Thursday, February 23, 2006

bully for you! for, um, her?

There is a bully in my older son's class. And he's a she.

Yes, there are small boys at school who hit my child, some out of boyish energy, at least one out of a frustration at his inability to communicate in a shared language. These produce brief tears, possibly a return punch, and certainly require a little Mama detoxing and comfort. (Yes, that was a sad-making thing, yes, here is a cuddle, and no don't you do that back to him.)

'Two wrongs don't make a right' is a mathematics that is lost on my child. I think. He does grasp that hitting is not okay, is never okay, and I will occasionally find him standing, hands on hips, and shouting, 'I am so mad at you! I feel like I want to hit you!' To which the appropriate answer is not, by the way, applause and happy mama faces. It is necessary to respond with a serious, respectful acknowledgement of the child, although he is occasionally receptive to happy giggles and hugs from his mother. Yup, kids will imitate the behaviors they see, turning them over and over, trying them on to see what fits. And when the behavior is one that is clearly hurtful, it is easier to teach them the consequences of that particular action. But when it's subtler, well, then it's a real problem.

Give me a hitter any day. Even a biter. But the girl in my son's class is a manipulator, and a fairly sophisticated one, at that. 'V- was not my friend today,' I am informed. Or, 'today, V- invited everybody to her house, but said that Malene can't come.' And, most cleverly, 'today V- was my friend, but not Daniel's.' I watch V stroll through the class, selecting the favored one of the day - a favorite who is rarely Malene, who as the youngest of four knows well the value of independance and refuses to be bought with temporary love. V makes the children feel either special or rejected, exterting control over them by what Alphie Kohn would call 'conditional love.'

Why does V feel the need to do this? I know her mother, who shares many of my own beliefs about child-rearing, and has recommended books such as Playful Parenting and a nanny whom I almost hired. Does she talk the talk but not so much the walking? Maybe, maybe not. Bottom line: does she realize what her child is doing?

One day, I was walking my oldest to our car (with baby in the sling) while this mother was also picking her children up from the school. The mother first went to put the wriggly toddler in the car, leaving the older daughter on the curb. V looked at her mother, busy with the smaller child, and called her. 'Mama!' No response from the mother. V called again,' mama! I need you!' The mother asked her to wait a moment, but V squared her shoulders and walked toward the edge of the curb. Suddenly, I realized what V was about to do. Anxious, I broke the cardinal rule and tried to parent someone else's kid.

'Sweetie,' I said, 'don't go in the street.' V looked at me defiantly, and stepped into the street, then looked again to make sure that I was watching. I was. I opened my mouth, but V ran to her mother - just as a car was coming.

So. Is V acting out to get attention? Manipulating other children to get the love which she somehow feels denied at home? Or is she simply out of control? If her mother was uninvolved or simply uninterested as a parent, then this would be a simpler matter to understand. But I do think that this is actually a caring mother with a child who is, regardless, right out of control. And so I'm sitting here, unwilling to tread on the all too sensitive question of another mother's parenting. Yes, I'll try to give my son the tools to understand that he can protect himself, emotionally, from this child. And I'll help him identify when a hurtful thing is simply untrue. And I have faith that his teachers will do the same.

Will I talk to V's mother? Dunno. From all I see, this is a woman with her hands full, and doing her level best. Do I have a right to interfere with that, f her child is in no real danger? If mine is in no real danger? Presumably, the teachers at our children's school have kept her aware of her child's behavior, as they do for me in regards to mine. Perhaps my hesitation is not just a desire to respect boundaries, but a social cowardice. And so I ask myself: what if that car had been a little faster? The child a little slower? And then I look at the toddler, and I remember many instances in which this younger sibling has cried at school, has been difficult for the teachers to manage...trying, in his own little way, on his older sister's behaviors, turning them over and over to see which will fit him, as well.

See Aish Mama here for her take on bullying and power, and how it plays out with adults.

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