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12 May

Eichmann On The Playground

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.)