When the weather is nice, my kids and I spend a lot of time at the park. While my four year old is pretty self-sufficient and can play on his own, I spend most of my time trailing my almost two year old, keeping him from leaping off the high platform at the top of the slide, running into the moving swings, and darting into the parking lot traffic. To be honest, my older son plays on his own or with the other older kids most of the time. Recently, though, I happened to pass by the “big kid climber” area, chasing my non-stop toddler, when I overheard something.
“You’re not allowed up here. Go!” an older boy said as my son tried to go down the slide. This kid was probably 7 or 8, and he was saying this to my 4 year old, whom he’d never seen before. “Leave!!” he shouted. I hung back and watched. I wanted my son to say “Yes I am allowed here! Move!” or something assertive, but he just looked sad, turned around and left.
I withheld the part of me that wanted to march up to that kid and say “Who do you think you are?! He’s in preschool! You should know better! And where the heck are your parents, anyway!?” but of course, I didn’t.
I also wanted to think my son would be comfortable saying “Cut it out!” when he’s being pushed around, but let’s face it…this kid was probably twice his age. He was intimidating. And perhaps most importantly, they didn’t know each other. I think it’s much easier for kids to stand up to kids they know, even if they also happen to be bigger, stronger, and older. This, however, was a stranger.
I am not worried that my son is afraid to speak his mind. He does so, constantly, to those of us with whom he is well acquainted. I did realize, though, that I need to help him learn how to do so with people he doesn’t know well. At four and a half, “real” school is on the horizon, and he won’t know everyone. He has to learn this skill.
We ended up talking about what had happened after we left and were driving home. I mentioned that I’d seen the bigger boy at the top of the slide, and that he seemed like he wasn’t being kind. “Yea!” my son said, “He was being really mean!” We practiced what he could have said, such as “I can go down the slide if I want to!” or “Move over!” or “You can’t tell me what to do!” I think it’s important for him to know to say something in situations like this because bullies can’t bully if no one listens to them. Kids need to know they can, and should, speak up.
I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my children being pushed around and picked on by other kids. It’s not something I want to have happen again, but it will. As an adult, there are still bullies. They are in our workplaces, schools, and yes, parks. We need to speak up for ourselves, and we need to make sure our children are empowered to do the same.