My 5-year-old son Marco was psychologically bullied by two older boys in our neighborhood yesterday. It was the latest and most serious in a series of episodes like this.
However, in this situation, we found another very strong reason to advocate neighborhood play for our kids. Here’s what happened. Yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, our door bell rang, and when Marco opened the door, he saw no one there. He only saw a note on the doormat. He handed the note to me. It said something like the following:
“Come out to play spy with us. – Steven”
I peeked outside toward Steven’s yard and saw him and another neighbor boy, Eddie, playing. Marco hadn’t played with these boys in a couple of months, but perhaps this was a good opportunity for him, I thought. So, I went back in and told Marco that Steven and Eddie wanted to play with him, and if he wanted to play with them, he could go to Steven’s house.
Marco was excited. He quickly put on his coat and ran outside toward Steven’s house. I would have followed, but I had to keep watch over our other two boys. I did stay outside to watch as best as I could.
I heard a gate slam and some snickering, and then a few seconds later Marco ran back crying. He told me that when he showed up at the gate at Steven’s yard, the boys slammed the door shut in his face. Clearly, these boys had no intention of playing with Marco. They just wanted to lure him outside so they could humiliate him.
Marco cried an awful lot. This was also a very sad moment for my wife and me. Bumps and bruises go away fast, but psychological trauma can have more permanent effects. Fortunately, I had seen a fair amount of what happened, and I was able to get Steven and his father over to our house immediately to talk over the situation.
Steven’s father was great. He got Steven to describe what happened and to apologize to Marco. After they left, I drove home two lessons to Marco:
- Sometimes, other kids can act like jerks toward you. When that happens, don’t feel too bad about it – just avoid them.
- You need to invest a lot of time to make real friends. He should be spending a lot more time with other kids in our neighborhood who, unlike Steven and Eddie, are very nice to him.
So, I’m not happy this happened, but we salvaged what we could from this episode. Perhaps Steven will amend his behavior toward Marco, and perhaps Marco has learned a bit about how to deal with mean behavior and about the value of working on real friendships.
Meanwhile, I shudder to think about how this episode would have played out if it had happened at school rather than in our neighborhood. Steven and Eddie go to the local public elementary school, while Marco doesn’t because my wife and I had decided this summer to postpone his kindergarten for a year. Our primary reason for this decision was that he has a hard time relating to other kids and making friends, so we thought he might be sad at kindergarten, which is less nurturing than preschool. Imagine if Marco had received that note at recess at school, then gotten humiliated by Steven and Eddie when he approached them to play.
Given that they have to watch over dozens of kids at once, it’s highly unlikely that a playground guard or teacher would have been able to get all the facts and achieve the resolution at school that we parents did in our neighborhood. So, Steven would have learned nothing, and Marco would have learned nothing.
Steven and Eddie would probably continue to bait Marco and ridicule him. Depending on their social status, they might persuade other kids to put down Marco. Marco would withdraw more and more. Playground guards and teachers would understand little of this, and simply conclude that Marco is shy and doesn’t play.
Marco would become sadder, and might even start hating school to the point where his learning suffered.
Because this happened in our neighborhood, my wife, Steven’s father, and I were able to contain the damage and teach our kids some lessons. Neighborhoods are the ideal place for kids to learn how to play with each other and get along because parents can be close by, but not necessarily hover over their kids.
In other words, neighborhoods are the ideal stepping stone to the real world for kids. Parents who hover over their kids at every moment other than school are expecting schools to do to much. Schools give parents a false sense of security by emphasizing physical safety, but they are ill-equipped to teach children vital lessons in social skills and values.