We’re starting our second year of preschool at a school we really like. But we’re dreading the fact that this kid we totally hate is in our son’s class. I don’t really know what goes on in there, but over the course of the last year we’ve heard an earful from our son (three going on four) about various knock-downs and tough, “bad” behavior from (and with) this kid. He’s punched him, kicked him, broken his stuff, said mean things to him in front of other people, you name it.
I know it’s not cool to say this about a four-year-old, but the kid’s just a jerk. We were hoping it was just a phase. Disturbingly, our son seems totally obsessed with him and talks about him constantly! It definitely does not seem like he’s outgrown him over the summer. I was picked on a lot as a child and I hate seeing it happen so soon! Is there anything I should be doing? We’ve been trying to drop hints but it seems to have no effect. – Out of Lunch Money
Dear Lunch Money,
Preschool, like the office or your family, is rife with deeply complex, rewarding and sometimes terrifying social interactions. At age three or four, socializing is basically the core curriculum. Good teachers are trained in all the intricacies of children’s social development: joining in, using words, teamwork, as well as their ugly underbellies: exclusion, bullying, and other unpleasantries.
As hard as it is not to unabashedly hate on the kid who’s mean to yours, it’s important not to leap to conclusions here. You don’t know the circumstances by which The Jerk developed his bad behaviors. And even if you do think you can point your finger at Those Parents, chances are the story is more complicated. It also might be useful to remember that your kid will actually end up learning and growing from this experience. We know that sounds cheesy and optimistic, but it’s true! Hurting other people is a bad thing. And The Jerk might be just the guy to get your son to understand that.
Meanwhile, when you talk to your son, you can say, The Jerk is “learning” how to not break things or hurt people. He hasn’t learned yet. This way it’s more about process than good boys vs. bad boys. Pinocchio and various other punitive fairytales can handle that message.
We’re both familiar with the fascination situation (with our kids and perhaps our own girlhoods). “Bad” behavior can be pretty compelling. At this point, it’s the rare kid who’s not either in the thrall of bad influence or a bad influence, especially since the gauntlet is so narrow. You may remember some bad influences from your past and why they were so appealing. And you may recall that fascination didn’t always equal flat out respect. Which reminds us: As in every other parenting situation, your job here is to avoid projecting your past onto your child’s present. Easier said than done of course, but it’s important. Seeing your child as a victim is one thing, but seeing your child as yourself as a victim makes it impossible for you to think or act rationally.
In terms of doing something about this, you’ve got a few options.
First, we’d encourage you to wait a bit to give your son and The Jerk time to find their footing in the new class situation. Kids can dramatically change from year-to-year, so you may find that your complaints are old news.
If not, you could approach your son’s teachers and express your concern and ask them what they think. In the situation of actual physical torment, you should definitely talk to the teachers (if they haven’t talked to you already).
You can teach your kid how to defend himself. It’s a little early for karate, but you can give him valuable advice: What do you do if someone is hurting you? Loudly and clearly, ask him to stop. Remove yourself from the situation. Or get a grown-up or teacher. Removing yourself is a really hard idea for kids to understand sometimes, so reminding them can be good.
Though it seems somewhat counterintuitive, you might want to invite The Jerk over for a play date. It may turn out that what’s going on is the result of a negative group dynamic or something else about school. The kids may play very differently alone, and the one-on-one time may have lasting results in the classroom. Or it’ll suck and end in tears, but you’ll have insight into the relationship and then you can talk with your son about it in a more knowledgeable way. In other words: At best, you’ll discover he’s not the menace you thought he was. At worst, well, at least you’ll know your frenemy.
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