'Girls Are So Mean to Me' -- My 3-Year-Old Learned About Bullying at Preschool

baby bullies

I first knew something was a little off when my just-turned 3-year-old daughter came home from preschool begging to see and talk to her big brother, the oldest of my three young children. My kids are close, but typically a 7-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl aren't buddy-buddy all day, so I knew something was up. I asked my daughter to tell me why she needed to talk to her brother so badly and she told me matter-of-factly, "The girls at my school are so mean to me."  


Being the little-kids-are-all-sweet-munchkins kind of mom that I am, I assumed that simply meant someone grabbed a paintbrush out of her hand, stole a doll, or spilled applesauce on her dress. I was wrong, and got a quick lesson in learning to really listen to my child.

Later that night as I tucked my big guy into bed, he told me, "Mom, do you know the girls at Riv's school aren't letting her play with them because she's younger and they don't like her and call her names?"

Obviously, I was upset to hear this, but again, I assumed this had to be some misinterpretation or exaggeration. Who would be mean to a sweet 3-year-old girl, especially in an environment that's basically just finger paints and seesaws? 

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I was touched that my daughter felt safe and loved enough by her big brother to confide in him, and equally as touched that he deeply cared about her feelings.

The school she attends is a half-day preschool near our Midtown New York City neighborhood -- and they encourage family involvement, so I took the opportunity to be the parent-aide the following week. The parent aide's job is literally to sit in as an observant, helpful extra teacher for the duration of that day’s class. I put out the paints and the Play-Doh, organized the storytime books, and helped cut up the fruit for that day's snack -- and then the kids filed in and I saw my daughter's eyes turn from happy to fearful. She hid behind the Play-Doh table and softly whispered to me that Maddie, Livy, and Greta are always mean to her (I changed their names because I wouldn't dare hurt these kids the way they've been taught to hurt others). 

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At only 3, my daughter wasn't able to fully articulate what "mean" meant to her. I wasn't sure exactly what was going on, but kept an open mind. As the day wore on I noticed Livy yell at my daughter, Rivkah, for painting at an easel Livy said was only for "big girls."

I reminded Livy that speaking nicely and sharing would make her more friends in the long term. Then, at snack time, Maddie sat down directly across from me and glared into my eyes. She asked if one of the kids there was mine, and if so, which one. I asked why she needed to know which child was mine and she told me, "If it's Rivkah, tell her she can't sit at our table. We don't want her."

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I was somewhere between perplexed and full of rage. Who the hell did this little seed of rudeness think she was talking to, and what planet did she come from where she thought that would be okay? I took a second, cooled off, and asked her why Rivkah wasn't welcome at the table.

"She's younger and has a weird name and we think she's stupid." 

Oh, do you, Maddie? Where did you even get this language from? Who taught you this? Where was your mother to teach you that you're not the judge of the world? (And before anyone says, "Maybe she doesn't have a mom," she does -- and a dad).

I brought Rivkah right over to the table, grabbed the permanent teacher, and told Maddie, Livy, and Greta that they'd never get to sit together again if they didn't include all the kids in the class. The teacher sort of halfway echoed me and walked away. I assumed that was enough, but day after day, the same continued.

And then finally, months later, Rivkah started telling me, "They bite me every day, and nobody gets in trouble. Why do they act like dogs to me?"

Dogs, in my opinion, are far sweeter creatures than these little girls. Again, the teachers did basically nothing, and in NYC the custom is that parents don't deal with other parents -- the teacher is always the point of contact for any and all issues. 

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I asked Rivkah why anybody would bite her and she told me very clearly (now a few months older and more articulate), "They say my name is weird and I'm littler and I'm dumb."

My daughter’s name, Rivkah, ironically means "unity" by way of biblical poetry. Unity -- as in friendship beyond the normal bounds -- something these kids needed a lesson in. At 3, she's also beginning to sound out words and read books, and she is far from dumb, but it doesn't really matter. If I had a child who wasn't as quick-minded, had a bunch of green polka dots on her face, and had 11 legs, would that be an okay reason for her to be bullied? No. No kid should have to endure that, because each of us in this human race is a little different in some way. That's the beauty of us -- but not to everyone, because today I found myself reading an email from the school's administrator that made my skin crawl. 

It read: "Here's the link to class pictures for the year!"

I expected to find a treasure trove of adorable memories and moments of my daughter's first year at school. What I found was a collection of images of the baby bullies: Maddie, Livy, and Greta. There were images of them smiling, playing, arm-in-arm ... and then I noticed my daughter wasn't in the photos. She was completely missing in action until basically the last page, where I found a photo of her with arguably the other "ethnic" kid in the class. They were happy, but why were there dozens of images of every other girl except my kid?

I asked Rivkah, obviously.

"They don't let me play with them or stand with them, so how can I be in the pictures?"

(Insert angry mom expletives here, because I paid many mortgage payments for my daughter to go to this school only to feel like crap.)

So we talked, and I reminded her like I do every other day how beautiful, creative, thoughtful, and magical she is as a little girl, and she is; those are sincere words.

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I was floored when she told me, "I know. I do my artwork and play with one or two friends, and I just wait for when I can be in the same school with my brother. I know girls with good hearts grow into real princesses and I really want to be a real princess."

God, I cried privately after that. She got it, far beyond whatever I could've said, but that certainly didn't excuse the behavior of those children, their parents, or the school. 

I think we all have an important opportunity to educate our kids on the value of friendship and kindness from early on. It's literally never too early to teach a child that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and even if your baby isn't interested in catching many flies, there's just the concept of putting goodness into the universe. I wonder what would happen if practicing acts of kindness started from the very beginning of our education system -- would we have nearly as many tragic middle school and high school bullying situations?

This idea of bullying is something most of us assume starts well into the elementary school years, well past the time of Play-Doh and sing-alongs, when hormones start to emerge and kids start to understand the details of the world around them. The details that either align them or give them ammo to wedge separations between themselves and others -- but that's sort of the wrong interpretation. It starts so much earlier.

I have no idea if there's a clear solution, but I do know that it can't hurt to start early. If we learn our ABCs at 2 or 3 years old so we can grow into literate adults, why don't we learn the ABCs of kindness and friendship simultaneously, so we can grow into the kinds of adults we would want to surround ourselves with?

Until we change the way we think, act, and shape our babies, I doubt this will change. But in the meantime, you can find Rivkah and me passing out high fives and hugs to as many nice kids as we can find.



Image via katarinag/Shutterstock

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