What just happened?
July 17, 2016 6:18 PM   Subscribe

Was playing at the park the other day with my son and two little girls were acting really strange towards him. I still can't decipher what they were up to. Details after the jump.

So I went to the park the other day with my son (11 months, walking) and there were 2 little girls there, looked like sisters, one 3.5 years (?) and the other 18 months (?) with their dad/grandpa(?). I don't think they spoke English, at one point I asked their name and they stared at me blankly, not shyly, just kind of empty, and seemed not to comprehend at all, plus I heard the dad/grandpa talking to them in a Slavic (?) language.

So the weird part was they started following my son around in a line. He had my car keys and was just ambling around like an 11month old will. I let this happen because I thought this was a little cute. But when he stopped the two girls got right up in his face, one in front and one behind, like 1-2 inches away from him, quietly and eerily just standing there. Not like other kids do when I'm in a group (there are some girls down the street around the same age who can get kind of close, but they're talking, touching his hair and being curious and child like).

So every time my son took a step, they moved in silent unison with him, still one in front and one behind, just staring at him and standing way too close. Just shadowing him in this creepy silent unison, for every step he took. He didn't seem to be affected by it (he tried to touch a ribbon on one girl's shirt, and otherwise just played with my keys) although at one point he gave me a look like "will you get a load of these two?"

I watched for like 1-2 min to see what would happen and then I got up and went to them and the girls scattered. I played the rest of the time very close with my son and they came back and I told them to knock it off. They still played like 3 feet away but never started up the weird shadowing behaviour again. I tried to set the pace like: we can share this space but you don't get to start up with my son like that.

So... Have you ever seen anything like this? Is it normal kid stuff? I don't know what to make of it. I was left with the strong impression that this was proto-bullying. I think people are basically animals, and children even more so, so I just figured they were marking their territory out from an interloper. I've seen them again at the park and am inclined to avoid them, or if we are there at the same time tell them to knock it off again. I was interested in the hive mind's read on this one, having more children experience than me. Thanks everyone.
posted by St. Peepsburg to Human Relations (23 answers total)
Seems like a pestering type of game. Kids are weird.
posted by xingcat at 6:20 PM on July 17, 2016 [7 favorites]

+1 kids are weird and like to bug each other. I wouldn't read too much into it.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:22 PM on July 17, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think was bullying in any form. Kids that young do not yet have any sense of personal space, so the girls wouldn't have been using their closeness against your son, and I'm sure he wouldn't have had the sense they were. Of course, he might have reached the point where he simply didn't want to be near them in any way, but almost certainly not because he felt threatened. If the little girls aren't native English speakers, then they wouldn't have the language to chat or play with him. They were probably simply interested in the baby and his fun keys and wanted to be hear him. I think you're reading way to much and way too negative into it. Kids really are very simple and at those ages don't have much social sense at all. They are merely acting out of impulse.
posted by primate moon at 6:30 PM on July 17, 2016 [39 favorites]

Best answer: Children this young don't have the mental capacity to be bullies. They're naturally curious creatures and I don't think they were doing anything particularly strange. Still, it's fine to set healthy boundaries with anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable, no matter their age.

I would not expect children this age who aren't yours to respond well to just being told what not to do (i.e., "knock it off" - even if that's not literally what you said). I'd tell them what TO do: "Girls, please move away from Harry." "Johnny can't get to the slide when you stand in his way. Why don't you go play by the swings?" Find their adult if they won't or can't follow your instructions. If that fails, sometimes you simply have to be the one to concede and find another place to play yourselves.
posted by pecanpies at 6:32 PM on July 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

The girls you're describing are also babies. An 18 month old can only "bully" by hitting and pushing; there's no program running more sophisticated than that.

I don't blame you for insisting they back off (at all!) but I doubt whatever was happening was being done maliciously.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:34 PM on July 17, 2016 [9 favorites]

18 months is extremely young to be doing anything in a coordinated fashion with another child.
posted by stoneandstar at 6:34 PM on July 17, 2016 [24 favorites]

Oh, and +1 to children in this age range having no sense of personal space. Many children in this range (including mine) still breastfeed; their mouth is literally attached to another person's body. Yeah, it's mom's body - but still. NO idea of personal space. My child used to walk up to other children and shove his hands right into their faces. It was incredibly frustrating until I finally realized he was trying to "make" them play peek-a-boo and then I could at least redirect his behavior.
posted by pecanpies at 6:36 PM on July 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 3.5 yrs is not too early to be a bully...at this stage it's mostly expressing aggression. I've certainly seen a 3.5 yr old frustrated and hitting another child fighting for a toy. 18 months seems old enough as well - it's certainly old enough to emulate an older sibling.

I would have definitely read this as aggression toward my child, but nothing to worry about. I would have handled it in the same manner you did. If the girls were my children, I would have also removed them from the situation and let them no it was not OK.

But all that said, I wouldn't read anything too deep into the situation...
posted by NoDef at 6:51 PM on July 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wonder if the girls sometimes play the mirror game with each other, and were trying to play with your son with him as the "leader"?
posted by epj at 6:54 PM on July 17, 2016 [23 favorites]

Many non-North-American cultures have much smaller "personal bubbles," and tend to stand much closer to other people than would be considered "normal" among white Americans or Canadians. Especially given their ages, they may have been standing at what they considered a normal distance from strangers.
posted by lazuli at 7:29 PM on July 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

My kids really likes other kids and will follow them around quite closely. Sure, he's yelling hi and hey kid wait for me, but he us right in their faces because he loves being by any other kids. I remind him to give space and be gentle with littles. Maybe you can break out these phrases too. They are incredibly popular here (because I say them endlessly).
posted by Kalmya at 8:12 PM on July 17, 2016

My daughter just turned three and does the weirdest things as she plays imaginary games. I could totally see her doing this, and another sibling doing it along with her to copy her. I wouldn't necessarily consider it bullying or aggressive.
posted by christinetheslp at 8:12 PM on July 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not something to worry about.
posted by Miko at 9:04 PM on July 17, 2016

I mostly believe they were just playing a mirroring game, (but unsmilingly, and with vacant eyes?) and kind of brought your kid into it. But I will also say that the scene you describe sounds so creepy that I would have goose bumps just thinking about it, for a month minimum.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:16 PM on July 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

Totally awesome scene for a horror movie but, probably nothing that serious in real life. Kids are weird.
posted by myselfasme at 9:36 PM on July 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: After working in an international playschool with little kiddos from all over, I can say this sort of thing isn't so unusual (even if weird, oh hell, kids can be weiird). – even though you don't have much of a vocabulary at that age, not being able to say anything to your little peer is prob hella isolating and maybe crazy long eyeballing/shadowing is a way to connect with them. And possibly, these kids don't get out much kiddie social interaction outside of each other. So that can add to the awkwardness.

But it is strange, and I would tell my kid to knock it off if i saw them doing that sort of thing to anyone. Its like straight out of the Shining.
posted by speakeasy at 10:05 PM on July 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

If the kids were speaking English (possibly they can't yet) they wouldn't have been so spooky to you. To be frank, as a parent of kids who are bilingual but who have frequently played with kids from cultural backgrounds without a shared language, it feels like you've got some underlying xenophobia that could do with examining. That in addition to this being your first child, you're anxious. Avoiding these kids in the park now makes you seem like a bit of a bully, to me.

It's possible the kids are developmentally delayed, on the autistic spectrum or just come from a culture where smiling, eye contact or wide personal spaces are not the same as yours. (This is my experience.) But your immediate response seems to have "othered" two tiny children in a park in an extraordinary way. Engage with Grandpa next time? He's your first source of information and engagement.
posted by taff at 12:09 AM on July 18, 2016 [12 favorites]

Mod note: A few comments deleted. This isn't really the place for debate about speculative theories in neuroscience.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:29 AM on July 18, 2016

I'm really curious how the dad/granddad reacted to this. Did you notice?

I'm not saying this particular child was a bully (I don't understand the situation enough to have an opinion), but a three and a half year old can *definitely* be a bully! When children develop theory of mind, around age 3, they can (and often do) use that burgeoning awareness of other people's thoughts and feelings in order to try to bother them. Some of the most tyrannical monsters are three and four year olds. They are just learning to manipulate others, and can really enjoy feeling powerful when they are successful in making another child (or adult!) hurt or angry.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 12:32 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: FYI - by telling them to "knock it off" what I did was say kindly/firmly "alright girls that's enough" but I like the idea to also give them alternative options rather than just "stop." That's good parenting advice in general.

I get that kids this age don't get boundaries, the neighbor's girls enjoy a rousing game of "pet the baby" too but 1) they are moving randomly, and seem relaxed, and 2) their dad tells them that's enough petting, please give other people space. The silent synchronized closeness of these two girls was just eerie.

Taff - I did try to engage grandpa but he wouldn't really reply to me either, he didn't seem to think it odd or try to coach the girls differently, he was kind of there in a similar "present but not" kind of a way. So I had to say something since he wasn't talking to them. Xenophobia? It's a fairly multi-culti neighbourhood with lots of languages on the street which is great but I'm not about to let my kid be all hassled in the park just to make some social point. Maybe you had to be there - the silent synchronicity of the two was just bizarre.

Thanks everyone for your perspective.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:38 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've never seen this exact thing happening before and it does sound weird and creepy! However, it also sounds like something two kids could come up with for any number of perfectly innocent "just trying this out" kid reasons.

I think we've all been shaped by the horror movies involving creepy dangerous children. These in turn have been shaped by the fact that little kids can do cruel, scary things out of a complete lack of empathy, and this is juxtaposed with their innocence and sweetness. They are unpredictable and their expressions are often empty/unfathomable/at odds with what's going on. Sweetness and lack of empathy lie very close together and they are unpreictable. An ideal recipe for a horror movie!

So I think you are carrying all this with you at the back of your head and it has colored the interction for you.

I think you were right to intervene. My five year old can reach out and smack the 2,5 year old for all sorts of weird reasons in a millisecond. When she was 3,5, we had two trips to the ER because of that!
So when you see a three year old getting very close to a small kid in an unpredictable, not overtly friendly way, I think it's right to put some distance between them or at least get close enough to intervene.

But I don't think we're in bullying or evilness territory here.

Given my experiences, the fact that they moved along with your kid rather than block him, force him to move in a direction or try to touch him is actually a good sign. It points to curiosity and wanting to interact, but not to bugging him or forcing him (they would escalate to getting physical for that).

One thing you should know is that with my two kids, whatever older sis does, younger sis does, too. So the behaviour of the 18 month old in your story is the least surprising part. She was just tagging along.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:44 AM on July 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have a 3.5 year old and an 18 month old and there's no way they are mature enough to act in concert to bully anyone. They also don't have any concept of "marking their territory" aside from literally grabbing a toy from someone's hand while screaming "MINE!" They get in each other's faces, and also right up in the personal space of their young cousins (22 months, 13 months). They try to do it to older children and adults, but those people have stronger senses of space and tend to lean or back away or otherwise reclaim some of their space in a way that kids under five don't do. I can totally see my kids doing something like this with a child they couldn't communicate with, with no ill intent at all. They've only played a shadow game once or twice that I've seen, but I could see that seeming fun when confronted with a new kid doing something interesting. Kids, like cats, are weird.

Also, I wouldn't read anything into the way they didn't give you their names. My kid does speak English and sometimes responds to questions from strangers with a totally blank-eyed stare. At these ages, they don't feel compelled to respond when spoken to, and the reaction could be anything from "I don't understand this language" to "who's this lady?" to "I want peanut butter for lunch". With a checked-out dad/grandpa, I'd assume their behavior was more lonely and bored than malevolent.

(Also, +1 to the tip of telling kids this age what TO do, instead of what NOT to do. Works so much better, on your own kids and others'.)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:58 AM on July 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

the silent synchronicity of the two was just bizarre.

Wait till you have another one and they go around happily telling every adult that "when my little brother is older, you'll be dead"

Kids are creepy/silly/weird. Siblings have extra bonus creepy powers. Maybe this is a game they play and don't know he doesn't know it? Maybe this is just a funny interaction. If my oldest kid isn't distressed, I'll let her be in all manner of weird interactions, because they are only weird to me via my adult hyper-sensitivity to social rules and practices.
posted by French Fry at 7:15 AM on July 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

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