Does Bullying Start in Preschool?

bullying and preschoolers
Tiny little bullies?

Last week my two-year-old and I were at the park. He was eagerly watching a group of four-year-old girls playing — not sure how to make his move and get in the mix. He went over and looked at the nest they were building with sticks and leaves. “No! It’s only for us and you’re not allowed. Move away!” one of them yelled at him. He started to cry.

If it were acceptable to drop-kick a preschooler…well, the mama bear in me was fired up. Instead I smoothed things over, sat down with my son to debrief, and we moved on.

At my son’s preschool and on the playground I hear lots of kids bossing each other around.  Exclusion, name calling, and general meanness starts early — way earlier than most of the media coverage we’re hearing these days about cyber-bullying and teenagers. It may be less vicious, but relational aggression (aka bullying) starts at a young age.  Should I be worried about my newly-enrolled preschooler?

As Pamela Paul writes in The New York Times last week, 67 percent of parents of 3- to 7-year-olds are anxious about their kid being bullied. And parents of preschoolers and grade-school-age are more likely to worry about this than parents of teenagers.

Social competition is natural (I’m pretty sure as humans, we’re wired to think in terms of in and out-groups), and kids learn how to navigate relationships and group dynamics by practicing at a young age. But really, my innocent little guy has to deal with it in the sandbox?

It may be that parents are just paying closer attention now — hovering and interfering with what would otherwise be worked out amongst kids. But I’m pretty sure our little ones are exposed to much more, much earlier these days — which gives them more fodder for playground battles.

Even educational TV promotes meanness. Remember the studies highlighted in  NurtureShock that showed children who watch lots of TV that we think as “prosocial,” like Clifford and Sponge Bob (PBS TV included) are more likely to be socially aggressive? They’re exposed to a lot of name calling and conflict, so even if the ending message of a show is positive, the discord and insults end up being the take-away. I’ll stick to Bob and Builder for now.

It’s hard enough being apart from your child during the day, but it’s doubly hard worrying that someone will make them feel bad, especially when they’re little. I try to remind myself I can’t (and shouldn’t) protect my son from everything, though. If bullying is starting earlier, I want him to have the skills to deal with it.

Image: flickr/clairity

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