We have written about toddler bullying before on the site, but this week I again needed to reflect on the issue of young children and what is and isn’t bullying and what is and isn’t ‘just kids being kids’. Things also made me consider when and why bitchy, competitive, cliquey friendship groups arise and whether or not it is sensible (or even possible) for me to try and protect Munchkin from these or whether it is better to teach her how to deal with difficult situations.
On Monday I took Munchkin to a local soft-play. We often head there for a play and a snack, sometimes with friends, sometimes on our own. That day, it was just us. This is never a problem as there are always other kids there and Munchkin usually has a great time playing with new people, or even just on her own. This time, however, things got a little bit Lord of the Flies.
There was a group of older children (by older, I probably only mean 4 year olds, but they came in pre-school uniforms). The group of girls had come with their parents and younger siblings. The girls and their siblings were in the soft-play while their parents and carers enjoyed a bit of peace. Munchkin is usually quite happy to head into the soft-play by herself, but seemed reluctant with the large group of girls, so I sat at the edge watching her with the intention of leaving her to it as soon as she became involved in playing.
The first time my ears pricked up had nothing to do with Munchkin, but the girls said to another girl who had attempted to engage with them, “Why would we even want to be your friend?”. I also heard a subsequent child told “You’re not our friend; we don’t know your name”. There was nothing truly malicious about these statements, nor were they accompanied by any physical behaviour or continued seeking out of children to be nasty to, but they were hurtful and unpleasant comments made in tone which suggested intent. None of the slighted children seemed too bothered and all just headed off to play somewhere else. But it is not a big soft play and the group did dominate the space somewhat.
After a while, Munchkin decided to try to break in to the clique. I wanted to tell her not to bother and to keep away from the group, but I restrained myself. Munchkin was told “we don’t want to play with you; you’re a baby”. Munchkin replied in a jovial tone, “I’m not a baby, I’m a big girl”. One of the big girls then reached across and started pulling Munchkin’s leggings down saying, “You’re a baby; you wear nappies”. At this point I got out my best secondary school teacher voice and shouted “GIRLS, stop that”. Munchkin seemed fairly unperturbed and simply said “I don’t wear nappies”.
Munchkin didn’t want me to leave the soft-play and in fact requested that we sit together and read a book instead. This isn’t unusual behaviour as she often likes to sit and read, but as soon as the group of children left, she returned unprompted to the soft-play. Later that day she also told me that she didn’t like the big girls calling her a baby.
As I said at the beginning, these events set me thinking. How should I teach Munchkin to deal with these sorts of situations? Should I (can I?) protect her from them or are they a part of life? I have a friend who home-schools her child and one of her reasons is that school encourages these exclusive cliques and impenetrable friendship groups. She says that friends of her sons changed in attitude, play-style and interaction the moment they started school in a way her son never did. As a teacher I find it hard to accept that schools are wholly responsible for these changes. I have always been inclined to think that it is a developmental stage or a facet of human nature; but maybe I am wrong? I will concede that schools have great difficulty in controlling negative behaviour and that the route through school can be very difficult for children who are ‘a bit different’.
So how can we help our children navigate the path of friendship and growing up? Can we protect them from unpleasantness, or indeed stop them from being perpetrators of the unpleasantness themselves? Do we all have to learn how to deal with bullies at some point? Were the girls I mentioned even bullying or just themselves trying to figure out the complexities of social norms?
Sorry, in this post I am no further forward with my thinking. Please do share your thoughts.