The first full week the pool was open this summer, the most terrifying experience of my short two-and-a-half-year stint as a parent took place. I sneezed – literally taking my eyes off the water for less than a second — and looked up to see my son lying face up in the baby pool, completely submerged underneath the clear blue water.
Just typing that simple sentence fills my arms with goosebumps and sends my stomach through a series of nauseating flips. It’s a vision that haunted me for weeks after it happened, even knowing with certainty that my son was OK. More than thankfully, a friend leaped to his rescue before I could even process what was happening. My body was moving towards him as fast as it could, but my mind didn’t yet understand that it was my son flailing helplessly on his back. My friend flew in his direction, grabbed his arm, and tossed him into my arms. The lifeguard was just getting to the fence by the time it was all over.
My son was fine. He was fine. I had to tell myself that over and over before I believed it. I’d say he left the incident behind him unscathed, but I’m not sure that’d be true.
Every day after that, and still today, months later, my son will quietly say to me “He pushed me, mommy. He pushed me under the water.” (Although what he really whispers is “He pushed me under the ma ma,” his own phrase for water, and it breaks my heart just a little bit more when I hear it said so innocently like that.)
Confirmed by the other kids in the pool, what I didn’t want to believe was fact: My son’s friend had pushed him under the water. Not because he hit him or stole a toy or said something mean, but because he could. He was bigger. He was stronger. He was a bully. He is a bully.
It wasn’t the first time he’d picked on my son. Though they’re friends, he’s been pushing, shoving, and going out of his way to knock my son to the ground for over a year now. It’s something you see on playgrounds all the time; sometimes it’s innocent and sometimes it’s not. The question is: When is it “boys being boys” and when is it bullying?
It’s bullying when it’s endangering my son, and this was exactly that.
When it was clear that my son was going to remain upset and fearful of playing in the pool with said friend, my husband and I made the somewhat hesitant decision to teach him to stand up for himself. (Hesitant because what parent wants to actually encourage their toddler to use the word “no” more frequently.) Being significantly shorter and younger than most of his friends and having food allergies to boot, we foresaw many opportunities in his future to be picked on. To be bullied. (Research even shows kids with food allergies are more likely to be bullied.)
While I wanted so badly to step in and fix everything for him, I knew that wouldn’t teach him anything; I won’t always be able to fight his battles for him. So we told him that if this particular friend pushed him again, he should tell him, “NO, STOP,” but what we desperately wanted to tell him was to push him back as hard as he could. Obviously that wasn’t the answer, but it begs the question: “Where is the line between being bullied and being the bully?” I wasn’t sure a 2-year-old was ready to grasp that concept yet. I didn’t want to teach him that hitting — or any violence — was OK, but how, as a parent, could I just sit on the sidelines watching my son get hurt?
I never imagined we’d have to start dealing with this before he even started preschool, and I wasn’t sure my limited parenting experience up to this point had given me the tools I needed to appropriately handle the situation, but ready or not, it was time. Time to teach him how to be the kind of kid that stands up for himself, and better yet, stands up for others.
It’s been a few months now, and aside from the rare occasion, the pushing, shoving, and getting picked on has seemed to die down. My son stopped sitting down and taking it and let his opposition be heard. Until one day, when the words weren’t working on their own, and he did the exact same thing he’d seen modeled for the past year: He pushed him back.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little bit proud (cross me off the nomination list for parent of the year). But more than proud, I was worried. I didn’t want him to turn around and become a bully to kids smaller than him since that’s what he’s seen happen. Teaching your kid to stand up for himself is one thing, but teaching your kid not to be the bully is hard, too. And I’m sure believing your kid is the bully is the hardest part of all.
While I didn’t like seeing my son being mean to another child, I knew it was my chance to step in and use the moment as a teaching opportunity for both kids. I put my son in timeout, but before doing so, told both boys that we don’t hit and we need to find another way to express our anger, like saying “I’m mad!” or walking away. Sure, it’s a simple solution, but it’s a starting point in having the discussion of bullying with toddlers.
So here I am, not even three years into this parenting gig, and I’m already wrestling with teaching the concept of bullying, self-preservation, and standing up for others. I have a bad feeling this is only going to keep getting harder and harder.
Join us in celebrating Unity Day on October 22 by “going orange” to take a stand against bullying. Post your orange pride on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using #UnityDay2014!More On