Last year, my six-year-old had some trouble with bullies on his school bus.
It’s almost insane to say, “bullies” and “six-year-old,” especially in an era when more attention is on the dangers of bullying than ever before, but here we are. And he’ll be taking the same bus in September.
My wife and I doing our best to squash it, which isn’t easy when your kid is too young to emotionally protect himself, too young to understand how to defend himself, too young to understand why it’s even happening. Hell, I’m 40 and I don’t understand why it’s happening!
That’s partially because he’s my son, of course, and it seems outrageous that anyone could ever have a problem with such a sweet, funny, sure-sometimes-he-annoys-the-hell-out-of-me-but-he’s-six-and-I-live-with-him-so-cut-me-some-slack little guy.
It’s not easy for parents to reconcile our unconditional love for our kids with the less subjective, three-dimensional view the rest of the world has of them. Which isn’t to say our perspective is wrong; it’s just different. Sometimes we miss the trees for the forest (even when we spend a fair amount of our time detailing the shortcomings of each individual leaf on our hilarious and totally tongue-in-cheek blog!) Our love tends to blind us, which can leave us blindsided.
Detective Munch is far from blameless. Oh, he’s blameless in this current scenario, but he’s been the aggressor a time or two in the past, and he surely will be again. He’s been the ringleader with his friends. He’s been guilty of excluding other kids or calling names or being a jerk. He’s a kid, it’s what they do.
So I don’t blame the bully. Not yet. After all, there but for the grace of God goes my son, or yours.
Let’s imagine, for a minute, that it were flipped. Imagine that your kid weren’t the victim, but the bully. Imagine that your kid is the problem. Imagine that this is the end of A Time To Kill and I am Matthew McConaughey. Alright? Alright! Alright, let’s do this!
If my kid were bullying someone, I’d want to be told. Whether by his teachers, by the kid he’s picking on, by the kid’s parents, or by anyone else who witnesses his behavior. I’m sure I’d chafe at first – my son? I don’t think so! – but I hope I’m able to remember how kids are, how all kids are, even the best kids, even your own kids.
I’m not sure what’s worse, being the powerless parent of a victim or being the perplexed parent of a bully. In both situations it’s easy, and honestly maybe even a little necessary, to blame yourself.
When your kid is being bullied, you might wonder what you’re not teaching him or her, about self-esteem, about self-defense, about walking away. If you’re Clint Eastwood or Donald Trump or maybe even your own father or grandfather, men grew up in different times, you might even be tempted to blame your son for being a nerd or a wuss. Which is repugnant, and a relic of less enlightened days, but it still happens. (Hopefully not in your home or you really do need to blame yourself.)
When your kid is the actual bully, you might wonder what’s causing him or her to act out. It could be any number of things. Maybe he’s being bullied elsewhere, maybe he’s noticed you and your spouse arguing, maybe he’s struggling with school, maybe the Dolphins blew another shot at the playoffs. Who knows?
That’s a trick question: you should know. And if you don’t, it’s on you to find out, and to fix it. Again, these are little kids, and this is what little kids do, for a variety of reasons, the least likely of which is that they’re bad seeds. The behavior almost always has a source, and when they’re this young, it’s important to discover that source and try to nip it in the bud.
Whether your kid has a bulls-eye on his back or is the one taking aim, parenting needs to be done, and neither situation lends itself to easy answers. The number one thing you can do is be there, and try.
So I spoke to the father of the little boy who’s mistreating my son, and to his credit and my relief, he’s been receptive. He doesn’t like his son’s behavior any more than I do, and instead of being defensive, he’s taking responsibility for it, and I’m trusting him to do so. After all, his son is only seven. A year old than mine, which makes a huge difference at such a young age, but not exactly a wizened elder.
As difficult as it may be to believe, we are the elders in this situation. So we’d better do our bests to act like it.
A slightly modified version of this post originally ran on Scary Mommy.