My mom adventures in Fort Collins


There once was an age-appropriate bully

Yesterday morning, I spent time talking with some women that I know through my daughter’s preschool. Often, we talk about children, the school, being a parent and some of the struggles that go along with this journey. These are wise women, and I value their opinions. Today, a particular story was relayed, and the word “bully” came up. These women proposed that a four-year-old could not be a “bully.”

I did a bit of reading, and it appears that most people agree that a child of preschool age cannot be a bully. It’s actually age-appropriate for kids in this age group to act out when they don’t get what they want, and it differs from bullying because of our expectations. We know that children in early childhood are just beginning to learn how to appropriately interact with their peers, so we cut them some slack when they don’t share, hit, get stompin’ mad, kick, bite, manipulate, act aggressively, steal toys, exclude others, etc. We anticipate that young children are going to test out the training wheels as they go. Like a few adults I know, children are still learning these valuable social and emotional skills. It’s not necessarily acceptable for children to act like this, and we do need to encourage different behaviors, but it is age-appropriate. Basically, it’s preschool, and it’s one of the few safe places these children have to test out these behaviors (and then try again).

Nonetheless, this story and the word “bully” did trigger a memory for me. I myself have called a four-year-old a bully. I may not be completely accurate, but the definition of “bully” is

a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker

Yep…That about sums up a lot of little kids, doesn’t it?

Two years ago, my daughter Scout was a four-year-old in a Pre-K class of 18 kiddos. Of these kids, 12 were boys and 6 were girls. Perhaps the small number of girls led to some of the difficulties that arose, and like many a mom with a firstborn guinea pig before me, I went into this whole thing a bit naive. First, I got a report from a parent that I knew and trusted about some exclusionary play in the classroom by a specific little girl. Then, I was approached by a different parent, saying that she stepped in and reminded this little girl that we always let everyone play. I was reluctant to buy into these second-hand accounts, but as time went on I noticed some of this behavior myself. My daughters have both attended the same co-op preschool, and a benefit of the co-op model is that I’m often in and around the classroom and I can get to know their classmates quite well. The entire time that this exclusionary behavior was going on, my daughter would sing this little girl’s praises. She loved this girl. When I would pick Scout up from school, she’d be sure to point out what this little girl was wearing, or what toy this little girl had brought to share with the class.  For me, the culmination of this entire prolonged episode was when my daughter had created a picture for the girl and gave it to her as a gift. This little girl threw away the picture in front of my daughter at pick-up time. I saw the entire exchange, and the look on Scout’s face said it all. I looked in the bin and I looked at Scout. I said, “Honey, did you make that? Do you want to keep that?” Scout said, “Yes.” I pulled the item out of the garbage and reclaimed it. Then, this little girl stated without an ounce of guilt, “Wait, that’s mine!” I calmly explained that she threw it away and had forfeited her right to take the item home.

I went home that day hopped up on anger and pride. I knew what this little girl did to my daughter was wrong. Mean. Selfish. Nasty. I was so horrified, I don’t think that I knew what to say or do.

Then, suddenly I knew EXACTLY what to do. I was going to approach that little girl’s mom and invite them over for a playdate.

When I had worked for a children’s advocacy organization years earlier, I worked with an amazing woman. Peg had raised six kids, been aunt to many that were actually here nieces & nephews as well as countless others who had come across her path. Peg had worked with children in the child welfare system and juvenile justice system for years. Peg was a FRIEND of children. Not only did I trust Peg’s insight as a parent, I valued her life experience. I remember Peg telling me that when her kids complained about a child at school, she always listened. “So-and-so smells! She wears the same clothes every day!” “So-and-so is always so mean to me!” “I can’t stand so-and-so, he’s always making things difficult.” Pretty soon, she’d be inviting that kid–the kid that was so offensive to her own child–over for dinner.

Now, I don’t know that Peg was able to have every one of these children over for dinner–it would seem the invitee would have to accept the invitation. I do know that her approach changed my thinking on the subject. When my child is offended or hurt, my “Momma Bear” is awakened. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the hurt, I forget to question why Momma Bear got her heart broken in the first place: Love. I love my child, and when her heart breaks, mine does too. When you love someone, you want the best for them. I only wanted for my child to have a kind and safe friendship, one that didn’t make her feel left out.

By setting up a playdate with the little girl that had been excluding my child, I believe that I created two opportunities: 1) the kids could play and 2) I could chat with the mom. When  this little girl came over, she played nicely with both of my daughters. I do not recall anything inappropriate about the way that they interacted together. This gave me the chance to see that this little girl was just a typical five-year-old girl, with cute laughter and wide eyes. I stopped imagining her as the “Mean Girl” I had built her up to be. As for the mother, I learned more about their life and her story, and I felt a great deal of compassion for both mother and daughter. Everyone has a story. I never disclosed what had been happening in the classroom. I never confronted mother or daughter, and I tried to have faith that the as the story unfolded, I would know what to do.

Turns out, all I had to do was have a little girl over for a playdate. These girls didn’t go on to become best friends. We never wound up having another playdate, though the mom offered to have my kids over and it just never worked out schedule-wise. But the exclusionary behavior ended. Admittedly, these were girls in a Pre-K classroom. These were not middle schoolers being bullied for their appearance or sexual orientation. This approach is not the only approach, and it would not appeal to everyone, but the basic sentiment is the same: Instead of being offended and defensive, is there a space to be more vulnerable and loving?

Anytime you make yourself vulnerable, you allow for growth. Most of us don’t need to teach our kids how to be offended and defensive, that seems innate. But my daughter taught me something amid the exclusionary behavior. It was as if she didn’t have that sense of self-preservation that causes adults to recoil when we see such behavior. Despite being excluded and hurt, Scout still wanted this little girl to be her friend. So, I let this child of mine, with a heart so big it can scarcely fit in her chest, guide me. My grown-up sensibility would have said, “Just don’t play with this girl! She’s mean!” But Scout’s kind eyes saw what I couldn’t see–maybe this girl was just a little girl, a little girl who was acting in an age-appropriate and yet unacceptable manner. Maybe I needed to give this girl Forever Chances. Maybe there is always room for more love, more growth.

What about you? Do you have a story about love and growth? Did anyone ever surprise you by just being a five-year-old afterall?

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