Monday, April 16, 2012

Bullying: A Mama’s Place

My daughter is shy. At least that is the word that others like to use. In my view, she tends to keep her loud, complicated, busy personality inside of herself. I think she might be like her Mama, and come to think of it, her Papa that way. When she started day care at 17 months old she did not say a word to her provider. Nor any of the other kids. For about a year she only whispered to the person in charge of her care. Her second day care experience at 2.5 years old was not much different. Other day care providers at the centre would hear her chattering away to me when I was helping her with her coat in the locker area and remark that they had never heard her voice before – one year in.

She speaks quietly when asked a question from a new person (defined as someone on the scene for only 6 months – 2 years), and can usually only carry on a conversation at a detectable level with her close family members (brother, grandparents, parents, maybe aunts or uncles) or her friends and cousins. Otherwise, you may just have to guess what she is thinking. If you’re lucky you’ll get a slightly perceptible nod.

When the doctor handed me this little baby girl, I could tell immediately that she was a wise sort of human. In fact I recall thinking: ‘oh no, she is going to know so much more than me’. There was something in the way her eyes were acute and focused from the minute she came into the world. This girl was taking it all in. And I was afraid I couldn’t guide someone like that.

Fast forward to the beginning of her first school year. How I managed to let that kid walk up the driveway toward that rumbling big, yellow bus without completely spazzing out with emotion, I’ll never know. She climbed up those stairs all brave and stoic, with her little backpack (actually half the length of her body) perched on her tiny pink back, and waved through the window with a delighted smile.

My daughter is a wild kid. She will sit quietly for hours doing puzzles or role-playing with figures. But there is no roller coaster crazy enough for her – no notion or concept she doesn’t seem to be able to wrap her head around and comment back on later – no new adventure too foreign for her. Yet it has always been difficult to know what she needs. She doesn’t always tell you. Or what she does communicate can be cryptic.

Around most other adults, she appears to be an angel. A quiet, well-behaved, gentle sweetheart. And that she can be. But there is a whole other side there that receives little light out there in the world. I suppose most kids are like that. Home is the safest place to let it all rip. Or where they know they can test the hardest. Or where they must finally release all of the pent up frustration from their day when they had to hold it all in.

It appeared at the beginning of the school year that my little girl was adjusting very well considering she was learning in a new language at a new school, with all new friends, in a different town than her day care had been with a new teacher and a new way of getting there. The fact that she didn’t implode with adjustment issues still amazes me. Instead she took it all in stride. She seemed to be able to handle everything that came her way.

To try to ease her way into school, I made sure I had a presence whenever possible. I would go on the field trips and volunteer at lunches or outings. I picked her up at the school as often as I felt comfortable doing while still letting her adjust to the bus routine. I got to know the names of the children in her class. I invited the girls to play.

When asked, she reported many new friends. She would have played with each of the children at any point in time. Gangs were already forming and she seemed a part of all of them. The girls and the boys. The francophones and the anglophones. The sporty kids and the more cerebral types. Then more and more I would hear about how she played alone both from her and other children in the yard. And that she doesn't speak to the other kids.

Finally, in an effort to find out if there was an issue, I put a group of toy cars in front of her and named them all after the children at the school. “Tell me what playing looks like in the school yard,” I said. She got very excited and unfolded a story that had me losing air and holding back a river of tears. But I let neither of those things show. I needed her to be able to tell me without having to react to my drama.

There were some uncomfortable words spoken to her. Ones that were not acceptable to me. Ones that made me want to park outside of the school fence and keep a very close eye on how my daughter is managing. There were some mild threats made and some very stern direction that controlled what she could and couldn’t do. She said she was fine with it all and wasn't hurt by it. She didn't think anyone was being mean. But after hearing this, I spoke with whoever would listen. Some friends who are kindergarten teachers, a favourite blogger who also teaches kindergarten, other parents, my own mother and childhood friends and then finally the teacher.

While the situation was definitely not okay, I was unsure of what to do. Who to tell. How to approach it. If I pushed too hard, would I make my daughter recoil and never share any of her school yard experiences again? Or if I didn’t do anything, would she deem herself unworthy of protection? Somewhere in the middle was the answer where there was neither blame nor apathy.

Here is what I have learned. It is not entirely my daughter’s responsibility at the age of 6 to protect herself from threats at school from any age of child. She must learn to stand up for herself, yes. She must learn to use her words. She must assert her position when faced with any kind of uncomfortable situation. But I do not believe that because she is a quiet sort she deserves to be pushed around or threatened. Not in the least. And so teachers should be told what is going on – even if by a third party. Parents should talk, try and get as many angles as possible on what is happening to help assess the reality of the situation, whether from the teachers, the kids or other parents.

It does not surprise me given my daughter’s character that she has come across some ‘bossiness’ from other children. She is not likely to push her way into any situation. In fact, left to her own devices, she may just as easily choose to play by herself. This makes it difficult to know if she is being excluded or if she is just not interested in the games the others are playing.

Worse yet, I think my daughter is smart enough to know what we want to hear from her. She may not necessarily be protecting the other children when she says she is fine with it all. She just simply wants to please her parents with the ‘right’ answers. It will take many indirect miracles to hear from her how her day actually went. She carefully chooses her stories and stays completely in control of how they are doled out to us.

The one thing that I have learned in the past few weeks of fretting and feeling helpless over my daughter’s social situation at school is that I have no say over who she will choose to be around. I can find out what I can, make my opinions known and forbid or exclude where I can (no, you can’t give that thing of yours to her). But I cannot make others be kind to her. I cannot make her walk away from trouble. I can bend these things, but not control them completely.

Where I hold the most power as Mama Bear – and this has taken a lot of sorting to figure out – is that I must teach my daughter to think very highly of herself. To treat others with great respect as she would wish to be treated. But to see herself as equal to those around her. To understand that nobody has a right to threaten her, take things from her because she is afraid, hurt her, say mean or scary things to her.

She needs to become untouchable. Untouchable. We do not define this as something you cannot touch. It is something that cannot be reached. A spirit so strong, a personality so vivid, a colour so bright, a heart so courageous – that nothing and nobody can sway its position. Untouchable. Something I never quite grasped.

I pray over the coming years (and there will be many, many more of them to come) I can find a way to support that wise, baby girl as she becomes a woman in this world. That she will tell me when she is afraid even if it is uncomfortable to do so. That I will be able to say or do the right things. That I will not project my own childhood fears onto her or try to correct my own problems through her.

I can build her up without putting her on a pedestal. That I can protect her without building her a bubble. That I can let her fly when her wings start to grow without holding her back in fear that she will get hurt. Teach her that it is okay to be quiet, to feel deeply, but it is not okay for others to mistreat you.

Surely she will get hurt. There is no way to keep that from happening. But I can still do my part as a mother.

And near as I can tell my job is to let her know she is wonderful. I cannot be responsible for teaching the world how incredible she is. That, for a mother, is too large a job. But should they try to make her feel a little less, I will do everything I can to stop the arrow from meeting its mark.

I can listen. I can protect. I can avert. I can educate. And try as I might, I must turn those wise eyes back onto her. Effectively spending my days helping her see what I saw in the first moment that we met. She sees everything. She takes it all in.

Now my job is to help her see herself for the good person that she is. And let her know that she has a Mama who will protect her in the spaces where she can’t.

Please feel free to let me know any strategies or concerns or perspectives you have on mean kids in the school yard. For those who home school, is this a large reason why? Where can you make a difference as a parent in your child's life?


  1. I found your lovely blog today and live in Ottawa. The (negative) social aspect is one of the greatest reasons why my family homeschools. Besides the lack of flexibility in the learning environment I found the teachers were often just as much at fault for bullying behaviour as the children. We are four children in our family and they would not be able to interact on the playground due to being in different grade levels. I found it too difficult dealing with the lack of control over all the pop culture that my children were being exposed to as well without the benefit of being taught media awareness. It is a difficult journey, especially for the 'quiet ones'. All the best in your education travels

  2. I just can't believe this is happening at the age of 6!! I don't remember there being any "cliques" or bullying in Grade 1, but maybe that's because it didn't happen to me. I was definitely bullied later on in elementary school. What really helped me was that my mom had enrolled me in various different programs outside of school - Girl Guides, art classes on the weekend, dance. And I found my good friends in those places, which helped me get through the crappy-ness of school. Once I got to high school, I managed to come out of my shell, and things really improved. Keep trudging on Mama - you're doing all the right things

  3. Fast forward 7 more years, take another version of the sweet, wonderful little girl you just described above, insert the same support and encouragement from mom and what do you get? I suppose more of the same. My quiet, contemplative soul is now a bit tired of going along with the masses, being on the fringe or one of the group and never an individual. Equally as painful to watch and not intervene while witnessing the treatment from peers and the choices she makes. Oh this mothering-it's a roller coaster ride for sure! Sending encouragement and warm wishes to you and all moms everywhere!

  4. In kindergarten I was very anti social. I would sit by mistake all rescue. In grade one I was much more active playing with the other kids. I think your daughter needs to learn more about personal boundaries. That will help her.


***thanks for stopping by...I look forward to hearing from you!***