We have not had much experience with bullies -- except for M, M the Beach Bully.
Last summer, he would show up at the beach and was attracted to my youngest. According to my kids, he would hover over her, not touching or even speaking, just taunting. Occasionally, he would quietly reach down and take one of her toys and then walk away with it. Never having faced this before, they all assumed he would return it. He never did. He would also block the kids as they tried to swim from one area to another, telling them they could not pass and would have to go around him. When they tried, he would move to block them again.
Last week, Eggplant made Blueberry some fishing poles, which we took down to the beach. M, the bully, showed up and asked if he could use one of the fishing poles. Without waiting for her answer, he grabbed the pole from beside her, put it in his backpack, got on his bike and zipped away.
You might wonder where I was during these interchanges. In some instances, I watched to make sure the kids were safe and, when I could see they were, I gave them some space to handle it themselves. At other times, I made M very aware that I was watching. Sometimes I intervened and either drew my kids away from M or spoke directly to him. M always responded to me by arguing, snorting and scoffing.
Today M showed up at the beach. He began hovering over Blueberry and blocking her when she tried to go places. I went to all three of my kids and let them know that I did not feel comfortable with the way M was treating them and thought it would feel safer for them to play away from him. M continued his game, though, coming to a point where he was downright stalking them. I was furious.
My instinct was to lash out at this kid, tell him to get the hell away from my kids. My mind was reeling with judgements: Where are your parents? Why don't I ever see them? What is your problem? I wanted to broker peace between my kids and M, but I was worried about sending a message that an abusive person can be changed by his victims.
Victims? An abusive person? That's how I had riled myself up into seeing this kid, this nine year old. I was letting my anger color this child with adult vocabulary. I heard myself thinking that way and I didn't like it. It occurred to me that I know nothing about this child beyond a few exchanges, nor do I know his parents. My judgements were about as unfair as his actions.
I reminded myself of the stories that occasionally crop up in the news about a kindergartner getting taken away from school by police officers for screaming threats at a teacher or other student.
He is a child! He is a child!
I approached him again. "Hey M," I said, "You might notice that my kids are walking away from you every time you approach them. Do you know why?" He snorted, maybe grunted. I continued, "Well, sometimes you're hovering over them and sometimes you are blocking them from going where they want to go and they don't like it when you do that."
He snapped back that he didn't care. "I don't want to be their friend anyway."
Oh did I want to flick him right on the left ear lobe.
He is a child!
Instead, I said, "Well, you're acting pretty tough, but I bet you have a soft side and you're just not showing it to us."
More snorting and scoffing. Really, I couldn't blame him that time. I did use the term "soft side", after all, to describe a nine year old boy who is trying to look tough.
After a little time passed and I noticed he was once again hovering, I tried again. "M, do you see how you are standing right over these little kids? That's what I mean by hovering. It's kind of scary to them. Now, I am sure that you are a nice guy, but for some reason you are not letting us see that. And I am sure you would like some friends, but you are going about it all wrong. Try talking to them if you want to be friends."
Poor M. He never knew what hit him. He looked away and mumbled something under his breath.
"Now, see, first of all, look at someone when they are talking to you. That shows them you are interested."
I think he was too shocked to speak at this point, but he did turn at make eye contact.
"So," I asked, "What do you like to do in your spare time?"
"What's your favorite subject in school?"
Crickets and buzzing flies.
"Okay then, when your teacher has you do an assignment, what do you think about instead?"
He perked up and quickly responded, "Math!"
I took the bait. "Hey, my oldest daughter loves math..."
From there we talked about what he likes about math. The next thing I knew, M was joining us for a picnic dinner on the lawn in front of our building. At one point, I looked over and Egglant said to him, "So, are we friends now?" I assume the fist bump he received as an answer was an affirmative.
All of this taught me a few lessons:
1. Don't label kids, especially not with terms that should be reserved for adults.
2. It is, in fact, not a good thing to "socialize" kids by letting them deal with bullies on the playground by themselves -- as many who oppose homeschooling conclude.
3. Occasionally life is an awful lot like an after-school special.
4. Children are not born bullies. M is on the cusp, age-wise. He could go either way at this point. It is very possible that our somewhat idyllic resolution today will never repeat itself, nor make a dent in M's attitude. Or it is possible that it will. I have to act according to my belief in the latter.
5. Kids need adults in their lives to guide them through challenging situations. Sometimes, it is important to let children sort struggles out themselves. Sometimes, they need help. Where there is bullying, kids need adults to help.
7. The solution to bullying does not have to include punishment.
8. When you are going to have a long afternoon dealing with heavy stuff on the beach, wear sunscreen. Ouch.
Addendum: I recognize that this is an isolated incident. I know that there are interactions with bullies that do not resolve themselves so easily. My guess is that these involve older children. I also know that I can't assume that this issue is resolved completely. I need to keep observing and intervening if necessary.