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.