Saturday, February 28, 2015

What Is the Appropriate Response to Bullying?

The Playground of Life

Today I took Henry to one of those Gymboree-type places in my neighborhood so he could run around for an hour in their indoor gym. The combination of the freezing temperatures and my pregnancy has reduced him to a caged animal this winter. There is never enough indoor space to satisfy an energetic three-year-old. I can’t tell you how many picture frames have been broken in the past two months.

The gym is padded like those images of insane asylums in old films. Every surface is covered in foam. There are foam blocks and uneven bars over foam mats, basketball hoops with soft balls and a bouncy lane with a soft, red landing pad at its end. Henry made a beeline for the bouncy lane (look! a giant couch Mommy won’t tell me to stop jumping on!), and I tried to find a seat away from the mob of over-excited, under-exercised children.

What Is the Appropriate Response to Bullying? ~ Urban Moo Cow

All the usual suspects of the playground milieu were there. The bored babysitter barely bothering with her two afternoon charges. The older girl with a small cadre of young ducklings following her around.

The mother who couldn’t seem to keep her kindergartner from hitting, kicking and pushing indiscriminately. “Anthony!”—name changed to protect the innocent—“Anthony! Stop [kicking, hitting, running, pushing, cutting in line, stealing the ball]!” And so on.

The father who hovered over his nearly-three-year-old daughter in case she fell twelve inches onto a padded mat and told Henry to find his own toy when he wandered over to play. I mean, he might have germs, right? It was a little flashback to Brooklyn, and its singularity among the adults in the room reminded me why I was so happy to have left.


Anthony’s older brother was shooting hoops. He looked to be about seven and was quite a natural. I smiled at him when he did a particularly good layup. After that he looked at me for approval every time he made a shot. Or asked his mom to look. Or tried to get the attention of anyone else. The fruits, perhaps, of our over-praising culture on display.


And there was Henry: bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, running, jumping, tumbling, falling and bouncing some more. I watched him play contentedly on his own—such a first-child trait—completely oblivious to “Anthony!” even when Anthony and one of the babysitter’s charges started punching each other and had to be broken up by Anthony’s mom.

I watched him turn around on a set of padded stairs and go back the way he came when another child climbed up the opposite direction.

My sweet, non-confrontational boy. The one who never hit or bit, who preferred puzzles to balls. Mommy’s little cerebral child-lock dismantler, born good-natured, just like Daddy.

He’s going to get eaten alive on The Playground. The thought floated unbidden through my mind. Not this playground in particular. But some playground in the future. The Playground of life.

The Future Is Now

But let’s not be melodramatic, right? I would not even have written this post if a glimpse of that future had not unfurled before my eyes.

Anthony had teamed up with his former punching-bag, Punching-Bag’s brother and another boy. They were all around the same age and had begun running wildly around the gym until they made it to the bouncy lane where Henry was playing.

Then: “Hey black-shirt,” one of them called to Henry, “get away from here!” Henry didn’t understand. He thought they wanted to play with him, so he bounced over laughing. The boys ran away and then came back and yelled at him again. I could see he was getting a little confused.

I sat back and watched. I did. I swear. I watched these older boys pick on a younger boy. My younger boy. Practice what you preach, and all that.

Until finally they all jumped onto the soft landing pad in a bunch, and Anthony smacked Henry across the face.

From there, for me, there was one thought and one thought alone: get my child away from them. All reaction; all mama bear.

I jumped up, looked at Anthony’s mom across the gym and pointed her in the direction of her son, who was blocked from her line of sight by a column (well played, Anthony).

“No hitting,” I said sternly and loudly to Anthony.

Just then, Punching-Bag kicked Henry.

“NO. HITTING,” I said to him in a scary, scary voice I scarcely recognized as my own.

I’m pretty sure disciplining someone else’s child goes in the category of “never, ever, ever.”

At the same time, I’m pretty sure that if either of those kids had continued to hit my son, I would have pulled their little bodies off him and tossed them to the padded ground.

I felt in that moment like I do in a crisis. A real crisis. I might be hysterical and helpless in the face of a sink over-filled with dirty dishes, but in emergencies I become a machine. My mouth goes dry, but I am completely composed. When Rayne was in a car accident in the back of a cab, I was so calm on the phone, telling him which hospital to instruct the ambulance to take him to, putting on my hospital badge, walking through the door of the ER and asking for my husband like I was ordering a sandwich. I suppose that is what my particular "fight" instinct looks like.

The kids dispersed and Anthony’s mom dragged him away. Punching-Bag’s babysitter did nothing.

Instead of making a big deal, I went back to my place and watched Henry’s look of betrayal melt away as he got back up and continued to bounce, bounce, bounce.


“He was an easy target,” Rayne said later. “He was alone, he was smaller.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks. “They were four five-year-olds picking on a two-and-a-half-year-old, for all they knew.” He is so small for his age.

“They’re bullies,” he said. “It’s going to happen, though. He’s going to get hurt playing a sport; when he’s 14 a girl will break his heart; and he will get teased on the playground.”

“I can’t do this.”

“I know you. You want the world to be perfect.”

“I want the world to be fair.”

“But it’s not.”

“I hate that.”

“I know.”

How Do You Handle Bullies?

I don’t know what I should have done. Nothing? Something more? He’s probably too small for any such conversation right now, but in a few years do I tell him to walk away? Hit back? 

What is the appropriate response to bullying?


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