I have been there before. I am at the play area watching Re bake a fresh mudcake, lace it with leaves and petals, when in marches a tiny bully. I almost see an evil gleam in his eye as he stomps all over Re’s creation, kicking some sand in his face. Re doesn’t know whether he is crying because of the sand in his eyes or the fact that his creation has been destroyed. The meltdown that ensues is entirely my problem of course, because the other child’s parent is just looking blank-faced, as if to suggest this is what children do.
Re has always been a softie, he never attacks or hits back, and perhaps his innate gentleness has something to do with growing up around animals. He has however regularly got bullied, from as early as nine months. His kindness seems old-fashioned when I see other kids around him, and I am supposedly living in what one could call utopia. I often feel tempted to ask Re to fight back, but then I realize he would really wonder what was wrong with me.
I have often wondered whether a child is inherently good-natured or whether it is a trait that can be developed. What makes little kids mean, and why are some meaner than others? Is it inherited, is it what they are watching or eating, is it their home environment? I don’t really have the answers, but I do know that kindness needs to be taught as much as survival skills.
However, teaching children to care about others is not simple. Kindness also needs practice. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Kindness is more show than tell. Our children are always watching us, and most of what they learn is by observing. I realize I need to pay special attention to how I interact with family members, friends, the invisible people and the world at large. Re is quick to point at my “angry voice” or “shouty voice” from time to time. I guess I am the shrew he was born to tame.
If you linger long enough around kids, inevitably someone ends up being teased, left out of a game, or bossed around. It’s as if children are constantly testing out being nice, mean, or silly to see how their peers react. Preschool, the stage where Re is at, is a time when kids begin to figure out group dynamics. When I watch them, it’s obvious that a lot of the insults, grabbing, and put-downs are part of this experimentation. If I do x, will my friend do y? And if a child gets his way by intimidating, he/she may just raise the bar.
Very often, children display complete disregard for the feelings of others and unless the other person displays overt signs of hurt, don’t even notice it. On the other hand, I often see parents monitoring their kids’ moods all the time. Why are you sad today? Are you upset about something? This obsession with their feelings makes children think about themselves constantly, and not about that new kid in their class who is lonely, or that one who is being bullied.
When we focus too much on our children’s feelings and too little on their behavior towards others, we are also telling them that we value their feelings over others’ and that is a dangerous situation.
There has been a steady but palpable bullying movement in the school where I teach. Yes, things are still camouflaged as groupism and not very overt or malignant, but there are sure signs. Whenever I meet student parents, they are all eager to know about their children – how well they are doing, how much have they progressed, what can they do to get even better at their work. No one is asking about their behaviour. I recently met the mother of a bully who was in complete denial that her son could even be one. It’s as though everything right about him was his doing and everything wrong with him was always someone else’s fault.
Parenting is a long ride and each of our kids will encounter (sometimes even be) the meanies of the world. It’s tempting to jump in and save our kids from every negative encounter. But if we even vaguely understand where the meanness is coming from, maybe we can make sense of it in our own minds, treat it as a part of growing up, and ultimately help them to be kind and compassionate people.
Last week, Re came to me with yet another dilemma:
“Mamma, sometimes M hugs me so tight, I feel I am going to fall.”
“So tell her not to.”
“I did, but she doesn’t listen.”
“So try and push her away gently.”
“But pushing is not a nice thing, no?”
The beautiful thing about parenting is that sometimes, your children show you how to be the person you wish you were.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 19th January, 2015. You can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to share your thoughts)