04/11/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2014

When Does the Bullying Start?

Hybrid Images via Getty Images

"Mommy, my eye hurts."

I was writing the time on Tegan's sign-out sheet at school, gathering her daily note and cups holding last sips of milk. I looked down to see her right eye welling with water, tears streaming down her cheek. The skin around her eye looked red and flushed, like she'd been rubbing it for an hour.

"Did you bump it?" I asked. She nodded hesitantly. "Where?"

"Over there," she said and pointed to an open corner of the room. She lowered her head and leaned into me, covered her eye.

There was something different about her reaction. Usually she'd be very talkative about whatever had happened. She'd say something like, "I bump a my eye and fell down" or "I bump a the table, Mommy," but she seemed more disconcerted, visibly upset about whatever had happened."

"We don't know what happened," said her teacher. "We literally just noticed it right before you came in."

"Are you okay, Tegan?"

"My eye. It hurts."

She had just finished two weeks of antibiotics for conjunctivitis in both eyes, a bad ear infection in both ears. I pictured myself squirting amoxicillin into strawberry jam, spreading it on a toasted English muffin in hopes of being more edible.

We walked to the car and I clicked in our seat belts, started our drive home, the usual conversation.

"What did you do today, Tegan?"

"I play outside with Danny and Jason. I go down the slide."

"Did you have fun?"


"What else did you do?"

She looked down at her lap. "Gabrella push me."

"She did?"

"Yeah." She looked out the window and frowned, clasped her hands.

"At school today?"

"Yeah. Gabrella push me. Gabrella finger in my eye."

"Before Mommy came to get you?"

"Yeah." She looked at me meekly, raised her shoulders and pulled them inward.

This wasn't the first push from Gabriella.* Tegan had told me this on other days, while sharing that she'd read a book about trucks or danced in a paper skirt she'd made. Her stories always matched her daily notes, her art hanging on clothes pins.

I felt the Mama wrath light up in me, pictured this cherub-faced toddler pushing my Tegan before giving her mock-shy glance behind the teacher. Next time, I thought, I will definitely give that child the stink eye.

Of course, Gabriella is just a toddler. Toddlers hit and push. They test and experiment. They want things their way. They navigate their feelings, how to treat others. They're learning what's right and wrong, cause and effect, action and consequence.

I wonder though, when do kids get past that threshold? When should they know better?

I think back on my pigtails being pulled, little girls teasing. Hands being held behind my back, punches being thrown. The ignoring and excluding, the up-and-down glances, the staid stares meant to make you feel worthless.

When does it start? It certainly doesn't end.

As a mom I want to protect my daughter from the mean girls, the catty girls, the competitive and jealous girls. The girls who tear down and don't build up. The girls who aim to diminish, who feel so insecure about themselves that they must make others feel like less.

I want to surround her with the nice girls, the stand-up-for-each-other girls. The true-friend girls. The I-accept-you-as-you-are girls. The self-confident girls. The share-in-your-laughter, celebrate-your-happiness, be-with-you-through-the-tough-stuff girls.

Because the mean girls aren't going anywhere. But hopefully the nice girls can build up high, help each other to be strong, secure and unshakable. Because they are genuine and kind, because they treat others the way they'd want to be treated.

Then maybe the mean girls won't feel the need to be so mean anymore.

And maybe (just maybe) they'll let themselves be the nice girls, too.