04/04/2014 01:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Can't Always Protect My Children -- and I Don't Always Want To

I think it is a natural instinct for parents to want to protect their children from pain. Not just physical pain, but emotional pain. For me, I find my Mama Bear instinct particularly strong when I see my child being treated unjustly by her peers. I think my reactions stem back to my own childhood when I was a victim of bullying in my early years of schooling. I get such a visceral reaction that my immediate desire is to jump in and prevent the same thing from happening to my children.

I had an epiphany the other day, however, when my vivacious 3-year-old was presented with one of life's harsh realities: not everyone is going to want to play with you. Her reaction to this has made me completely adjust my thoughts, and trust that she doesn't need me to fight her battles for her.

It was a Saturday morning and I had taken my two daughters, Lucy (3) and Penny (2) to a nearby indoor play cafe. It was quite a nice day outside so it was fairly quiet when we arrived. The two girls skipped off happily, carting little dolls they had found from structure to structure, taking them down long slides and bouncing with them in the jumping castle.

Before long, some little girls arrived wearing fairy costumes. They must have been around 7 or 8 and were coming to a friend's fairy princess party. My Lucy was in awe. She sat by me, gazing over the back of the chair longingly as several more fairy princesses arrived, bearing beautiful gifts for their friend. There was a table set up just by us complete with glitter, balloons and other fairy trinkets. Needless to say it was almost too much for my little girl to bear.

She queried why she couldn't join them as they disappeared upstairs into the party room, led by the Fairy Queen, but reluctantly went back to her own play after I explained that they were here to celebrate their friend's birthday and needed their own area upstairs to do this.

Several minutes passed and it seemed that Lucy had all but forgotten the girls and was happily running about playing and exploring independently. Suddenly, the center became a little more lively as eight or so fairy princesses came cascading back down the stairs with their wings, wands and tutus and headed excitedly towards the ball pit. They piled in and began squealing with delight as they threw balls at each other and tried to bury themselves in deep as the balls swallowed them up.

Well, that was it. Lucy could not hold back any longer. She dived into the pit after the girls, not saying a word but showing in her body language and gestures that she was excited to be joining in. She reached to pick up a ball but had it blocked by a fairy who reached for the same ball and tossed it to her friend.

Not fussed in the slightest, Lucy collected another ball and mimicked the actions of the girl by throwing it to the same friend. Her little eyes were lit up in anticipation of what would happen next. When no ball was returned, she dived excitedly towards the outside netting of the pit, keen to show off her other skills to the princesses.

It was in that moment that this mama's heart broke ever so slightly. I watched in agony as the girls used this opportunity, while Lucy's back was turned, to start a mass exodus from the pit. It was clear that they did not appreciate an intruder's presence in their party pit as one by one they moved quickly, giggling, out through the netting and onto another structure.

As Lucy regained her footing and struggled to turn herself upright in the quicksand of balls, she noticed the girls departing. She didn't try to follow. She watched forlornly as the fairy princesses left her there, alone. The pit, once a buzz of excitement and joy, was now just a lonely child in a sea of color. I made a move to go to her. To acknowledge how disappointed she must feel now the princesses had gone. But something told me to wait, to watch, to observe her reaction before jumping in.

I'm glad I did, for within a minute, her eyes broke their gaze from the girls and she turned to where I was sitting, just outside the pit. She dived over to me, landing in a heap on the balls before scrambling up the net and excitedly blurting out, "Did you see the big girls playing with me, Mum? We were throwing balls and having lots of fun!" There was no sign of disappointment. She was not sad they had left. She was grateful for the small snippet of play she had been involved in. She knew it was not her party and understood the girls' need for space to play. She had stolen a precious piece of it and was super excited about that.

My fears, my own insecurities, have no place in her innocent mind. I am so pleased I did not corrupt it by letting her know of the injustice I had felt on her behalf. I know there will come a day when she will face rejection and feel its effects, but my rushing in to rescue her is not going to help her develop the resilience or self-confidence she needs to take with her through life. Lucy taught me a valuable lesson that day and I am ever so grateful.

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Empowering Toddlers: Encouraging Parents to Abandon the "Bully/Victim" Mentality ~ Tiffany Gough (

Labels Are Not For Children ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)