Is there a benefit to the schoolyard bully in terms of our survival? Lately, I've been pondering this, having recently witnessed my 7-year-old son Charlie being pushed around in the playground after school.
It started off innocently enough at the jungle gym when a kid from Charlie's class began grabbing onto him from behind and restraining him. I decided not to intervene, as I wanted to see how Charlie would react, and I was a little disturbed by how acquiescent he was.
Later that night, I asked my son whether he liked being grabbed by this kid, and Charlie expressed that he didn't know what to do, as he was being held from behind. It dawned on me that perhaps my son had taken our family's nonviolence philosophy a little too much to heart. I emphasized to him that should this happen again, he should first tell this kid, "Back off!" and if that doesn't work, a gentle elbow to the ribs would be acceptable.
A day or two later I once again picked up my son from school and brought him over to the adjacent playground to let off some steam. Sure enough, there was the same classmate, along with his older brother and another larger boy. No parent of theirs was in sight; and no sooner had we arrived than Charlie took off for the adjacent woods along with the other boys. A moment or two passed before I realized where he had gone, as I was also tending to my baby daughter.
I quickly headed into the woods, where I found Charlie being held captive in some sort of "superhero" game. As my son came into view, I heard him shout, "Back off!" His classmate stepped away, only to have his brother step in and put Charlie into a headlock.
That's where I stepped in.
Coming out of the woods, I told Charlie that he wasn't to go in there anymore, and that I didn't want him interacting with those kids. My son couldn't understand why I felt so upset, as he perceived the whole thing as part of the game. He didn't grasp the power issues that were on display and, to my horror, didn't seem to mind being picked on. For this 7-year-old, who yearns for acceptance, having these kids manhandle him was worth the price of being included in their game.
Should I have stepped in at all? How much should parents intercede in these sorts of situations? One dad at my son's school whose own son was being bullied during recess felt that it was his duty to meet with the principal about it. Another dad I know recently shared the story about how his daughter was being physically harassed by a girl in her class, and after countless failed attempts to get the school to intervene, he finally asked a policeman friend to pay a visit to her school.
Where does the balance lie between being a helicopter parent and the hands-off, just-let-kids-work-it-out-for-themselves approach? As a dad, I'm still trying to figure this out. Back in the 1970s, when many of the suburban kids from my generation were given much more free rein to wander about our neighborhoods, the schoolyard or neighborhood bully was even more pronounced. Certainly, if my parents ever got a whiff of all the skirmishes I got into, I know it would have afforded them little sleep. Fortunately, minus a few cuts and bruises, like most kids, I managed to survive and learn some neighborhood smarts as a result -- and yet, I may have fared better if there had been a little more supervision.
While my son and I drove together to fill my car with gas, I spoke to him at length about how these kids in the playground did not have his best interest at heart and that, if this interaction continued, Charlie would eventually get hurt; but no matter how I tried to explain these things, my son couldn't really understand them, and I realized that he will just have to discover these things for himself. Thinking about it further, maybe it's just better this way, and maybe there is some value to the schoolyard bully in terms of toughening our kids up a little.
We can't build force fields around our children, and even if we could, I don't think we should. At the end of the day, all we can do for them is be present, show them good examples of how we conduct our lives and give them a safe haven to retreat to when needed. We also should give them tools to better handle life's challenges, along with a lot of love and encouragement. Beyond that, all we can really do as parents is just hope and worry that the rest turns out OK, because it's their lives, not ours.
Dana H. Glazer is the award-winning director of the feature documentary, "The Evolution of Dad." To learn more or to order a copy of the DVD, please visit www.evolutionofdad.com.