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My Son Was a Playground Bully

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When my son was in fifth grade, his principal had my phone number on speed dial. That's never a good sign.

Boy bullying younger boys in playground

Maggie Vink: My son's first 10 years (before I adopted him) were spent bouncing from one home to another. Ten solid years of loose attachments, inconsistencies and broken promises can develop a certain amount of anger in a kid. And rightfully so. What's more, my son never had many opportunities to develop his social skills, nor does he easily trust others. These are the conditions for the playground version of the perfect storm.

Like any kid, my son loved recess. He's athletic and outgoing and the outdoor time gave him a chance to release energy. One day I was volunteering at the school and had a chance to watch my son playing with the other kids. He always wanted to pitch for kickball and would ignore the other kids when they asked for a turn. When lining up for an activity, my son would finagle his position until he was first in line. On the basketball court, he wouldn't pass the ball to anyone. Frankly, I was surprised that kids weren't having a bigger issue with my son's behavior.

At home, I talked to my son about what I saw and we discussed how to be a better friend. I made sure to invite his friends over so he could have one-on-one practice with social skills. I signed him up for a friendship skills class at his therapy clinic. Most importantly, maybe, I made sure to model good social skills when playing with my son.

Still, my son's problems at school persisted. Eventually, the other kids had had enough. Other kids started to make fun of my son, belittle him, physically push and shove him and deny him from joining in their reindeer games. My son was hurt and -- though I knew his poor social skills played a huge role in his disintegrating friendships -- my heart broke for him.

My son was making concerted efforts to be kinder on the playground. His social skills still weren't great and he was often oblivious to how his actions made others feel, but he was trying. With his whole heart, he was trying to be a good friend because there's nothing he wants more than to be liked ... to truly be a part of the group.

Unfortunately, he had become persona non grata on the playground. One group of boys in particular would follow my son around, taunting him. But they were smooth about it ... they did it quietly and flew under the radar of the playground's supervisor. My son, however, isn't a smooth operator. He doesn't take anything lying down. When he couldn't handle their put-downs any longer, he'd blow up. He'd yell, he'd push and he'd be ready for a fight. And he'd be so angry, he wouldn't even behave when an adult intervened. Every time it happened, I'd be called to come calm him down and, more often than not, he was suspended.

I agreed with the school's zero-tolerance policy. I agreed with my son's suspensions because what he did wasn't acceptable. The recent suicide death of Phoebe Prince reminds us of the damage bullying can cause. I was glad my son's school was standing up to bullying. But all sides of the coin need to be explored. My son was behaving like a bully at times -- he was a poor sport in team activities, he had little regard for other kids' feelings and he reacted with aggression when cornered. But the kids who repeatedly taunted my son were bullies, too. Maybe in a truer sense of the word, even. My son never meant to hurt or be unfair -- he was just so wrapped up in his enthusiasm for whatever game he was playing he didn't stop to think about anyone but himself. And while I don't condone my son's angry reactions, he never belittled anyone -- he just angrily refused to let them belittle him.

I don't have the solution. Schools don't have the staff to keep an eye on every single child and monitor every conversation. And kids need to learn to work out conflicts, because conflicts don't go away when we outgrow swings and slides. But when it comes to school bullying rules, all kids involved need to be treated the same and given appropriate consequences. That's why it's called a zero-tolerance policy. Otherwise, we're just teaching kids that it's okay to be a bully ... as long as you're quiet about it.



next: 30 Habits That Will Change Your Life (Mother-ized)
14 comments so far | Post a comment now
KHF April 6, 2010, 6:21 AM

My heart goes out to you and your son! I think you are doing everything you can to teach your son good social skills. Maybe you can try calling the other kids parents—not confrontational—but approach it like “My son has had a hard time, but we are working to improve his social skills and he needs some real life practice. Do you think your son could help?” I hope you can find a solution!

Daddy Files April 6, 2010, 9:35 AM

Your overall point is a good one and I agree, bullying needs to be watched from all angles.

And I know you fully admitted your son was being a bully, but you started to lose me when you said the people bullying your son were somehow worse than your son’s behavior. Both are unacceptable and I have a feeling the bullying your son is enduring is entirely his own fault.

He wasn’t having problems before, but then the other kids stood up to him and turned the tables. Sounds like playground justice taking its course to me. I agree that when it got to the point where they’re torturing him all day long something greater needs to be done, but you reap what you sow.

I think most kids bully and are bullied at different points in their lives. It sounds like you’re involved and taking all the right steps, so I think this will work itself out. Good luck.

Maggie April 6, 2010, 12:11 PM

Good points, both of you.

KHF, I did do reach out to other parents with certain kids. It helped to some degree. Now that my son is in junior high he’s grown out of this for the most part. His social skills are improving by leaps and bounds.

Daddy Files, I didn’t mean to imply that the other kids’ actions were worse than my son’s. My son absolutely generated the bullying he endured. But that doesn’t make what the other kids did okay. I meant to explain that their particular brand of bullying (quiet, unseen by the adults in charge, and emotionally hurtful) is a more typical example of the bullying that tends to really leave kids feeling distressed. It’s not worse than what my son did — but it is equally bad. And you’re right — with time and effort this has worked itself out. My son has stronger friendships now and he’s not behaving like a bully anymore.

tennmom April 6, 2010, 2:06 PM

I think there are different degrees of bullys.
Your son wasn’t being a bully because he was just a little jerk like some bullying kids.
Ten years in foster care! No wonder the poor little guy didn’t have a handle on his social skills.
He may have had some wonderful foster parents but probably never felt in control of his life. When he got that ball on the playground, I imagine he was just so thrilled he didn’t think that the other kids would feel offended.
I also understand why he would take up for himself when he was the brunt of a bully or being teased. It is hard for a child from the foster system to learn to trust just any adult.
I’d bet that kid will be just fine. He has his family now.

Samantha  April 6, 2010, 6:21 PM

tis is one of the ost well-written articles i’ve read in a while. you very eloquently explained your son’s behavior, and how you feel about it…the balance in your parenting is so perfect, i think, and i’d like to commend you for your wonderful outlook! kudos to you for being such a great mother.

Maggie April 7, 2010, 4:22 AM

tennmom and Samantha, Thank you both for your kind words. My son is a wonderful kid… I’m so incredibly lucky to be his mom.

Melissa April 7, 2010, 11:39 AM

I hope this isnt in my son’s future. I see a lot of the same things in my son even though he is younger. We have talked about it. I already see others leaving him out and being mean to me, but I also see it from both sides. UGH, what can you do. Hopefully in time, he will be able to make and keep friends the right way without agression.

j roberson April 8, 2010, 7:50 AM

I am a teacher who just saw your interview on CNN - I was so impressed with your demeanor and level-headed approach, I got on-line and sent this link to my Directors. Bullying is a major issue at my school. We see it, and we’re trying to deal with it. You raised some points I had never considered. Keep blogging - keep talking, we are listening and doing what we can to make children’s lives better. Thank you!

Mom2Five April 8, 2010, 7:53 AM

You are doing an awesome job with communication with your son. Communication between parent and child is paramount. How can you really know what is happening in any aspect of your child’s life if you do not have a relationship with your child that includes open and honest talking???? We need to listen, truly listen, to our kids. Great job - you are truly a MOM!!!!

Julie Begick (Shear Styling) April 8, 2010, 7:57 AM

“Maggie,”
I saw you on CNN this morning. You did a great job, and you looked great, too!
Keep up the good work and enjoy your son~
Julie


Mary Secor April 8, 2010, 1:35 PM

I just came in to the room about half way through your interview. I have been striving for years to have bully prevention in the school. I also agree a parent SHOULD be involved in their child’s education on all levels. It’s all about choices the person what’s to make in life. I agree we have no control over other’s…..

Anonymous April 8, 2010, 1:39 PM

I have been supporting bully prevention in the schools for a few years now. I didn’t get to see all of your interview, but I do agree we as parents need to and should be involved in our child’s education…..

Hannah April 10, 2010, 10:53 PM

Actually bouncing from home to home like that I’d say he was OVER socialized. If I were you I’d home school him. Not as punishment (although even with a bad background if you bully others you do deserve some punishing) but so that he can have more one on one time.
Plus I’m sorry but if my childs getting picked on I’m not going to keep pushing him back into the situation. It’s true that running away isn’t good but being tormented isn’t going to help either.

Andy Gellis March 16, 2011, 12:29 PM

This domain appears to get a great deal of visitors. How do you get traffic to it? It gives a nice unique spin on things. I guess having something real or substantial to post about is the most important thing.


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