Nipping Bullying in the Bud by Teaching the Responsible Use of Power?

Mind you, in no way do I imagine my kids as potential bullies.  Who does, right?  And yet, I witnessed a distasteful exchange between Nat and a peer on the playground recently that moved me to proactively intervene in her social development.

Ever since Nat became a big sister, she has been learning that trickiest of skills–using her power responsibly.  She didn’t really have any “power” before Selina came along, but as Selina has grown old enough for the two of them to spend a lot of minimally supervised play time together, they have tussled over the fact that Nat could have her way in most situations if she chooses to force it to be so.  It’s just good-old-fashioned sibling rivalry, of course, but it’s all about power–the power to attract adult attention to yourself (good or bad), the power to take and keep the coveted toy, the power to make someone else throw a tantrum.

Among her friends at school, Nat has proven to be one of those kids who is a social hub.  I won’t say “popular” because the school is small enough not to break out in too many sub-cliques, and for the most part everyone plays together.  For the most part.  But the other parents often tell me that my girls–especially Nat–get a lot of air time when their kids talk about friends and school.  I usually love what I hear–that the little kids get help from Nat, that the boys play with her in such a way that occasionally parents misread her gender and think she’s another boy–things like that.

But earlier this week, I arrived at school with Selina half an hour early (Nat goes from 11:30-4:30 and Selina goes from 1:30-4:30.  From 2:00 to 4:30 they overlap classrooms.) and let her play on the playground.  Nat’s kindergarten group was already there playing and the sisters ran into each other’s arms as if they hadn’t seen each other in a week.  Nat took Selina’s hand and they both ran and ran and ran.  (“Chase” seems to be all Nat plays on the playground.)  Presently, they ran up to me and stopped for a minute.  I was smiling at my perfect cherubs when a little girl with long brown hair stepped over and said, “Nat, it made me sad when you told me I couldn’t play with you.”

It blew my mind, because I sort of think of Nat as the kid who plays with everyone rather indiscriminately.  And I am not above thinking “now where did she hear that and eying the less perfect children suspiciously.  But in the end, she did what she did and needs to be responsible.  This was a kid-to-kid moment and the teacher was a stone’s throw away, watching out of one eye, and I suspected she had advised the girl to talk to Nat about her feelings, so I didn’t want to interfere too much, but Nat had seen me see what was happening and looked at me expectantly.  So I said, “What do you need to say, Nat?”

“Sorry, A.” Nat said.

But A said, “okay, but can I play with you?”

At this point, I had taken Selina’s hand and moved away.  I wanted Nat to sort it out on her own, but I bookmarked it for later reference.

Later in the car on the way home from school, we were decompressing and after the kids had given me highlights of their days, I raised the playground issue.

“Nat,” I said.  “It seems you hurt A’s feelings on the playground today.  What happened?”

Nat told me how the girl had asked Nat if she could play with her, Nat had said no and the girl had been sad.

I said, “You know, in our family, we have the rule that ‘Everybody Can Play.'”  And I talked to her a bit about that and how everyone in our family shares this philosophy and that when we hurt someone’s feelings, it’s very important to try and make it right so they will feel better.

Over supper I re-enacted this conversation in a slightly different form.

The next day, while driving Nat to school, I asked her what she would do when someone asked to play.  We role-played the “sure, ‘Everybody Can Play!'” response and also the “I’m so sorry I made you sad,” response.

Then I stepped it up a notch.

“What should you do if you see another person hurting someone’s feelings or hear someone say something mean?”

“You should tell them not to be mean, and that Everybody Can Play!” Nat said enthusiastically.

I dropped her off, crossed my fingers and hoped that something would sink in.

At dinner that night, Nat volunteered that not only had she let everybody play, but she had approached A. and invited her to play.  I reinforced that with much cheering and reiterated the “in our family” rule.  I have to imagine that other kids are not always going to play by that rule, so I use the “in our family” phrase to clarify for Nat that whatever other people choose to do, it’s veritably part of her identity to be kind and generous via family identity.

We also spent some time on examples of how different members of our family treat others with kindness and generosity.

I have no delusions that this is a silver bullet.  But I think the overt spelling out of the values and behavior we want from our children–even role-playing it–at an early age are the best bet against future cruelty.

What do you all think?  What do you do when these things come up?  It’s a bit new for our family, so I’m eager to hear others’ experience.

11 responses to “Nipping Bullying in the Bud by Teaching the Responsible Use of Power?

  1. You’re right that it’s not a silver bullet, and there’s no guarantee that having things spelled out for her will make Nat take on those values, but you know that if you don’t spell them out she won’t *really* know. I was hit so hard by that chapter in NurtureShock about talking about race (which I extrapolated to talking about everything) and realized that I was, in large part, assuming that modeling was enough, but it isn’t. And who knows how much our kids will really take on, but we have to keep talking about it, because not talking about it is a recipe for failure. Keep up the good talks.

  2. Okay, I love that Nat is just a little older than my daughter. I feel like I’m getting parenting gems in time for using them in a little while. Between this and the housekeeping post last time I’m really digging seeing you post again. I mean, I would be digging it anyway, but this stuff is fabulous.

  3. Good post!

    I’ve been working with C. on this very issue as recently as the ride to school this morning. As you can imagine, the girl-style bullying intensifies as they get older. C is in fourth grade now and while I haven’t seen her intentionally pick on other kids on her own (not recently anyway), I have seen her do so when other kids start picking on/excluding one of the kids first.

    C. joins in after the other kids start, I think because she wants to fit in herself. She struggles with some mental health and learning problems in addition to being a multi-racial adopted child of white lesbian moms. One or two differences can be hard, but when the pile up like they have for C. I worry.

    This is such a hard issue for me because I was severely bullied as a child in an era when not much was done about it. It does my heart good to hear of parents like you taking an active role in teaching their kids to treat other kids well.


  4. I wholeheartedly agree, Shannon. I think it’s nipping these little issues in the bud that prevents the larger problems from cropping up down the road.

    Having power is a difficult things for kids if they don’t have someone directing them on how best to use it.

  5. We are all about spelling it out, Moxie.

    Before the kids were born I read something about how some kids born to and raised from birth by, a lesbian couple didn’t know their parents were “lesbians” because the family didn’t use the word.

    That was what spurred me to teach Nat the terms “gay,” “lesbian,” “straight” and “bisexual” last summer before school started and putting the terms to people in our family.

    We have always talked overtly about race too.

  6. Sounds like you dealt so well. We struggle – partially because Rica keeps entering into communities where other kids already have existing ties, and she has to struggle to make space for herself. Partially because she’s very prone (possibly because of the first thing) to saying and doing whatever the ‘popular’ kids are saying and doing, to be liked. She’s had so many struggles, and I’ve seen her acting out with others things that have recently been done to her – like exclusion. It’s hard. Whenever we see something like it, we try to talk privately with her about how it felt when it happened to her, and that just because there are people who do mean things in the world doesn’t mean that we have to choose to be like them. We can choose to be gentle, and kind, and brave. We can speak up for ourselves, and for others.

    Ironically, when she’s been around a group for awhile, she becomes one of those kids with social weight. Other kids want to play with her, once they know her. But the social power is often hard-won for her. She is ‘other’ in so, so many ways. I worry that her social safety will often feel so fragile to her that she will struggle with standing up alone, with being kind even when her friends are not. We try to model challenging bullies, and behaving thoughtfully to others. Hopefully this is who she’ll feel strong enough to become as well, in the fullness of time. And in the meantime, we find we have to be gentle with her in her moments of failure.

  7. And ‘amen’ about overt talk. Thankfully, I’m an anti-oppression educator as part of my work, which means we have regular dinner-table discussions that involve a lot of ideas and terms that Rica’s learning. But funnily enough, we used the word lesbian recently, and Rica asked ‘what’s a lesbian?’ And again, over a discussion about hate speech on a bathroom wall – somebody wrote ‘all dykes should die’ – Rica asked ‘what’s a dyke?’ And then, a couple of seconds after our explanation, she pieced together with outrage, ‘but then that includes you two as well!’

  8. I like the way you handled the situation. My son is a follower with kids his age and/or older, however I have seen him with a younger child in our townhouse complex and he dismisses her in favour of our older boy. I like that you use the term “in our family” cause I have used it too.

    It d0esn’t matter what other families do, in our family we do things our way.

    My son is like Nat and needs things spelled out in order to sort it all out. He was recently called a derogatory term and although he realized it wasn’t a nice term, he didn’t really understand fully the nastiness of it. I had to really spell it out for him so that if it ever happened again, he could tell the teacher (he didn’t the first time).

  9. I’m glad that it’s worked out! It’s a tricky situation in a lot of ways, guaranteed to get trickier as kids get older and *do* separate out into sub-groups apart from the whole class.

    Now that FL has made it possible for us to adopt, I’m looking at these conversations with a lot closer eye – the tenure clock means that we’re not at the jumping-off point yet, but it’s never too early to start thinking about stuff like this, since it’s always going to be hard to deal with!

  10. I think it’s great to have bullying prevention conversations like these with kids. I just had one with my 5 year old last week, asking him what he would do if he sees someone being mean to another kid. This was after he told me that another kid pushed him and we talked about how to handle it. It’s a delicate balance teaching kids to be both assertive and kind to others.

    That said, I think it’s OK for Nat to say “no thanks” to the girl’s request to play. I understand that your family value is that “Everybody Plays” but at some point, kids aren’t going to want to play with every other kid and that’s OK. I want to teach my kids how to kindly say no to another kid.

    I also think it’s great that this girl told Nat that it hurt her feelings. It’s good for kids to know their effect on others. I think by 5 or so, kids could have a conversation about how their feelings were hurt, another kid apologizes and maybe explains that they didn’t feel like playing together then, but will ask them to play another time. I kind of see it as honoring kids desires and preferences(in a way that doesn’t damage others).

  11. I did think about that, Wendy. But I decided that at Nat’s age, keeping it simple was key. And while there are definitely exceptions I can think of (to say no to playing with an actual bully, for example!) I thought it best to err for now on the side of inclusion.
    If it’s a matter of sharing something that belongs to you or allowing someone into your space…those things are trickier and I want the girls to feel comfortable asserting boundaries. But knowing that for Nat, “playing” means running around the playground with little or no objective, it seemed that telling her everyone can join in was the best route. I think this year she has been testing behavior she’s seen in others and then looking to me to find out if it’s okay. So for now, here we are.

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