I thought I’d have more than a two weeks of EV6 being in school before I had to deal with explaining bullies to her.
I also didn’t expect that bully would be a very pushy two-year old, but at this point nothing about our experiences in New Zealand surprises me.
On one of the first days I picked EV6 up from her new school, I saw a toddler built like a fireplug who was really enthusiastic about grabbing and pushing. He tried to grab a book from EV repeatedly, and when she eventually managed to dismiss him he redirected his attentions to a tiny, reedy toddler in the the corner of the room.
He gave the tinier toddle one push. Two pushes. A third push. At first I thought the two kids were playing, but then I saw tears welling up in the eyes of the reedy little one and before I could move one of the teachers sprung into action and scooped him out of the corner while gentle admonishing the pushy sparkplug.
This pushy little spark plug was George*, and to hear her tell it EV6’s days are chiefly concerned with avoiding his pushes.
*His name isn’t actually George, but I now asked EV6 no less than four times if that was his name only to have her correct me, so we’re just going with it since that’s what my brain is convinced to be true.
I asked about EV6 about her day as we were driving home the next day, and she replied, “Oh, I spent a lot of it sitting in a tree.”
“Oh,” I replied, “were you having fun climbing trees with your friends?”
“No, it was that George kept pushing me and I climbed the tree because he wouldn’t stop.”
Let me tell you: I was seeing way more red in that moment than I was seeing the road. I was seething with parental rage.
To be clear, I wasn’t angry at George. I don’t think this little tot is a bully or a bad kid. He’s a toddler who is just on the cusp of being verbal and much like Elaine Benes on Seinfeld he just happens to do a lot of his communication through enthusiastic pushes. EV6 is a bit on the short side for a 4-year-old, but also a bit spark-pluggy compared to the willowy girls in her class, and she loves reading to littler kids rather than sticking only with kids her age – all of which puts her clearly in George’s communication-via-pushing crosshairs.
Amazingly, EV6 also understands this completely. “Don’t worry,” she told me as I helped her out of the car, “he’s not trying to hurt me. He’s just pushing me because he wants to play and he can’t talk about it. I tell him, ‘George, stop. It’s okay. I’ll play with you.’ And it’s better than him pushing the smaller kids who might get knocked down.”
First of all: Wow, my child is seriously perceptive.
Second of all: Wow, my child is seriously empathetic.
But, third of all: My kid shouldn’t have to spend a remarkable portion of her day being pushed and then in a tree because another kid can only communicate via pushes.
After getting over my initial impulse to Hulk out because my kid was being pushed, I was surprisingly at peace with the situation. I know this will all be worked out by the teachers.
Yet, I cannot help but reflect on the current events of women speaking up for their years of harassment and assault at the hands of employers, friends, and acquaintances. Even women who have never been directly assaulted still have layers of defense mechanisms they use in nearly every interaction with a man – everything from staying out of arm’s reach to treating every sexist comment is a joke because it’s better than the alternative of taking them seriously.
I know this and have known this long before I had a daughter or a wife. And, to be frank, I’ve had to develop my own similar defense mechanisms against jokes and physical intimidation based on assumptions about my sexual orientation. My safety has definitely been at risk from any random man on the street before. I’ve been catcalled and threatened from passing cars. I get it.
And here is my daughter, climbing trees to get away from another kid’s physical aggression. Even though he doesn’t mean it, and even though it’s probably going to go away in a few weeks as he learns a few more words, as an analogy can it possibly get any better?
“Men aren’t going to hurt you, ladies, as long as you just stay in your tree?”
AKA “just cover up” or “just realize he meant it as a joke” or “just keep the door open.”
Somehow, I had to convey to EV6 that she is doing the right thing with George, but also help her understand that she doesn’t have to spend her entire life climbing trees to avoid handsy men.
This is what I said.
“EV6, I know you believe George isn’t trying to be mean or hurt you, but he is making you uncomfortable. You are changing what you’re doing because of his actions. That’s not fair to you. No one ever has the right to make you uncomfortable. Next time he pushes you and he won’t stop when you ask, you walk directly to a teacher and let her know.”
“Well,” she objected, “sometimes the teachers are paying attention to other kids.”
“If someone is making you feel uncomfortable, then that is important enough to interrupt them. If they aren’t hearing you you can give them a gentle tap on the leg until they pay attention.” That continued into a conversation about what to do if George was pushing other children, and how you always intervene when someone is being bullied, and about how talking to a teacher about George is part of caring about him not about getting him in trouble.
As I’m reflecting on all of this, I can’t help but think that I’m happy that I’m EV6’s parent right now and not George’s – not because of his behavior, but because he can’t talk. You cannot have these conversations with him … or, you can, but it’s all you talking. I did a lot of that when EV was two years old. That part of parenting was really hard for me. I didn’t love it. I’m happy it’s in the rear view, but I’m also happy that I didn’t have to navigate talking to my pre-communicative kid about other kids when she was that old.
I also understand that this might be the first time I can’t solve a problem for my daughter. In every other situation I’ve been able to coach her, give her advice, and remove obstacles. Now I have to trust her to handle a situation with the support of her teachers and I won’t even know the outcome for eight hours since I’ve seen her last.
I’m okay with that. I trust the teachers at our school, but more importantly – I trust my kid. I trust her and I love that her first reaction to pushy little George was to worry about him, but I don’t want her to ever put her own safety and comfort in second place to anyone else’s.