Psychological Bullying in Our Neighborhood

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:

  1. Sometimes, other kids can act like jerks toward you. When that happens, don’t feel too bad about it – just avoid them.
  2. 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.

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9 Responses to Psychological Bullying in Our Neighborhood

  1. dhaval says:

    Excellent article Mike – another great example of converting a challenge into an opportunity

  2. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — I think you are being too pessimistic about the potential for public schools to educate children in the social/emotional aspects of child development.

    Increasingly, schools are recognizing that too little learning takes place in schools inhabited by bullies. As a result, many (such as Palo Alto’s Escondido Elementary, which my kids attend) are running robust anti-bullying programs like Steps To Respect. It’s something that the whole school (teachers, parents, kids and — importantly — recess monitors) all sign on to and work at year round. It’s a lot of work, but the results are real. Behavior like you describe would not be tolerated if observed in such a school’s playground.

    We had an similar incident in second grade just the other week and the teacher called all the parties in, found out what exactly had happened and then had the offending kids write letters of apology to the kids who were picked on. This was teasing and meanness rather than bullying per se (which is a repeated pattern of such behavior). But all the kids got the message that it there was zero tolerance for such proto-bullying in the school. It made the picked-on kids feel safer and more ready to enjoy school and learn.

    Yes,it takes commitment from all the stakeholders and a willingness to keep at it year round, but it can be done!

  3. hracing says:

    Mike, been a long time fan. This article brings up a slew of issues that I am still learning with my 3.5 year old twins. Psychological bullying really seems like you are labeling that neighbor and in effect, keeping him from your son might be hurting both of them more than healing the problem. I wonder if a crystal ball would show that your label will make him become more of a bully in your neighborhood.

    Granted, I don’t want a door slammed in my kids’ face either. I do want my kids to experience feelings, emotion and sometimes embarassment so they can be stronger. 5 is little and I’m not saying be un sympathetic, but don’t give up on the neighbor. The fact that his dad brought him over shows some signs of responsibility. There is another reason why that child slammed that door… its bigger than just the child.

    Creating an adverse neighborhood relationship between your children is long lasting. Supervise the next visit, have em over for a BBQ. You might be surprised to see their relationship blossom and this story has an even more positive ending.

    Thank you.

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    hracing – I’m not giving up on the neighbor at all. The dad is very cool, and Steven isn’t a bad kid. However, they made my son miserable, and I want that to stop. In this article, I’m labeling their actions, not them as people.

  5. Jane Haller says:

    Hi, Mike! I agree that the neighborhood is a great place for these bumps to happen. I have learned in our very active “playborhood” (even my kids use that term now) that most kids will have hero days as well as unintentional villain days as they grow and learn. I think you played it well but agree that point two of your lesson to Marco in this post makes it sound a bit like you’re giving up on Steven and Eddie for now. I know from other writings of yours that that is not actually the case.

    1. I highly recommend Natalie Madorsky Elman’s work _The Unwritten Rules of Friendship_. It has been invaluable help in wading through issues/opportunities like this, which do come up weekly at public school (and are, in and of themselves, a good reason for public school). This is a good teachable moment for her stuff — grab it this week if you can.

    2. For the kids, The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper and Gabi Swiatkowska. It’s beautiful.

    3. My ten-year old boys have an August birthday, so they were going to be either the oldest or the youngest in their class. We chose to wait and have been glad about that. When they see kids being unkind to others at recess, they can and do call a halt to that behavior with a stern look. The extra time that you’re putting in with your children will be a gift to other kids who have not had that luxury.

    4. I have found that picking up my kids myself after school has given me valuable opportunity for that extra eye-contact with the teacher AND my kids right after school. If something came down socially or academically, I can tell and have the chance for at least two views on the situation while impressions are fresh. Once Marco hits school, many “Blessings of a Skinned Knee” experiences that do not merit a note home can come to you this way.

    Continued thanks for your thoughts and encouragement,
    Jane

  6. Mike Lanza says:

    Jane –

    Thanks for your very thoughtful comment! I just ordered The Unwritten Rules of Friendship – it looks great.

    I also like your number 4. Nothing can replace face-to-face interactions, and I do agree that we can learn a heck of a lot more by seeing all that at the end of the school day.

    Lastly, I want to again address the issue of “writing off” Steven and Eddie. Absolutely, we won’t do that. I’m just saying to Marco that he should allocate his friend attention toward kids who are most likely to reciprocate. Right now, he’s not good at picking up those cues and acting on them, so he treats all kids the same, regardless of how nice they are. Marco should use his attention to reward friendly behavior and punish bad behavior.

    Having said that, he should continue to keep the door cracked open for the badly behaving kids to come around. However, they should have to work harder…

  7. Anonymous says:

    Mike,

    My wife and I just have joined this website. Your interview in this month’s issue of Bay Area Parent made it impossible for us not to do that :-)

    Let me tell a story how my dad dealt or, more accurately, helped me to deal with a neighborhood bully. His name was “Volchok” (Little Wolf) and he was about 3 years older than I was, and I was about 10 year old at that time. We were classmates, because he was failing in school and repeating the year several times. Everybody knew about his links to criminal circles.

    I came home crying, because Volchok made me pull him in my sled all the way from school to his home, and made me run as fast as I could. I knew, if I didn’t he would do something really nasty to me. My father asked me about what happened. After I finished my story, he told me that the only way to prevent this from happening again was for me to attack Volchok, when he starts bullying me.

    In a couple of days a similar story happened, and I was home crying again. My father repeated his suggestions but also told me that if I don’t stand up to Volchok and come home crying again, he will beat me himself. By the way, my father never beat me in my life.

    So, when Volchok was after me next time, I pretty much closed my eyes and started throwing punches. It took him no time to immobilize me, but then he just pushed me away, swore, and left.

    When I told my father about this, he said that Volchok would never bully me again. I couldn’t believe that and asked why. “Because there are about 20 others in your class, whom Volchok can bully without risking to get even a feeble blow,” my father said. And he was right that Volchok never bullied me again.

  8. Mike Lanza says:

    lr khaimovich – I like your story, including the nickname, “Volchok.” I think most middle- and upper-middle-class kids these days have never fought back physically in their lives. You learned a great lesson.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Mike. Yeap, I think there is a place for a fistfight in a boys life (additinally to making it very clear why to exercise and stay in shape). One day I will try to figure out what exactly it is. What comes to my mind first, is that it is simple enough for being an effective regulating force for some age group. Thus it made it possible for children to run their own society, that, in turn, helped them to learn how to come up and live with the norms and rules without any help from an external authority–an adult. This is why I was really impressed by reading on your twitter page (playborhood):
    “My nephew (12) told me he wishes he could have taken care of those neighborhood kids who bullied Marco.” 3:16 PM Dec 30th, 2009
    I wonder what would he do?