Care and Feeding

I’m Totally Stumped by How to Handle Playground Bullies

A young girl climbs a play structure on a playground.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

What’s the right way to deal with bullying? When my almost 4-year-old daughter’s feelings are hurt because friends at school have refused to play with her, choosing to play with other kids instead, I console her (and if I’m present when this happens—say, in the park—then we leave the situation). But we live in a densely populated area, where the playground we go to is always packed with children from 18-month-  to 10-year-olds, and a form of bullying that’s harder to negotiate is becoming a constant in her life.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There is one structure at the park that has a 15-foot-high climb without railings on two sides and a big tube slide. My daughter can now climb up on her own and will wait in line to go down the slide. The problem is that bigger kids climb up the tube slide itself, sometimes in groups, and push the little kids out of the way when they get to the top (my daughter has nearly fallen off the tower a couple of times!). Sometimes the bigger kids will block the slide completely and swing at anyone who tries to go down it. I have tried the approach of waiting to see if their parents intervene, but they either seem not to care or are wrapped up in their phones. So I’ve piped up and said, “Hey, there are kids trying to get down, can you stop climbing up/blocking the slide?” This always works, but usually elicits dirty or shocked looks from other parents at the park.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Recently I’ve started not so quietly telling my daughter that the other kids at the park aren’t playing nicely and we don’t play with kids who are being mean; then I tell her that when other kids are being mean, you ask them to stop and if they don’t, you leave. I do this for two reasons. First, I’m appalled by parents who don’t seem to care that their kids are playing dangerously around little ones, and second, I want my daughter to know she doesn’t deserve to be treated poorly and that people who are doing so don’t deserve a second of her time. I was bullied ruthlessly when I was growing up. Kids would tell me to kill myself, spit on me, and rub poop in my hair. I got past it with a bit of a tough attitude, like, an “only terrible people do this and I want nothing to do with them” sort of mindset, and I realize that my experience is driving the way I’m framing this for my daughter. I probably need to dial it back (in a not-so-great moment after a particularly bad episode at the park today, when we were walking away, I told my daughter, “Those kids are little monsters and they have terrible parents for letting them act so badly”). But am I totally out of line with the “we don’t let mean people take up our energy” attitude? I want to mention that I also follow this up every time with a talk about how we treat people with kindness and we expect the same in return: if someone isn’t being kind, then we don’t want to be around that person, so we leave. But I am riddled with self-doubt, I admit. Is this the best way to handle it?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Little Monsters

Dear LM,

Being bullied is a misery of childhood that few people are lucky enough to avoid entirely. I’m deeply sorry that your own childhood was marked by bullying so extreme, and I hope you know—fully know, deep-down know—that you did nothing to invite it; I also hope you know that what your child has been experiencing lately falls into the category of garden variety unpleasant, thoughtlessly mean behavior by other kids, that you can keep in mind the difference between that and the horrendous treatment you endured.

I have a sense, given your emphasis on the parents in the playground scenario you describe, that your own childhood drama is playing out here, as I think you suspect. No adult came to your defense when you were a child (either no one noticed, or no one cared); your sensitivity to the “dirty looks” of other parents when you intervene (interesting to me! They are too absorbed in their phones to notice their kids terrorizing smaller kids, but not so absorbed that they notice your speaking up?) suggests to me that you are still working out your own trauma. Given all that, I think you’re doing pretty well, honestly. Just last week I suggested, to someone worrying about name-bullying, that the best defense is preparation: every child needs strategies to help deal with bullying when it occurs, and I believe your message to your daughter is getting at that. But I would urge you to go a step or two further—to consider how strategies will vary depending on the situation. By this I mean not only yours (of long ago) versus hers, but also her situation-specific strategies for her.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

An appropriate and useful response to being teased (for example) may be an irrefutable, witty comeback; being shoved or swiped at—especially if she is 15 feet off the ground—is unlikely to be successfully countered that way. It also makes sense for children to have strategies for self-defense that are in their wheelhouse, personality- and otherwise (wisecracks, e.g., are not for everyone). Your job is to help your child craft responses that she feels good about employing. I’m a fan of role-playing and doing more listening and thinking than directing. Take the time and effort to help her craft her own instinctive reactions into self-protective, assertive words and actions. This will be more useful in the long run than a blanket response to every sort of unkindness. As to your “not great” moment: go easy on yourself. You’re human. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise. But it’s great, when we say or do something that we regret, to let our kids know that. It’s not a bad lesson for them to learn that everyone says/does things out of frustration or pain or even a bad mood, that we all lose our tempers, and that our better angels can help guide us to do better, always.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Partner’s Ex Is Suddenly Blocking Me From Spending Time With Her Kids: “I’m getting worried that I won’t be able to be a part of her life if I’m blocked from her kids.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 16-year-old hates to drive. At my insistence, he took and passed the written test for his permit and is currently taking behind-the-wheel lessons with a professional instructor. While he acknowledges the driving instruction is solid and well-taught, he still doesn’t like driving and dreads going to the lessons. He’s an intelligent kid with diagnosed anxiety. He argues that driving is inherently dangerous, and if he caused an accident, he would never forgive himself. (I mean, he’s not wrong.) However, we live in the countryside in a region with little to no public transportation, so being a non-driver isn’t a practical option. And he’s a theater kid, and I am so very ready for him to be able to take himself to and from rehearsals (he is not anxious when he’s in a car being driven by someone else). Do you have any suggestions for helping him relax and enjoy driving while still being safe?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Tired of Being the Chauffeur

Dear Tired,

I feel both your pain and his. First, full disclosure: I do not like driving one bit (and some days I would go so far as to say I hate it). While I am not consumed with anxiety about it, I am very well aware, as most people behind the wheel seem not to be, that when I’m driving a car I am commandeering a two-ton killing machine. I have always ascribed this to my not having learned to drive till I was 30. People who learned when they were teenagers—many of whom have no healthy fear of anything, and who rarely think about consequences (I have a distinct memory of being one of those teenagers myself)—are at an advantage. By the time I learned (the first time it was necessary, as I’d lived in New York City all my life till then), I had a very healthy understanding of the possible dangers attendant to driving. As you say: your kid’s not wrong.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In other words: I don’t blame him. And I strongly dislike the idea of forcing him to drive if he hates driving. (Another disclosure: my own kid had no interest in/time for learning to drive until after she finished high school. She didn’t hate it, because she’d never done it. It just wasn’t high on her priority list. And because she used her time well—she wasn’t loafing; she was studying, as well as doing theater and chorale and other activities—I didn’t push the issue, even though it meant I was constantly driving her places, because I too live somewhere without reliable public transportation, despite the fact that it’s a city. [I will, with great difficulty, resist the urge to rant about this.])

Advertisement
Advertisement

But, as I said, I feel your pain too. And unlike you (I guess, since you didn’t mention it), it wasn’t just the time spent driving her wherever she had to go that was hard on me, it was—as noted—that I really, really disliked getting behind the wheel. So her status as a nondriver definitely inconvenienced me. It inconvenienced me every single day. Until the day she grew up (which happens in a flash when they’re 16) and left home for college, and I never had to drive her anywhere ever again.

No doubt others would advise you to insist your son get his license whether he wants to or not, so you can be free of this onerous duty. Not me. I counsel muscling through it. It will be over before you know it (like so much about raising kids).

Advertisement

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

•  If you missed Friday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3-year-old has been through a lot lately: two moves, Daddy going back to the office after a year of WFH, and a new baby, all in a six-month period. He has really been a trooper, but has lashed out in some ways, especially since his speech is a bit behind and expressing feelings is something we’re still very much working on. One of the unfortunate trends we’re seeing right now is his being hostile toward adults who aren’t his parents. He does not want physical affection, he doesn’t want people in his space, and he’s cringingly vocal about not wanting people around. This is particularly true of my in-laws, including my husband’s grandmother, all of whom adore him and have never been anything but loving with him. No one tries to force affection on him, none of these adults has ever punished him or yelled at him or harmed him in any way, but his refusal to be friendly with them the way he used to be and dispense the hugs and kisses they used to relish is starting to hurt their feelings, although everyone understands intellectually that this is how 3-year-olds are sometimes. I feel like I’m not doing enough to MAKE him be nicer to them, but I also know how futile it would be if I did. It complicates things that his baby brother is the platonic ideal of a happy bouncing baby, smiley and gregarious with anyone whose eye he can catch (which is everybody). I think on some level my older child is jealous of the attention the baby gets, even when he’s resisting receiving it himself (and although all of the adults in his life have gone out of their way to make sure he is not overlooked). What can we do to help smooth out these relationships?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—It’s Not You, I Swear

Dear INYIS,

Please don’t do anything to “smooth out these relationships.” This too shall pass. The adults are going to have to be adults and not require a 3-year-old to reciprocate their “adoration,” to recognize that children go through phases, to be respectful and understanding of whatever it is he’s going through (is it the baby? is it just a developmental phase? Either way, it won’t last a lifetime, and it is not this toddler’s job to make the adults in his life happy—nor your job to facilitate that), and to wait this out patiently. Meanwhile, there’s another child for them to cuddle—lucky them. Take this non-problem off your plate. You can’t fix everything, and you can’t—shouldn’t, ever—put the needs of adults ahead of the needs of a child. Right now your child needs to keep his distance from everyone but you and his dad. Let him.

Advertisement

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m very happy that social media and websites have made learning about social issues accessible for my daughter (16) in a way it wasn’t for my generation. However, I’m starting to worry that she’s developing a specific dietary restriction that affects her negatively, but doesn’t seem to fit under any eating disorders I know of. My daughter has started questioning where her food comes from. This in itself is great, as it started with environmental impact, and we started researching, going to local farmers’ markets, finding Native merchants when we could, etc. She went vegan, which was also fine, if more expensive to stay both healthy and local. Now she’s started hearing about prison slave labor, which is how many American companies are able to brag that their products are “made in America” and still pay significantly below minimum wage and demand inhumane production schedules. All of these aspects of food production are important, but she has started obsessively questioning where every ingredient, including spices/seasonings, came from, and not eating if she’s not convinced everything on her plate is completely “clean.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Although we’re much more privileged than many people, we do not have infinite time or budget to find enough food that meets her standards that will keep our family healthy, though we try our best. But my bigger worry, honestly, is that instead of using social media to talk about the issue or putting her energy towards a charity that could make a difference when she can’t be convinced that ingredients are the most humanely produced possible, she doesn’t want to eat at all. This doesn’t seem like a healthy reaction to me, especially since I assumed at first that she would eat when she got hungry (instead, she just started skipping meals).

I’ve tried talking to her about it all ad nauseum, but it seems like she can’t bring herself to consume food that she cannot be reassured is perfect. To me, this is disordered eating, but my husband says I’m overreacting to the self-righteous phase every teen goes through, and the only way it will become a problem is if I make a big deal of it or send her to therapy like I want to. He thinks we should just say everything is completely up to her standards, but lying doesn’t feel right. Am I making a huge deal out of nothing, or is there a way to help calm her food anxiety to get enough calories into her?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Eating Right Versus Eating Righteous

Dear Eating,

Your husband is wrong, I’m afraid. This is disordered eating, and that it comes from a place of righteousness doesn’t change that. Your husband’s casual dismissal of both the eating disorder and the moral and ethical principles that your daughter is both admirably upholding and that are taking over her life in an unhealthy, even dangerous way (and let me underline that the latter does not negate the former) is disturbing to me. “Self-righteous phase” suggests that she is not to be taken seriously, that she will grow up and cease to care about the things she cares passionately about. (Some people do, alas. Did he, I wonder?) I talk a lot in this column about how most things pass when you raise kids if you wait them out. An eating disorder is not one of them. I’m not a mental health professional, of course, but from where I sit, it seems to me your daughter needs help and needs it now. (And don’t just find a therapist. Find one who specializes in eating disorders. Better yet, if you’re in an area that has one, find a full-scale program that tackles all aspects of an eating disorder, including the possibility that there’s a co-diagnosis to be made here. And make sure—by asking in advance—that whomever or whatever program you’re going to work with will not airily dismiss your daughter’s concerns or her politics.) I’ll be thinking of her. I hope you’ll let me know how she’s doing.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

We have a very smart, creative 13-year-old daughter. I recently read the texts between her and her first boyfriend—something she knows I do—and was surprised. She tells him that her life is screwed up and that she feels unworthy and unloved. This does not seem to describe our relationship. Should I talk to her about this?

Advertisement