Eichmann On The Playground

May 12, 2011

There’s nothing like being away from home and getting a text from your spouse that says call me as soon as you can.

It’s about Emilia, he says when I call.

What about Emilia? I don’t know what the right words are to express, here, how shrill my voice was. ‘Shrill’ works decently well, I suppose. My voice was shrill.

She came home from school with a note. It said that she hit Madeleine, and that L and C were involved, and…

At which point I tuned out, a little, because I needed to take a moment to exhale. Everything’s okay, nothing happened to her, everything’s okay, she just hit another child. And then I had to take another moment, because wait, what? My child hit another child.

Oh god, is she a bully?

The story, as it turned out, was not at all simple. Emilia, when asked, insisted that her (older and bigger) friends had hit poor Madeleine first, and that they’d insisted that it was ‘play hitting’ and that she had to do it too or they wouldn’t be her friend anymore. And she said that she hadn’t wanted to do it, and that she’d been confused about what to do, and that she’d felt really bad about what she did, and that she said sorry to Madeleine, like, a hundred times.

But you knew that hitting was wrong, Kyle said to her. Yes, Daddy, she replied. But I’m only five, and even though I knew it was wrong I was still confused. I didn’t want them to hit me. I didn’t know what to do.

What does one do with this? Emilia is one of the youngest children in her French Immersion kindergarten class, and the youngest among the girls, girls that her teacher described to me once as ‘all Alphas, every last one of them, and more than a little bit socially aggressive.’ I hadn’t been bothered by this state of things, when Mme Santos described them to me, because she’d also told me that Emilia frequently stood up to them, and asserted her independence from them , and was unafraid to be vocal in expressing her sense of injustice. But there was still one small, nagging worry: mightn’t it serve her better if she were able to get along with at least some of them? Not if it meant following the clique, of course, but maybe she need not resist them so aggressively? Mightn’t she otherwise end up a loner, at five? And, oh god, how is it that we even have to worry about this, when she’s just five?

And now here we are, facing a situation in which – it sounds like – Emilia is being bullied into being a bully, and her vulnerability to being so bullied is stemming, apparently, from a desire to not be excluded, which is exactly what I’d worried about for her – being excluded – but it seems that I worried wrong, and that maybe she was better off excluding herself, and – again - oh god she is only five years old what does this all mean?

I don’t want her to be a mean girl. I don’t want her to play with mean girls. I don’t want her to be bullied by mean girls. I don’t want her to be a bully in order to be accepted by mean girls. I don’t even know what it means to describe 5 and 6 year old girls as ‘mean girls.’ Maybe it’s not even fair to describe 5 and 6 year old girls as ‘mean girls,’ when they are, really, still just so young and still learning what means to navigate a social landscape and to move ethically and civilly within that landscape, to abide by the rules and norms of their own community and the larger community, and also to recognize when some or the other of those rules and norms are unjust.

Then again, children can be assholes. Emilia has her tyrannical impulses. It would be naive of me to assume that children her age aren’t – it would be naive of me to assume that she isn’t – capable of social tyranny. The question is, are they capable of understanding the implications of what they’re doing? Hannah Arendt insisted that Adolf Eichmann was not a monster, but that he was, perhaps, a clown; an ignorant man. Small children, likewise, are not monsters – honey badger jokes aside – nor are they clowns. But they lack developed faculties of critical reasoning, moral or otherwise, and they are as vulnerable as anyone – perhaps more vulnerable – to lapses of judgment under conditions of fear. As Emilia put it, she’s only five. Sorting through the nuances of right and wrong in the context of highly charged social dynamics – to say nothing of, in the context of social fear – can be challenging for grown-ups, never mind kindergartners.

Hannah Arendt insisted that “under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not.” I want my daughter to be among the latter. I want my daughter to be the sort of person who puts her own fears aside when faced with the kind of choice that she faced the other day; I want my daughter to be the sort of person who is willing to risk exclusion and bullying to protect someone else. It breaks my heart that she’s facing these dilemma now. It breaks my heart because it seems that she isn’t ready for them. It breaks my heart that she failed one of her first tests. It breaks my heart that I call this – this struggle, this lesson – failing, and that I judged her for it.

She’s still so small. And it’s such a big, complicated world.

I want to guide her well. I’m so frightened that I might fail.

(Please note, all, that I am not suggesting in the title to this post that my daughter is like Adolf Eichmann. I’m suggesting that the problem of bullying involves some Eichmann-ish dynamics, and, more to the point, that Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann and the so-called banality of evil applies to how we might understand the sometimes disturbing moral character of the playground, to say nothing of the politics of that playground. Which is NOT to say that all children turn into Nazis the minute they form tribes in such spaces. It’s just to say that any analysis of good and evil therein is complicated. See also: William Golding, George Orwell.

It’s also worth noting that I’m overthinking this. But that’s what I do.)

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    { 63 comments }

    Mandy May 12, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Imagine my shock when my 5 (now 6) year old bit another child at the beginning of kindergarten this year. My child who has NEVER bitten anyone. And it was his friend.

    Children are good for many things including more grey hairs. I’m sure Emilia will be fine, that you and your husband will guide her well. Kindergarten for the first child is as much a rite of passage as it is for the parents who are navigating it for the first time too.

    Barbara May 12, 2011 at 10:45 am

    To have read this today makes me understand that we are not alone as parents. Each child is different and navigating around social obstacles that baffle us as adults. Girls are mean, girls are stubborn and girls can be full of compassion.
    It comes down to learning from mistakes and growing – but by god – growing can hurt.
    Great heart felt post!
    Barb

    Loukia May 12, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Children can be mean. And when these situations start coming up, well, this is when parenthood gets really hard. The early days? Piece of cake compared to now.

    Minka May 12, 2011 at 11:50 am

    @Loukia, as a wise woman once told me: Little kids, little problems. Big kids, bigger problems.

    So damn true.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 10:34 am

    @Minka, SO DAMN TRUE.

    Jessica May 12, 2011 at 10:54 am

    It was a new situation and she didn’t choose as wisely as she could have, but as long as she learns from it — and I’m pretty sure she has, considering it sounds as though she was pretty upset about it — she’ll be fine.

    And so will you, btw. *hug*

    Minka May 12, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Fail is a bad word, and I mean this in the context of you failing your child, or Emilia failing this first “test.” So much is in flux. We, as parents, are constantly changing and learning, and so are our kids. This is a good thing. Being flexible and able to learn and grow and change are all good things.

    My son — my sweet, vulnerable son whom I’d worried so much about becoming the victim of bullies once he entered school because he’s just too damn nice (witness all the shit he takes from his older sister, yet almost instantly forgives her — when frankly, she doesn’t deserve to get off so easily) — got into Kindergarten, and I essentially got the same phone call you did. But FROM HIS TEACHER. I saw her name on the caller i.d. in the middle of the school day and my heart stopped:
    “Hi, it’s Mrs. blah blah”,
    Me: “Oh god, is Owen (not my son’s real name; sorry) okay?”
    Teacher: Well, there was an incident. A fight.
    Me: Oh my god… (I knew it! I knew it! He’s too damn nice! All my fears coming true….)
    Teacher: It was an all out fist-fight. Two teachers had to pull them apart. It was the likes of which we usually don’t see with boys at this age.
    Me: what???
    Teacher: Billy (not his real name) was harassing Owen. Which is not surprising. Billy does this with a lot of kids. Owen apparently asked him to stop, several times. Owen, as you know, is very verbal and articulate. But Billy is relentless. So… Owen hit him.
    Me: WHAT????? (the fuck? are you shitting me???)
    Teacher: And then the fists were flying. And then they were pulled apart…. and apparently ran back to each other and started fighting a second time.

    But by this point, I’m barely hearing what she’s saying, because I’m (ashamed to say) smiling, because — holy shit! My son actually stood up for himself! He didn’t take shit from a bully! Yes!!!
    And then the reality set in. Oh crap. My son started a fight!
    The teacher was very understanding. She went on to say what a good kid my son is, how kind and sensitive and popular with everyone in the class; how Billy has social issues and is a big challenge for her as a teacher. So, she would leave it to me to discipline Owen when he got home.

    So Owen gets home, and I’m like “how was your day?” and he’s like “(shrug) fine.” Me: “really?” him: “yep. can I have a snack? I’m hungry.” Me: “so… anything unusual happen? y’know anything you wanna talk about?” him: “Nah. Hey, can I also maybe watch tv for a few minutes while I eat my snack?” Me: “Owen — are you sure there’s nothing you wanna tell me?”
    He looks up at me. Sighs. “You mean the thing with Billy, don’t you.”
    Me: Duh.
    Him: He wouldn’t stop bothering me. I told him and told him and told him and asked him and said that what he was doing was bothering me and would he please stop… and he didn’t and I asked him again, and he still wouldn’t stop. So finally I had to smack him in the head.
    Me: (trying not to laugh, because… seriously…) So you started it?
    Him: the first time. but he started it the second time.

    Which then became me lecturing how you never ever start a fight. That you use your words. How if someone doesn’t listen, you walk away. The only time you use your fists is if you are in serious physical peril, if someone’s about to hit you, you push them away from you. (okay, I admit it, somewhere in here, I probably did say… if it’s the only way you can defend yourself, then yeah — you gotta hit back. Hard. Hard enough to make them stop hitting you. But NEVER hit first. Never be the one to start.) (Note — I had the crap kicked out of me as a kid, so unless you had a similar experience, you can’t possibly know that this is very important advice to tell a kid. Your survival might depend on it.)

    My point is — he has since never hit anyone at school or anywhere else. (unless his sister counts). So one incident does not a sociopath make. Or a bad child. Or a naive/clueless parent. But I think it was important that he knew he could stand up for himself. And things with Billy improved to the point where they became friends.

    On the other hand, my daughter has been dealing with shit since preschool. The peer pressure is horrible with girls, and I believe that even at 5 or 6 yrs old, some of these kids are already pretty nasty.

    Our challenge, as parents, is to recognize that it’s not black or white in the classroom. You have to manage to not cave to peer pressure, but you also have to show that you’re strong, or else you become a target. Pacifism is fine, but young kids don’t respect it right away nor understand it. They see it as a weakness, as fear. And likes animals who smell fear… well, you get where I’m going.

    There have been MONTHS where every single day my daughter gets home from school and a therapy/counseling session ensues over how to deal with the little bitches in her grade. (She was a new student at the school this year, so it was doubly hard for her). It has been exhausting and upsetting. But I’ve found that these are phases. That they pass. That the most important thing is that she knows she can come to me and we can discuss them realistically. Pragmatically. That I will give her real-world advice, not preachy platitudes. I will literally give her specific come-backs and retorts for when stupid girls say mean and stupid things.

    I always tell her never to lower herself to their level, that this will make her no better than the girls she’s upset about, but to also let them know that she won’t take their crap. As soon as you take crap, you invite a lot more crap. If anything, I have to strenuously encourage her to stand up for herself, because though it sucks in the short-term, it will vastly help her in the long term.

    My parents never helped me combat the bullies. They didn’t know what to do. They gave me standard issue bullshit parental advice, and ultimately I stopped speaking to them about anything that was going on in school. To the point where, even now, my mother will end up losing sleep if she overhears me telling someone else about something horrible that happened to me in elementary school or junior high.

    Your daughter will, no doubt, have more missteps. But they aren’t really missteps. They’re lessons. The world is a big, messy place. And they learn to navigate it on the playground and in the classroom. Don’t blame her, or yourself. This is how we experiment with different approaches to problem-solving that we can then extrapolate as we reach adulthood.

    Just keep talking to her. Talk to her about how her behavior FELT. Good kids, normal kids, KNOW when they’ve done something wrong because it feels wrong to them. They just sometimes can’t process these feelings.

    Your daughter is hardly Eichmann. But I bet some of those other girls are (in a manner of speaking, obviously). And though it is hideous for her now, it is good that she’s learning that the world is filled with people like this, and she’ll know how to recognize them and ultimately distance herself from them. She’ll appreciate the truly good and kind people she meets; she won’t take those people for granted.

    She has you for a mother. She will be fine. (ps — sorry this is so long; I just have VERY strong feelings about bullying… obviously).

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 10:37 am

    @Minka, I agree, the word failure is too strong, which is why I felt badly about it, and wrung my hands for judging it as failure. And it is all LESSONS. It’s still hard, though, when they stumble through those lessons, and struggle with them – especially when it’s so hard to tell, sometimes, how we can help. If we can help at all, that is. Argh.

    (and, no, of course she’s not Eichmann. but I do consider it an Eichmann-ish moment, any such moment when one is called upon to yield/obey to bad direction. I had not seen this moment coming for Emilia so young.)

    Minka May 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    @Her Bad Mother, you are definitely too hard on yourself (no duh, you’re probably thinking!), but I guess many of us are. you used the word failure because that was your fear; that’s every parent’s fear (or at least the good ones who care). it was you being honest. every moment, all of these “lessons” seem so big and so… impactful and significant, as though every move, every action, will be what ultimately drives our kids to the therapist’s couch later in life, or lands them in jail, or maybe to curing cancer. we imbue every moment with so much meaning and power. unwring those hands! you are a great mom, and better to over-think than under-think. sometimes I think when these things happen, as did with Emilia, it’s not so much the child’s innocence that is lost (ie they’re confronted with these kinds choices and the idea that there’s “evil” in this world, though that is an exaggeration of the highest magnitude in this case), it’s our innocence as parents. sigh.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    @Minka, I love that you said ‘no duh.’

    Also, yes: NO DUH.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    @Minka, (and, also, yes – it’s our innocence as parents. it’s exactly that. it’s like we’re growing up too, with all the pains and all.)

    Minka May 13, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    @Her Bad Mother, that’s the part no one tells you about. I mean NO ONE — the parents’ loss of innocence. they tell you about the pain (you’ll be exhausted! you won’t get to go out to dinner as often! ask – nay, demand! – an epidural!), about the joy of getting to see things through a child’s eyes, but not about having our illusions stripped. about having to rediscover the weakness and awfulness of humanity through a child’s eyes — or sometimes our own eyes, when looking at our own child. being a grown-up utterly blows.

    Sarah May 12, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I’ve often worried about similar things with my younger son. It doesn’t help that he’s a head taller than everyone in his grade– so if he ‘went along with the crowd’ of other larger, active boys, his aggression could really harm someone. On the flip side– I don’t want him to feel embarrassed about his height/size, nor do I want him to feel ostracized. Such a difficult path to walk as a parent.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    @Sarah, I’m bracing myself to worry about this with Jasper, who is freakishly strong and growing to be SO BIG. He’s already had one or two incidents where he’s accidentally knocked other kids down… I’m anxious about what it will be like as he gets even bigger and faces temptations to use his strength. Gah.

    sarah May 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    @Her Bad Mother, at first i thought you said, “knocked other kids out”… now THAT might be something to worry about! hehe….

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    @sarah, believe me, I fear that day is coming.

    Issa May 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    The thing is, she didn’t fail. She learned. She didn’t like what she did and maybe next time she will stand up and make a different choice. Because this? This girls issues, won’t go away. It’s still evident here in this very space at times and hell, we are all adult women with families of our own. It never goes away Catherine. The only thing that changes is how we deal with it as it comes up. Five or forty-five, we all have to learn these lessons.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    @Issa, yes, Minka said something similar above. I do need to look at this as a LESSON.

    Issa May 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    @Her Bad Mother, And as much as we want too? We can’t keep them from making mistakes and having to learn from it, anymore than our mother’s could with us.

    Parenting, isn’t it grand?

    The Woman Formerly Known as Beautiful May 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Or you could do what our parents did in the ’70s, drink a few martinis, do a husband swap and let Emilia parent you! This virtually guarantees a conscientious child.

    EarnestGirl May 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    This is how we learn. Her learning and yours. And yes, hearts will break, and then they will mend, grow stronger, know a little more next time. And still, it will happen again. High school will come, those healed up cracks will be tested. Sometimes they’ll fail. Sometimes so will we.

    I want to have good answers. I don’t. And the feeling of sending my girl, still so small, the social matrix so complicated, her heart still so exposed, into the hallways and the pressures and yes, into the arms of the mean girls, never fails to tear again at the seams of mine. And yet. We must let them go so they can learn.

    I just wish the learning didn’t hurt so very much.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    @EarnestGirl, “And the feeling of sending my girl, still so small, the social matrix so complicated, her heart still so exposed, into the hallways and the pressures and yes, into the arms of the mean girls, never fails to tear again at the seams of mine.” <— THIS. Oh, god. THIS.

    Colleen May 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    There are absolutely mean girls already in Kindergarten. I also never figured we’d have to deal with bullying as early as Kindergarten… but already Zoe has on girl who has slapped her, made her hand over her snack, convinced her to eat on the bus, and has just been a bully. It just breaks my heart that I already have to teach my 5 year old to deal.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    @Colleen, Emilia’s best friend (a boy) was bullied all through the fall on his bus route. His mother would tell me about it and about her efforts to get the bus service to address it and I would be all, ‘but, what? really? THEY’RE FIVE.’ I was astounded. I was wrong.

    Jenifer May 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I could write a novel here, but won’t! I can assure it ebbs and flows and girls are just plain mean when they have the power of a group behind them. My eldest (grade 5) was targetted for sticking up for the girl that was being ignored and bullied in her group of friends. Parents got involved – it got ugly.

    All I kept telling her was you are free to be friends with whomever you want, if they ignore you for it so be it. It proves they were never real friends in the first place. While the out and out tormenting has stopped my daughter and another girl are on the outside of the big group. They seem fine with it and play together. It has been such a lesson for all of us and I felt (and still feel) hopelessly unqualified to be dealing with this some days. Basically, the teachers know who these kids are and have to walk a fine line because most parents are in complete denial.

    The level of cruelty these girls showed was absolutely eye-opening for me and I am keeping a much closer eye on what is going on in the classroom.

    I think you are doing a great job, it is not easy to hear something about your child that shocks you, but rarely is it ever black and white.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    @Jenifer, thank you. and I am definitely keeping a closer eye on the classroom. but GOD – I thought that I already did have a good understanding of what went on there. Obviously not. Which is part of what alarms me, I suppose.

    Retired Bully May 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I think that bullies are an oppressed group. Seriously. I thought this even when I was a kid. Why, you ask? Because practically everyone is a bully – the only ones who aren’t the ones who never get a chance. Yes, there are some kids that are just straight-out psychos. But for the most part, it’s not the poor bullied kids on one side versus the mean old bullies on the other. Most kids are bullied AND bully others. The best you can hope for is that they don’t get too deep into that cycle. But the “discourse” (if I may be so pretentious) around bullying has an especially tendentious us-versus-them quality – a quality that is downright laughable when you realize that it’s often coming from sanctimonious prigs who are forever lecturing the rest of us about the evils of “otherness” (a form of soft adult buyllying, methinks). But when it comes to bullying, there are no “others”: we are all bullies; we are all bullied. I suspect that adults who get all hot and bothered about bullying are just trying to over-compensate for the fact that, in addition to the same of having once been bullied…they were also bullies themselves, when they could get away with it. Bullying is fact of life growing up. Talk about it like it’s a pure anathema and you’ll only be cutting yourself off from your kids’ world. Embrace your inner bully: it’s the first step in coming to terms with the reality of the phenomena, and thus towards helping your kids overcome it.

    Her Bad Mother May 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    @Retired Bully, thank you for this. This is one of the reasons that I invoked Arendt’s ‘Eichmann In Jerusalem’ – to underscore the point that part of what this episode demonstrated to me *was* that bullying is not black and white, that it’s not monsters and sociopaths against victims, that it’s complicated, that an ordinary person can be compelled to nasty things, that a child – MY child – could be so compelled.

    We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the shades of gray.

    Alligator May 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    @Her Bad Mother,

    Yes this discussion immediately made me think of something I had read in NurtureShock (and this accompanying article) about the social hierarchy of school children. I agree with retired bully that most of us are bullies and were bullied and that the issue is grey and it’s not ‘us vs them’. here’s a link to the article… interesting.

    http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/nurture-shock/2009/09/14/the-social-hierarchy-of-preschoolers.html

    Her Bad Mother May 15, 2011 at 9:06 am

    @Alligator, thanks so much for that link! Very, very helpful.

    corasmom May 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Another mother affirming the presence of bullies at 5 years old – my daughter has two in her preschool class. I started hearing that, at journal time, they would write my daughter’s name and then cross it out. She shrugged and said she didn’t care, but if she told me about it, I know she does care.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    @corasmom, preschool? UGH. that hurts my heart.

    corasmom May 14, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    @Her Bad Mother, Yes. She was the new girl and I think that had more to do with it than anything else. I came across a book recently: Little Girls Can be Mean – haven’t had a chance to read it, but have read good reviews. The fact that I had to get on the waiting list at the library for it gives me pause. Sad, but maybe also it means more parents are aware of it.

    Her Bad Mother May 15, 2011 at 9:08 am

    @corasmom, thanks for the book recommendation. I know that one or two commenters here are uncomfortable with the gendered character of the term ‘mean girls’, but I really do think that there *is* something gendered about this. Or at least, in this case – Emilia’s teacher and I had a discussion about how this dynamic is only occurring among the girls (and how Emilia had been avoiding it by playing with the boys… until now.)

    Sara May 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    We’ve been dealing with mean girls at my daughter’s school for the last two years, too. Thankfully it hasn’t escalated to anything physical…yet. Although a conspiracy among the picked-upons to beat up one of the meanest girls was headed off last year. In kindergarten. The best my husband and I have been able to do has been to encourage Amelia to do what she knows is right, realize she can’t change the behavior of other people, and choose her friends wisely. It’s a tall order for someone who is barely seven years old, but she seems to be fulfilling it. Her teacher consistently tells us how impressed she is with Amelia’s ability to stay out of the ugliness among most of the girls. Here’s hoping we and she will be able to keep it up for the next 11 years…

    bea May 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Oh, we are in parallel worlds this week, Catherine. I got a note home from the teacher last week saying that Pie had played a “mean trick” (unspecified) on her best friend, that she and her two best friends were constantly fighting and bickering, that it was going onto her report card, and that she would be placed in a separate class from these other two girls next year. I’ve spent the whole week trying to ferret out what’s really going on, and I suspect that a big part of it is that Pie has a lot more confidence this year and so she is not quite the “follower” personality she was last year. She and her best friend butt heads now a lot, and when they do there is always that convenient third friend to join up with in a two-on-one. So yes, we want our daughters to be courageous, to stand up to others – but most five-year-olds don’t necessarily know how to stand up for themselves without exhibiting behaviours that are themselves mean and cruel.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    @bea, *sigh*

    See, for Emilia it’s been a little bit the opposite – she was resistant to following the other girls and was doing her own thing, playing with the boys. The last parent-teacher conference we had was almost entirely about that, about her independence and her tendency to keep away from the bigger girls (and, on occasion, call them out.) Now, it seems, she’s started to do a little following… it is because she’s become a little less confident? Is it because she’s become more sensitive to the boy/girl divide and trying to align herself more with the girls? Have the bigger girls just upped the pressure on her? Ugh.

    But yes – I totally agree that it is a difficult path to navigate, between wanting them to be well-behaved and polite and accommodating and at the same time independent and confident and able and willing to speak up and stand up for themselves. God, parenting is hard.

    Heather Meyers May 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    My child was bullied by the boy across the street and by my parents just as I was. I have to say that I think it’s so much better for them to learn these lessons and make these mistakes with other children, then to have to deal with an adult bullying them. I would rather invite the boy across the street into my home and let them learn from each other than to let a grown man pick on her and make her learn about bullying. (The boy is only five, after all.)
    And in the end I think that’s all that happened. Your daughter made a mistake. It happens. One mistake doesn’t matter nearly so much as long term patterns of behavior.

    Her Bad Mother May 15, 2011 at 9:09 am

    @Heather Meyers, adults bullying children is horrible, horrible. we call that abuse, right?

    Lisa May 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Okay, first, I am shocked you have to deal with this at age 5. My head would explode. I’m so sorry.

    Second, can we dispense with “mean girls”? It doesn’t even seem apt here, since we’re talking about hitting, not emotional abuse. But even so, can’t we just say “mean kids”?

    I would probably have similar reactions as you. I think I’d say to my kid something like, “Getting hit is scary. I would be afraid if someone was going to hit me, because it would hurt. But you know what’s worse? Living with yourself when you are the one that hits.

    You are only 5 and it’s not fair that you have to make this kind of choice, already, at such a young age. But we can’t change that. In this family, we stand up for other people. It can be hard. Sometimes we get hurt in the process, but it’s not nearly as bad as the hurt your heart feels when you do something you know is wrong.”

    I would definitely want to talk to Madeline’s parents and the other girls, as well. Maybe this isn’t the right school or maybe it is. It must be just wrenching to think that you tried so hard to find the right school for her, only to get to this awful place.

    Her Bad Mother May 13, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    @Lisa, the ‘mean girl’ reference was meant to refer to the psychological pressure being applied to compel her to join them in bullying, which is, if not emotionally abusive, at least emotionally manipulative. And there is, obviously, much more that can and should be said about this, but at least on Emilia’s playground, that emotional dynamic is very much gendered. So while I agree that the ‘mean girls’ thing can be misapplied or even misused, I don’t think that it is here. But, sure, it could stand more interrogation.

    And yeah, it is wrenching. DO NOT WANT.

    Tarasview May 12, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    My oldest son has Autism- he is 9. He is high-functioning and if you saw him you wouldn’t know he was “different” … right away anyway. Until he threw a fit anyway. Then you’d know.

    We have been dealing with bully-like behaviour both TO him and FROM him forever. It is stressful and painful and devastating… I have no advice. Just wanted you to know I understand.

    Being a kid is tough.
    Being that kid’s parent is even tougher :)

    Teresa May 13, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    @Tarasview, Just wanted to say that I am in your situation, and it is tough, especially when people just assume your kid is a bully/you’re a bad parent, etc. You can’t “see” my son’s Aspergers, so there’s no understanding from other parents or even the school usually.

    The other kids know how to push his buttons to get a “reaction,” and then when he loses it, he’s the “bully.”

    Sandra May 12, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    My daughter is a December baby and is also, like E, the youngest girl in her SK class. Some of the girls are much more sophisticated than she is but she plays with all the girls but for one. She hasn’t experienced any out and out bullying yet.

    I do worry a bit that she may be “bullied” but because she is relatively unaware and unsophisticated that she will either go along with whatever is suggested or be oblivious to it.

    She’s holding her own and I am proud of her for handling a full day SK parochial school in essence one full year earlier than many of her classmates who were born in January. So far she is very happy.

    Lisa May 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    It isn’t just mean girls. Boys can be pretty mean, too.

    My son has always been the one to stick up for the person being bullied, to befriend that child. Most of the time, anyway (he isn’t perfect). But now, at 12, he is being bullied. He is bigger than most kids his age (5 ft 8 1/2) and very gentle, a musician. Because of his size, most people expect him to be an athlete – but he doesn’t have a competitive streak in him.

    He is currently being called fag, gay, queer, queef. His opinion is that the school does nothing about it. This past weekend, he put his feelings in writing. I scanned the letter and emailed it to the principal today, after I finally got the name/details of the kid doing the name-calling. I knew if I didn’t press too hard he would tell me.

    The school has worked with other parents to end the problems, I’m hoping to have the same results. It’s hard when your child is begging to be homeschooled.

    Her Bad Mother May 15, 2011 at 9:12 am

    @Lisa, Emilia’s best friend – a boy – has been bullied, too, although not by other boys his age, but by bigger boys on the school bus. I’ve said in a few comments here that I think there’s a gendered dynamic at play (hence my use of the term ‘mean girls’) but we really should NOT overlook the fact that boys bully and get bullied too.

    Sophia May 12, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Our little guy is so perfect now (under a year). He doesn’t do anything manipulative or mean spirited. He cries when he hungry or tired, otherwise, he’s such a happy boy.

    I know that will change as he navigates the complexities of childhood social interaction. Surely, one day he will bully or be bullied or probably both and I’m not looking forward to the day when I realize my son is being a jerk to other kids.

    Theresa May 12, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Bullying must be in the air. I was writing about it today too, except how I was bullied as a child. Your little girl sounds like she just needs to learn how to deal with these kinds of situations. You are an awesome mom and you will deal with it just fine. If not, thats why there are military schools now, right? (ps, kidding)

    Her Bad Mother May 15, 2011 at 9:13 am

    @Theresa, I’ll check out your post, thanks :) (and I’m not really joking when I joke about homeschooling her, mostly)

    Francesca May 12, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    This post is timely to say the least. My son started kindergarten this year and was placed in a class with a friend from his daycare, who, it turns out, is a bully. We know his parents well and like them immensely. But we’ve always known that their son is, well a bit different. The recently split up and this has led to many insecurities in their son and it is obviously these which are being played out in his bullying behaviour.

    At first, I was desperate for my son to make new and other friends. To distance himself from this bullying friend to ensure that he didn’t start bullying himself (and I was worried about a couple of things I heard). But I really started to look at the motivations behind EVERYONE’S behaviour and I realised that it wasn’t as simple as it looked. Suddenly I saw his bullying friend as vulnerable, insecure, lost and struggling with the huge change going to big school brings on top of his parents separating. When I managed to do this, I stopped being so protective of my son and felt more empowered to have good conversations with him about what was going on. This helped alot. They’re still friends but they are certainly not bullying anymore and I now know my son has the courage to tell his friend not to do it. I’m sure playground antics still exist and that they have days of ‘fighting’ with others but I do know that my son is getting better at understanding more appropriate behaviour and thinking of others’ feelings.

    Christine May 12, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    I like retired bully’s point. I have memories of joining in the group tormenting some poor girl on the bus. I still feel really bad about it. I also remember being bullied and how my parents helped me get through that. It is a fact of life.

    barefootwords May 13, 2011 at 3:50 am

    We do this. We do this every day. The world is inundated with petty and insignificant peccadillos, which inflate themselves and allow others to be hurt. Just listen to an update on Libya or the Ivory Coast.

    Sitting with a group of fairly ‘new’ girlfriends yesterday, I asked after the absence of one of our new ‘friends.’ Now, if I had stopped to think, I would have realized that I was not asking after D, I was asking, really, what the others thought of her. What I chose to do in asking such an open ended question, was give free reign to comments which started out cautious, then spiraled into just plain old nasty. And I found those comments interesting, which displays the bullying side of my own character.

    So, in essence, I at 38, am no better than a five year old, except that I could have predicted where that question would lead us. And no, I did not hit anyone, and no, I did not contribute to the mocking that ensued, but I asked the question, I participated.

    Truth is, if you want to know how mean kids get started, look at their parents. How often are we unkind? Which cliques do we belong to? How does our language, gesture, habits categorize us, exclude others and create us v.s. them conflict? What we are dealing with in early childhood is a microcosm of the constructs of society. The only thing we can do is train children to ask themselves, *what can I do better next time?* If we can get our girls and boys to articulate these injustices and learn to prepare themselves for the situations that WILL come, we can give them a tool to improve the world.

    The whole thing reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, a short story demonstrating how just ordinary plain folks in their own home town can ferociously injure each other. It doesn’t even need to enter the realm of psychosis or mass destruction. Those ‘friends’ yesterday were my new mother’s group, and we sat and talked that talk as we fed our 6 month old babies. Now what has my daughter learned from me, already?

    Mrs. Wilson May 13, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    I had an incident with my then-7-year-old daughter that involved her being the bully – in a group – to a little boy. The little boy was actually the one who talked to me about it when I was waiting outside for my kid. My heart broke for him.

    I hate this bullying thing. I hate that it’s an issue. I hate that some kids deem it necessary to turn other kids into bullies as well. I completely agree with you though. I’d much rather my child exclude herself than join in the bullying, but how do we do such a thing?

    Parenting is so very hard sometimes. (Or, all the time.) (And it just gets harder each day your child gets older.)

    ahdra May 13, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    My 4yo daughter experienced some bullying this year in preschool. Preschool for crying out loud! I thought I had at least a few more years. I was wrong. We have already talked about this stuff so much with our kids because we are a TRA family, but she is so petite, and so shy and so willing to follow.

    I just wrote a post about these kinds of things. (I think a link will show at the end of my comment?)

    I’m realizing the idea of bullying, and its many faces, takes up a lot of brain space for me. First, because I was bullied, then because of what goes on in the world, and now, because I have children. Having children go through it though? That is the worst by far.

    The whole point of my post though is that hopefully as adults, we can figure out a way to stop bullying each other, in small ways and big. But children…children seem to be almost harder at times to get to change, and of course to reason with!

    ahdra May 13, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Ooops…I don’t do the feed thing, so here’s a link:

    http://slowsuburbansafari.blogspot.com/2011/05/death-of-enemy.html

    Candace May 13, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I worry. I worry about this kind of thing SO MUCH. I was bullied as a child, as a teenager, and by my mother, and while I don’t my son to be bullied, I’m so desperate for him not to be on the other side of that coin.

    We moved him to another daycare about three months ago, for many reasons, but one of the main ones being that he was being bitten by another child, over and over again, without anything truly being done to address it. He’s never been a hitter, never been a biter, but I didn’t want him being bitten to cause that same sort of reaction in him in kind.

    A note came home from daycare last week – he hit another child with a toy. And then on the line underneath that statement, it stated one more word. Unprovoked. That just made my heart stop. Not MY child. Impossible!

    I want to be able to say he’s just… at that stage. To flap my hands and say, “It’s just the one time,” but where do we draw the line between helicopter parenting and rolling with it, and seeing where we end up in a few years?

    I feel ineffectual and lost on this, and not at all prepared. Are we ever?

    chezmonchichi May 14, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I have a daughter in preschool whose birthday is in the Fall and is the youngest in her class. She can keep up with everyone “intellectually” (if there’s such a thing for preschool), so I haven’t been concerned. However, her pediatrician said that one of the benefits of holding girls back a year (with late birthdays) is that it’s difficult for them in the social context among girls because of this social aggression that is inevitable. Being the oldest girl somehow gives them greater confidence (as they develop breasts, discuss periods, get their driver’s license) which can help them through these trials.

    I have no idea whether this is true and wonder if anyone has thoughts on holding girls back to be the oldest in their class helps avoid or at least deflect these challenges.

    Alison Golden May 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Parent of 5th graders here. This is just the start. Things can get ugly. It’s important, as in all things parenting related, to keep things in perspective. Because others around you will lose their ability to be rational and reasonable. And you want to be the sane one.

    Now that I’ve given you the doom and gloom, the tools. Keep talking to your child, keep instilling value lessons, don’t rescue her too much and do it less and less as time goes on. Do not get hysterical or overly punitive and do not beat up on the authority figures, at least not when your child is present.

    It may not get better in the short term or even for many years but you have to play the long game. You can only do that if you exercise calm and restraint. Plenty of others won’t do that and then you’ll be the one standing at the end of the day. With a smart, strong child all grown up.

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting May 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I’m late to the game here and I didn’t read all of the comments. I was bullied starting in preschool (I was 4) and all the way through elementary school and high school. There were the lead bullies, those who did their dirty work for them, those who bullied others to protect themselves, and those who somehow had the strength to opt out of it all. I wish I knew what it takes for a kid to be in that last group, because that is where I want my kids to be.

    Boozlebox May 16, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    I like the book “Best Friends, Worst Enemies”. It explains a lot and reminded me that just because kids are mean sometimes, they are not necessarily mean kids. My oldest son has always suffered from being a low status child on the edge of a popular group and I have my heart broken regularly watching him struggle. It’s been a struggle every school year from around age 6 and it gets harder and harder!. But the truth is when he interacts with other lower status boys he can be hurtful too. And on the plus side, he is learning from the struggle and I think/ hope in the long run he’ll be ok. The hellish thing is seeing him lonely. I can see why he might put up with a situation that’s sometimes uncomfortable just to maintain some feeling of membership of a larger group. 

    I also naively thought my younger son would suffer less as he is one of the alpha boys in his year but that brings a whole other set of problems and insecurities.

    The good thing is I have had to examine my own behaviour as all I think you can do is listen and try and be a good role model.

    Interestingly I spoke to my 18 year old niece recently and she said the first three years of high school (aged 11-13 in uk) are hellish even if you are socially popular and socially skilled but she insists it gets better. So I’m living in hope! Probably small comfort for you with Emilia aged 5 though – sorry!

    kim May 16, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    As a former teacher, I find it interesting that her role, and that of the school, hasn’t come up in this discussion. I can guarantee you that there were at least two little girls whose learning was compromised that afternoon. And while I am a big fan of letting kids work out their own squabbles, there is absolutely no excuse for the kind of social and physical fear both E and M experienced that day. And yes, the other girls in this scenario are learning too – but unless that behavior is addressed and condemned as unacceptable, they will continue it. Why wouldn’t they?
    This should be addressed in the classroom, now, while children are learning how to learn. And retired bully is right in that all of us feel peer pressure at some level, although I disagree with the idea that anti-bullying education or rhetoric is black and white. The effective curriculum, at least at the elementary level, certainly isn’t. It is giving children the tools to effectively deal with these kinds of situations, if only to call it by a name, or a safe process to tell an adult what’s going on. It is teaching them to recognize that behavior in others, and yes, in themselves, so that they can monitor and modify it.
    To me, it is the teacher and the school that failed in this incident – not you, not your daughter.

    john cave osborne May 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    so, my last post compared cicadas w/ erstwhile Latino pop sensation Jon Secada. which in and of itself probably disqualifies me from saying anything about your fine effort here. always the rebel, however, i’ll still do just that, by God.

    i read this three times just b/c i was so fascinated w/ how your mind worked through it all. and each time, i found a new favorite part. i think ultimately, however, my favorite part was this:

    “But there was still one small, nagging worry: mightn’t it serve her better if she were able to get along with at least some of them? Not if it meant following the clique, of course, but maybe she need not resist them so aggressively? Mightn’t she otherwise end up a loner, at five? And, oh god, how is it that we even have to worry about this, when she’s just five?”

    why do i like it so much? because, to me, that paragraph explains it all.

    you mention that you’re over thinking this. (no argument here, thought the fellow over thinker!) and i truly believe your daughter over thought it, too. likely to such a degree that she was caught in the place you were articulating in my favorite paragraph. that spot in between. neither here nor there, but pondering both sides.

    she knew what was right. but she also also considered that maybe, indeed, it might be better for her if she could befriend some of these alpha little girls. that maybe it would be easier if she didn’t have to go it alone.

    so what did she do? deliver a weak punch followed by 100 apologies which sprung from her conscience that continues to feel guilty. hardly the work of a bully, if you ask me. yet not exactly someone putting her foot down and crying FOUL at the inhumanity of it all, either.

    so, sure, she didn’t pass. but she certainly didn’t fail, either. for this course? i give her an incomplete. after all, as the student, herself, proclaimed: she’s only five. there’s plenty left to be taught.

    (did i ever tell you that i love the full circle?)

    i loved this post!

    Louise May 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    As a French Immersion teacher, I have to say that what you do about this situation NOW is very important, because unless you move or take E out of FI, your child is going to be in the same classes with these same girls until Grade 12. And while a couple do manage to reinvent themselves through the years, most of the students I’m seeing in 9th grade are playing the same roles they played in 1st, because they are around the same people all the time.

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