(Why) Is my 4/5 year old being bullied?
September 3, 2009 2:41 PM   Subscribe

In situations with three or more children, my son appears to come out on the losing end socially when a certain other child is added to the mix. My wife and I are beginning to worry that a pattern is developing that we need to break somehow.

My wife and I are having some troubles with this situation. We’ve become pretty close friends with families in our neighborhood all who have children around the same age. We see many of the parents socially with and without our children, particularly Family A. However some troubling events have been unfolding lately (over the past year or so). Family A’s son (Boy A) and my son appear to play well together. However, whenever a third child is introduced Boy A works to turn them against my son. This was first noticed when playing with Boy B, Boy A and Boy B see each other much more often than my son sees either of them. About a year ago Boy A and Boy B would start playing games which pitted them as a team against my son. This dynamic remains fairly consistent whenever the three are together. Then a few months later my son and Boy A had a play date with Boy C (who had never met Boy A before) and Boy A preceded to start turning him against my son in much the same way. While I realize three may not be a great dynamic I see this pattern in larger groups involving Boy A and my son at times.
Now today, Girl A came over for a play date with my son. Girl A lives next door to (and is fairly close to Boy B). At one point during the day she said to my son “I do not know if I should even talk to you, Boy A and Boy B want to kill you.” Pretty strange, and I am not sure how to react or deal with this.
Overall, my son seems to me pretty normal for his age, though he does appear to have a greater attention span than most boys his age. It is not a size issue as he is as bigger than A and B and the same size as C. He will be entering kindergarten next year (Fall 2010) and Boy A will be in the same class (and most likely bus) though Boy B will be in 1st grade by then (he is roughly 9 mos. older). The parents of Boy A are great people and my wife and I value their friendship, they seem aware of the issue but are also probably at a loss about what to do. The father has apologized for his son’s behavior in the past.
Our biggest fear the pattern developing is that our son will always be the victim in these cases. In the past we have worked hard to quell any bully-like behavior in him. Partly because he was often seen by others as the aggressor (in situations where he may not have been) purely because he was taller than most other children his age.
Any advice anecdotes appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The parents of Boy A are great people and my wife and I value their friendship, they seem aware of the issue but are also probably at a loss about what to do. The father has apologized for his son’s behavior in the past.

Well, you're on good terms with them; why don't you find out for sure? Raise your concerns with them politely and openly, and ask them what they think might (not should) be done, if anything.

They might not think there's a problem; they might agree and also be at a loss; they might have a creative solution (such as agreeing to not get upset while you encourage your son privately to stand up to him, such that both children learn something.) Whatever the result, take advantage of the fact that you're on good terms with them to enlist them in whatever the solution might be.

Also: how does your son react in these situations? Does he hide from it? Does he laugh at it? Does he get sad? Does he prefer it? Would he consider going up to the boy and saying "Girl A says you and Boy B want to kill me. What is she talking about?"
posted by davejay at 3:03 PM on September 3, 2009

If this was a workplace situation, I think the standard advice would be to talk to the guy, to contact HR/the guy's boss, or to find another job.

I seems like the other guy's boss doesn't take it serious enough, or is not able to manage his employee. I would tell that boss that he needs to get his act together, if he shouldn't loose your respect for him.

I don't think your son is the problem at all. The only problem he has is the adults conviction that all kids can be friends, and that he should stay in this job instead of going for another career.
posted by flif at 3:20 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

"don't apologize to me, apologize to my son"
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 3:23 PM on September 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

I was about to say, normal behavior but the fact that they are telling random children that they want to kill your son...really not normal. I would avoid this kid and keep making playdates with neighborhood kids. Make your house known for being comfortable and awesome and try to be attractive to that age range, it'll really help your son make friends.
posted by kathrineg at 3:40 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'm just callous (and not a parent), but these are pre-k and other young kids, and I think what your son is experiencing is inevitable and, well, part of growing up. (I'm not condoning bullying, but I am saying it is impossible to avoid.) Thinking back on my own early childhood, which is surprisingly vivid in my brain(!), this sort of stuff was commonplace, but it was subject to change...frequently. Keep in mind that it's only been in the last year or three that any of these children has even developed the capacity to realize there are other people playing with them who have feelings.

And of course roleplaying/pretending will be common, which may explain the inappropriate "kill" remark, because we are beasts by nature, and many childhood games are pretty aggressive and gang-like in nature. What? You never played cops and robbers with "guns?" Every generation has some violent roleplaying that affects the behave therein, but it passes. No, it's not good, and it should be reined in as much as possible, but it probably is to be expected. When you hear things like that, I think that it's good to say to those children, "That is a very strong, serious word." Depending on the child and his or her individual experiences, you can further explain it.

Talking to the other parents will help a little, possibly, but probably only as much as it has so far. The parents will probably talk to the children, and one of two things will happen. Result #1 is positive, in that the child(ren) will change and behave more appropriately and with less bullying. Result #2, which is unfortunately more likely and negative, ends with the kids resenting your son for "telling on them." In that scenario, the bullying will escalate, not decline, and your son will be less likely to admit this to you, while the other children go off scott free.

I think the best thing you can do is help your son cope with the inevitable stresses of this age; explain things in the fashion of "No, what they're doing isn't right, but sometimes people do wrong things that we can't fully understand. We don't have to behave that way, though." Essentially teach him to take the high road.

When it comes to the school ground, tell him to talk to teachers if he's getting bullied, even if the other children don't want him to. I don't think it will come to that, though. Your son has a small social circle right now, and so his world depends greatly on those few friendships. When he starts school, there will be other children to play with and to side with him. However, it's likely that Boy B will not feel so dominant in a school where he is just one of many. I would assume that his first grade classes will be separately held, too.

The relationship your son has with all of these children will probably change drastically in autumn 2010, because everything will change drastically for him, but all children of this age are changing daily, as are their irrational moods. Friends may be enemies next year, and vice-versa.

Have you considered putting your son in some other activities (e.g., karate, soccer...something), so he can meet other children to play with? Giving him a "cool skill" might change his relationship with your friends' kids, too.
posted by metalheart at 3:51 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I feel as though it's common nowadays for parents to be worried about stepping on each other's toes in various parenting situatons, mostly because our society sees a good deal of meaning in a diversity of traditions. That's a good thing most of the time, but it's something that kids can really take advantage of when they perceive that adults can be divided and conquered. I know you personally aren't dealing with a kid dividing and conquering, but the other parent might.

My advice? Be more direct. Talk to the kids and inject yourself into the play in order to make sure it's going right. You say that you sense subtle ways in which Boy A (and to a lesser extent Boy B) are moving to marginalize your kid; what are those ways? Remember them and learn to identify them. Next time you see them, say something:

"Hey–didn't you and Johnny play on the same team the last three games? Why doesn't one of you play on a team with Joe here? That would be a lot more fair."

Kids get subtlety; subtlety is how they get away with stuff. Don't be afraid to wade in and parent the other kids, too–if they're at your house, that's what you're there for at that particular moment. You really can't let children walk around thinking "these are my parents, and they parent like this, but they're afraid of offending his parents, who parent like that; so all I have to do is make sure that I do this and that in the right house, and I won't get punished." No, children need to think: "they're grown-ups. Grown-ups punish me when I'm mean to people, or when I encourage cruelty."

And, for heaven's sake, if you hear a girl say "A and B want to kill you," I hope you jumped in and asked her what on earth she was talking about: who said that? When did they say it? Isn't that a terrible thing for someone to say?
posted by koeselitz at 4:20 PM on September 3, 2009 [8 favorites]

I remember being forced to hang out with other little girls like this--ones who would say "Why are you talking to us? You're weird." on playdates. Honestly, I would have been beyond thrilled if my parents had just removed me from the situation. I mean, how does your son feel about spending time with Boy A? Have you asked him?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:34 AM on September 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

I don't know how the other parents would feel about this, but the ones being mean need some guidance. I've learned with kids, you need to nip it in the bud and convey that it is unacceptable to ridicule or threaten someone. At this age, they still look up to adults and if the parents seem nice, I'm sure the kid isn't a hardened pycho.

I agree with everyone here who says it is common, but that doesn't mean that it should be left alone.
posted by Gor-ella at 7:34 AM on September 4, 2009

You're right to take it seriously. I was about that age when the other kids decided I was the one everyone could agree to pick on, and that was The Way It Was until the end of Grade 8. High school mixed things up and was better for me. Church kids mostly didn't go to my school and hadn't been told to dislike me, so that was usually better. Brownies, soccer teams, baseball teams, swimming lessons, summer camps... they were all better because it was out of the school group who had ganged up on me, and the other kids didn't "know" not to like me. And I was already a little introvert, and loved doing stuff by myself, so if your son likes that too, don't discourage it.

I don't know how you change it, and I don't know what you or your son can do to minimize it, but I know that it could really help him to have other, separate groups of friends that aren't tainted by the bullies he's running into now. And yeah, don't force him to have playdates with these kids. They're mean. Even if you force them to be on his team, they'll work against him.

Is there another school he can go to? Are the grades at his school really big and getting split into different classes? If so, can you request that he not be in this boy's class, as he seems to be the ringleader of the bullying?
posted by heatherann at 7:59 AM on September 4, 2009

Because the boys are so young, I'm on board with those suggesting you monitor play closely and step in when you see the aggression occurring. It may just be that these boys need some steering and they'll listen to you. If the children were 7 or 8, I'd seriously think about letting your son take a break from them to play with other friends.

From what you describe, I don't see anything wrong with your son- between what may be a gentle (not weak) nature and your good parenting, he might be an easier target for kids who have aggressive tendencies, especially in groups.

You said: The parents of Boy A are great people and my wife and I value their friendship, they seem aware of the issue but are also probably at a loss about what to do. The father has apologized for his son’s behavior in the past.

I don't think you can depend on these folks to correct the behavior- if they really were concerned and had taken proper action, it would have stopped. I suspect you are dealing with a "now A, you should play nicely (pat, pat) now run along..." type of intervention, and that's obviously inadequate. Some parents will not really discourage pecking order competition in their boys, especially if it's their boys who are dominant. If it were important to them to correct the behavior, they would do so and not feign helplessness (I think you know this deep down.)

I'm sure you will do what's best for your son, even if it ultimately means distancing yourself a bit from boy A and his family.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 8:16 AM on September 4, 2009

Your sample size on this is low. Every incident here traces back to Boy A. He's the culprit, not any issue inherent to your son's personality.

The best remedy is to get your son as much face time as possible with kids who don't know Boy A. Or, failing that, excluding Boy A from as many things your son does as possible, while inviting everyone else.

Your son's best defense is to convince people that there's something negative about Boy A, and amplify his own positivity - a contest of wills and charisma between Boy A and your son. It's scarily similar to winning an election campaign, except that the campaign is continuous, and never ends. Your son may even have to end up in a fist-fight at some point to prove his point and establish himself. (I hope it doesn't happen, though.)

The good news is that once your son gets into high school, he'll almost certainly find a crowd that he can mesh with while just being himself. I'm sure it seems like an eternity until then, though.

Good luck. This sure sounds like a tough nut to crack.
posted by Citrus at 8:39 AM on September 4, 2009

The OP asked me to post a follow up (sorry for the delay, it got spamfiltered)
Few things to add:

DaveJay: It bothers him a little when he is in the situation with A
and B (or X as the case may be) but he often asks to see A when they
have not played in a while.

flif: Unfortunately there are very few employers in the area and no unions. But seriouslt, I had thought the parents addressed at some point. I’m starting to think that removing him from the situation temporarily may be the solution as A will repeat the pattern only with another victim.

metalheart: Not callous at all, I’m mostly of the same opinion.

keoselitz: I was not there when the ‘kill’ remark was made, my wife
was. I think she was to surprised/taken aback to get more info. She
did point out to the girl that her behavior was very inappropriate as
a guest.

One of our big concerns is maybe we are not doing right be our son in some way, and he may become too accepting of being treated this way. He constantly asks to see these kids or ask them over for a play date when he has not seen them for a day or two. Also, I’ve observed Boy A and Boy B talking about my son in unkind terms (in a making fun kind of way) when he isn’t even in earshot.
posted by kathrineg at 2:21 PM on September 6, 2009

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