How do you deal with the littlest bullies in the preschool play yard? With love. I couldn't help myself. Wait, let me back up a bit and explain.
My daughter was three when another girl in class started telling her where she could play and with whom, even going so far as to designate certain friends for her every other day. The girl would grab her arm and say, "You can play with so-and-so today, but not so-and-so." Aww, how nice: a personal social secretary.
Of course I'm sure plenty of you toddler parents can tell much worse stories about actual playground assault and extortion. But his tale is plenty heartbreaking when he talks about his kid's reaction -- yep, tears.
My own preschooler, Eleanor, who had just turned 3, had a similar reaction to her bully after maybe two days at her Montessori.
An awful bigger girl named Jenny was the little Tony Soprano-meets-Marie Antoinette of the playground, forcing all to play her way or not at all. My girl sobbed in the back seat on the way to school at the thought of two years of this. "Jenny's gonna be there every day!" she screamed.
I, of course, couldn't wait to see this Jenny and see if I could give her an angry stare-down, or at least rat her out to the 60-something German teacher, who scared me a little bit.
But when I saw the kid I couldn't help but like her a little bit. She was kind of awesome.
First of all -- Jenny? Who's named Jennifer anymore, not Isabella or, um, Emmeline? And if they are, it's "Jen," certainly not "Jenny."
She had white-blond hair that went beyond messy -- it stood straight up in several spots despite obvious attempts to mash it down. She wore these pointy, little old-lady glasses that were a weird mix of nerdy and riot grrrl hip (when I later saw her mother I realized nerdy was the right call). Her fists, and teeth, and toes seemed clenched all the time with angry energy. It seemed like she should have little lightning bolts coming out her head like Migraine Boy. She always wore dresses -- she wouldn't dream of denim -- but even that somehow added to the badass.
When I later developed an elaborate impression of her, I would wrinkle my nose and "grrrrr." She reminded me of Imogene from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. ("Hey! For unto you a child is born!!!") If she'd been constantly chomping on a cigar, it would have perfected the picture.
I walked up to Jenny after a few days and introduced myself in an attempt to help defuse things between her and my tender-hearted toddler.
She gave a little snarl, then hit me. Just took a swing and slapped me on the arm before stomping away. I was dumbfounded. But my girl, who was standing right there, laughed. Thought it was the funniest thing she ever saw. I saw an opening. So every day I walked up to Jenny and gave her the same loud, cheery greeting. Every day she scowled, hit me, and stomped off, every day my toddler laughed. Somehow it broke the spell and made Jenny not scary anymore.
I know it sounds terrible -- kids shouldn't be hitting anyone and violence isn't funny, especially when the hitter's not really kidding. But somehow it felt right.
Jenny stayed bossy, but it played out in better ways. Eleanor would bring her schoolwork home and sometimes the letters and numbers would be traced over with thick, black script. "Jenny shows me how to do it right," she'd say. Jenny, playing outside the bully type, was a standout student.
And after a few months of our morning routine, I won her over a little myself. "Hi Jenny," I shouted and waved with a smile. She growled and reared back, then stopped. "I'm not going to hit you today," she said, and stomped off.
My heart sang.
How have you dealt with pre-k bullies?
Image via Flickr/JennyDowning