’s okay. It does nothing but perpetuate it, condone it through silence and encourage it to continue. If we see bad behavior taking place and simply because we are there, we wonder if we should do something. I believe when we see it, it’s our responsibility to set an example by not allowing it. I mean, I’m the grown up, right?
I honestly figured this was a pretty standard belief, but the more I encounter situations like this, the more I am starting to see that this passive “it’s not happening to me” attitude extends into the parent community. What I mean is, if a child is bullying another child, it’s unlikely an adult will step in to resolve the conflict.
Four times now, I’ve encountered bullying with my kids, one of those four wasn’t even directed toward my kids, personally. All four times, I was NOT the only parent witnessing the bullying, yet all four times, I was the one to get up, stop watching the situation unfold and do something to stop it. Here’s what happened:
#1- This encounter was at a park. There was a group of toddlers, about five of them ranging in ages from just over one to about four, playing on one of those giant playground play sets with three slides, 4 castle turrets, two bridges and a bunch of places to hide and play. The toddlers were all taking turns going down a slide. Everything was awesome, all the kids were getting along, then enter the bully. She was a large girl, probably about nine and she was by herself. She climbed up the ladder and watched for a moment, silently observing the little kids playing. I was watching her carefully because she just had a stance I didn’t like… the kind that seemed predatory, like she was waiting for something.
She watched the small kids going down the slide, walked over to the opening of the slide and sat down, directly in front of the other kids waiting in line. They were all so small, they didn’t understand what was going on. I immediately felt bad for them, just standing there waiting patiently and politely while this girl was being mean. They thought she was playing a game with them and they started laughing and saying things like, “your turn!” “Go down!” and one child, probably about 2, even tried to slip around her saying something like, “me turn” and she blocked them with a nasty, blank look of superiority on her face. That was when they became confused and their smiles turned to furrowed brows, still not understanding, but realizing they were not allowed to pass.
I sat there, watching THREE PARENTS just stand there, watching this like it was no big deal. They saw the behavior of this girl and instead of acting, they directed their children to just stay away from her and didn’t say anything at all. I heard the, “Come over here sweetheart, let’s go play on the other side”. So, when it continued for longer than two minutes with no parental action being taken, I couldn’t help myself. I wasn’t going to just let her get a free pass. I jumped up, walked over, stood beneath her (they were on a platform about 12 feet off the ground) and asked her in a sharp voice, “Excuse me, is there a problem? Those little kids want to use the slide, is there some reason why you are blocking them?” She looked utterly confused by my question, blank stare of disbelief that I would be questioning what she was doing. So, I said again in my sharpest “mom” voice, “Is there some reason you don’t want to let them go down? There are four, very small children much younger than you waiting patiently for their turn. Please move” and I threw it a “RIGHT NOW PLEASE”. She slowly stood up and moved and I immediately changed my tone to give her a truly honest “Thank you so much, you can have your turn next!” and went back to following my daughter around.
I was LIVID at the brazen meanness in her face and the utter disrespect in her eyes as I directed her to stop, but all that made me even more angry at her family who were all sitting at a table nearby, completely ignoring her. The other parents of the small children watched this exchange with stunned silence and then began whispering to each other, smiling at me and giving me the “thumbs up” look, but with a fearful glance at the bully’s parents like they wanted to show me they supported my actions, but they didn’t want the bully’s mom to find out.
We left about 3 minutes later because I couldn’t let it go and was about to go talk to her mom, so I figured we better leave before we have a playground rumble.
#2 Again at a park, my son was playing on the jungle gym thing all by himself, going down the slide, running around, climbing up the other side and doing it again. No one else was there and he was having a great time, making up games about monsters as he went.
All the sudden, a group of much larger children, probably between ages seven through ten… came up and basically took over the slide. There were two boys and two girls and had all come from the same table, so I assumed they were related. The girl jumped up onto a platform just above the stares and denied Liam access to the higher platform where the slide was. She announces, “you need a password”. Standing hin front of him with her arms crossed. He obviously had no idea what she was talking about, so he says “Hi! My name’s Liam!” and he tries to get by her with a happy wave. She pushes in front of him and she in a snotty attitude voice says, “you’re a monster, monsters can’t go on slides, besides you need a password and only WE have passwords- you need to get down and play somewhere else”.
I watched from a distance at first, hoping she was just playing and would let him pass, but she didn’t. Meanwhile, a few other very small children appeared, and also wanted to go down the slide. She quickly told them that this was THEIR slide for her friends with passwords. Of course, these small children had NO CLUE what she was saying, they were both under three years old. Nevertheless, she continued to block all three of them saying they were monsters, pointing at Liam, shaking her finger at him and telling him “no” every time he tried to walk by. He wasn’t getting it, this game of theirs, and she was looking irritated. She wasn’t going to let him pass, saying things like, “you need a password” and “you are too small” and since her mother wasn’t stepping in and the other toddler’s father wasn’t either, I went over and said, her, “Hi there! These kids are pretty little for this game, they don’t understand what you mean about passwords, can they just go down the slide please?”
She backed up like she knew she was doing something wrong, but didn’t answer. Liam passed her, followed by the other two children, all completely oblivious to the whole issue. He tried to give them all hugs as he walked to the slide and they all just looked at him like he was stupid. I tried to ignore them, happy that she allowed them to pass and hoping that was the end of it, but when one of the boys stuck his foot out in front of the slide preventing him from being about to sit down, I was done playing nice.
I told the boy, “What you are doing right now is really mean and if he had tripped over your foot, it could have really hurt him. Please stop. There are two other jungle gyms here at this park and three other slides you could play on, if you want to be like this and play big kid games, maybe you should go do it where there are no small children around.” He seemed taken back by the curt direction and tried to give me an excuse, something about how they were playing a game about monsters and that Liam was the monster so they had to keep him out of the tower. I said, “that sounds like a great game for older kids, but he’s a toddler and doesn’t understand that and neither do the other kids you blocked from the slide. They just want to play and you are not letting them and that’s not very fair. He shook his head in agreement and even said he was sorry. The rest of the hour playing with them was completely fine, they were super nice the rest of the time and really patient and everyone had fun. But had I not been there, I’m sure they would have kept bullying, they would have continued to keep the small kids excluded and they would have eventually hurt their feelings or maybe even hurt them by doing something dangerous.
In this case, the mother of these kids, watched everything that happened from about 60 feet away, never challenging my judgement, never stepping in to defend her children, she acknowledged what I was doing and seemed completely okay with it, yet never offering any back up or speaking to her own children about their behavior. Eventually, she called them back to their table for snacks and they all said goodbye and left.
#3 The third time I experienced this with Liam, was at a birthday party for a five year old. Most of the child guests were between four and eight and they were all really nice kids for the most part. The issue began as a chalk painting on a driveway and two groups of kids doing different activities in the same space. Some kids were riding bikes and other kids were drawing with chalk on the pavement. The kids that were drawing were getting angry with the kids who were riding because their drawings were getting driven over by the bikes and getting ruined.
The problem was, the bigger kids were drawing and the smaller kids were riding. The bigger kids chose to draw their pictures directly in the path of the bikes who had been there first, then “claiming” the space for their drawings, getting angry with the little kids for getting in their way and ruining their art. One girl was standing guard next to her artwork and yelling, YELLING at two smaller kids to not get near her art. They were probably around ages three and four, and then my son became one of the offenders, too, ony he was on foot and was happily dancing on her drawing because it was a picture of a dancer. He didn’t understand, he wasn’t doing it to be mean… but she yelled at him, pushed him, knocked him down and then told me it was HIS fault for ruining her picture. I told her I was sorry about her picture, but it was she who chose to draw a picture on the pavement that all the kids were riding bikes on and running around on. I reminded her that she was much older than these small children and she needed to be more patient. That pushing and being mean is not the way to handle an issue like this and that wasn’t very nice. She tried to argue and I cut her off and told her she needed to stop being mean just because a baby walked on her drawing.
She got up, stomped away from me and basically, told on me to her mother who looked at me from a distance, then back at her daughter and I couldn’t tell what was said, but it was something to the effect of, “don’t worry about it, just go play”, but didn’t address her attitude, just that “it was okay”. I handled that one pretty peacefully considering, but was ready to have it out with her mom if it had gone any further.
#4 This last situation took place at a birthday party. There was a little girl there who was about four years older than my kids. At first, it was all adorable, she was excited to play with my daughter Lottie, calling her a “sweet baby” and thought it was fun to run around the back yard with Liam chasing after her.
At some point, not sure exactly when… the fun turned into bossy and then the bossy turned into bullying. She had a little toy that Lottie thought was amazing and Liam really wanted to touch. She would put it right in his face and then pull it away with a “you can’t touch me” snotty little song with the whole hip wiggle attitude to go with it and he thought it was funny, so he laughed and when she ran away, he chased her. It was a great game until she comes running up to me saying “He’s chasing me and I don’t want him to” I said, “well, you should probably not tease him with a toy he wants to play with and run off like that”. She says, “well, he pushed me” I said, “no, actually he didn’t, I’ve been watching the whole time. He is playing with you because he thinks you are playing a game. You’re putting a toy in his face and then laughing and running away. He thinks you want him to chase you, which I actually think you do. If you don’t like it, you need to stop teasing him. He’s too young to understand your little attitude.” She says, “oh, okay” kind of blankly, like she knew she got in trouble but was pretending she didn’t care and runs off.
A few minutes later, I watched her hand this toy to my daughter and then snatch it back from her 30 seconds later and tell her loudly, “This is MINE! You can’t have it!” Of course, my daughter who is not yet two, starts bawling. I go pick her up to console her and this little girl starts to defend herself, saying, “she had my toy, it’s mine”. I told her, ” first of all, you handed it to her. Second, if you don’t want to share your toys you probably should not have brought them to a party. Maybe there’s somewhere safe in the house you could put that toy so other kids don’t get to it?” She looks at Lottie and says, “I’m going to put it up here (on top of an outdoor patio toy) where YOU can’t reach it!” (in a super bratty voice) I told her, “don’t talk to her like that, that’s not nice, just take your toy inside and put it away if you don’t want anyone else to touch it.”
She looked at me like I had just hit her, all dewy-eyed and dejected with a fake pouty face, I’m sure expecting me to be sympathetic. I wasn’t. She walked away defeated.
A while later, this little girl starts misbehaving and climbing on things she isn’t supposed to climb on and of course, my son follows her because it looks super fun. I tell him, “no climbing, that’s not safe, please get down”. She looks at me and says, “he was trying to get me so I climbed up here to get away from him! He is being bad and trying to get me in trouble!”
I had finally had enough of this little monster and I walked over to her, got down on her level and said, “okay look- you are much older than these kids and you should have better manners. They are toddlers and you are not. You know better than to act this way, right? How you are acting is mean and I don’t want my kids to learn that from you. If you can’t be nice, maybe you should go inside and play by yourself. It’s not okay to be bossy, to lie about things so kids get in trouble and it’s super mean to tease babies with toys. You can’t argue with me because I’ve been watching you the whole time.”
She looked down, and sheepishly walked away. She attempted to pull similar issues and push around a few other very small kids, even younger ones than mine, but I had a close eye on her and every time she would do something that was mean, she would look right at me, then stop and walk away.
What amazed me was this child had been completely unattended by an adult this entire time. Her father was oblivious, inside, hanging out with the grown ups and no one was attending to these issues except me because no one else was around. A few other adults who watched the many encounters all gave me pleased looks of “good job” and one came up and said, “that little girl has had an attitude like that from the day she was born” another adult gave me a knowing look and shook her head saying, “she’s been like that with all the kids tonight”.
THAT is when I really got angry. That means that this child very likely had many encounters like this where no adult was present or no one cared enough to do anything about it until I finally stepped in. I was totally shocked when I realized that I HAD been surrounded by adults, it was just that none of them thought it was important to do anything. If no one had been there, all these adults would have allowed her to be mean to my 2 and 3 year old kids? That just SUCKS!
That’s when it hit me- we are allowing this “bully culture” to grow through our non-action as adults. We are so afraid to offend someone’s parenting that we are willing to stand by and watch a child be bullied, taken advantage of and pushed around by other children because it’s not our place.
Maybe I’m just weird, maybe I have a heightened sense of justice, because I seem to be the only parent who got bent out of shape about any of these issues. Maybe it’s simply that I didn’t forget my childhood. I remember being a kid and dealing with those kinds of kids. I remember when they tried to bully me, push me around, use me as a scapegoat, guilt me into doing what they wanted, make me feel like there was something wrong with me by excluding me and I hated it then as much as I hate it now. I didn’t let them do it to me when I was a kid, so why would I allow them to do it to my own, or ANYONE else’s child??
The answer is, I wouldn’t. I cant and I won’t. If that offends some parent because I’m doing their job for them, well… then they should have been doing a better job at it. I don’t care if I offend someone or make them feel like a bad parent if it will teach my child that this other kid’s actions are inappropriate and that they WILL NOT get away with it. My kids say please, thank you, excuse me, they know to apologize when they hurt someone accidentally and they know hurting for fun is naughty and not acceptable. They know that yelling is never okay and that hitting or teasing or demanding something from someone is not nice. If I allow them to see any of these behaviors in some other child and do nothing to reinforce what I’ve taught them, all my work is undone.
The reality of “bully culture” is that it is contagious. Bullies create bullies by example. In each of my four examples, the bully child was considerably older than the children they were bossing/pushing/excluding and while they were doing it, they were also teaching all the younger kids how older children act and giving them the exact WRONG example to follow. If I allowed my son to see another child’s bad behavior as acceptable by NOT doing anything, he would learn that it was okay, fun even… to repeat what was said, to throw the same attitude, to openly disobey and disrespect adults, and do things that he knows are not appropriate. Then who’s fault would it be, when he turns out just like them? It would be mine. So, I stopped it before it started by showing him the behavior was not acceptable in the moment when it was occurring.
Now, the other issue here is the devil’s advocate question- what if it was YOUR child being scolded by some parent you don’t know- would YOU be okay with it?? Well, I’ll be honest, of course I wouldn’t. But I’d suck it up and cope if my kid was doing something mean and hope he learned a good lesson for acting inappropriately. I’d also ask the parent what happened, get involved and apologize if my child had been mean or hurt another child, then do what I could to could help that parent reinforce the direction he was given. I would do whatever I could to make sure my child knew that his behavior was not acceptable.
I should also mention that NONE of this means I would EVER be so presumptuous as to inflict a punishment upon another person’s child and I would hope that no one else would think they had a right to do so with my children unless I gave them that right. I would never call for a time out, I would never spank (well, I wouldn’t do that anyway, but certainly not a child I didn’t have the authority over) and the most I would do is address the behavior with the child as I explained in these cases above, and if it continued, I would go talk to the parents.
Maybe this is what they call “helicopter parenting” where the mom swoops in to save the day and resolve an issue between children… but honestly I don’t care what you call it. In the cases I’ve witnessed, I call it preventing a bully from getting their nasty little way and being mean to a child MUCH smaller than they are. I call it showing my son that the behavior of a bully should NEVER be tolerated and if HE ever tried it, the same direction would be given to him. I understand that some may call this being TOO involved and say I should just hang back and let them learn their own lessons on the blacktop jungle. Some might call me overprotective, but you know what? My kids are toddlers and if some school-age-really-aught-to-know-better child pushes them around, I’m gonna step in and regulate. Call it what you want, but I’m going to protect my kids, even from other children. I don’t call that being overprotective, helicopter parenting or anything other than being an active parent. I totally don’t care if anyone has an issue with it.
We all want a bully-free zone and we can teach our kids to stand up for themselves as well as others when they see a need for it, but we can only do that if we are leading by example as parents and not just allowing bad behaviors to occur around them.
So, I’ll close this out by asking one more time… If you saw bullying of ANY kind, even the “gray area”, bad or hurtful attitude kind of bullying happening, would you stop it? Why or why not?