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Anatomy of proto-bullies in kindergarten

Let me now take a moment to talk about the anatomy of social peer groups in school before I continue with the (long put off) next chapter in the school saga, because I think it's relevant. The roots of bullying as a social behaviour start here, and like any weed, it can be uprooted or it can be cultivated.

Actually, let me be vastly more specific. In my son's junior kindergarten (and all of the classes were jk/sk splits, except French, which was entirely senior kindergarden) class, there were two girls who were both alpha girls. They were popular girls and watching them for fifteen minutes filled me with revulsion, although it was very, very compelling. One was a blonde girl with the most cold and sullen expression. She was in charge of her small pack of friends; what she wanted, they did. She made clear if they didn't, they would not be her friend anymore--and in fifteen minutes, I saw this, because she was annoyed at one of the girls, and she effectively ostracized her from play and told her why: the girl had failed to give her something she'd wanted on the previous day.

This girl was like the leader of a dog pack--literally. I watched her walk across the playground and four of the other little girls were running around her in circles, the way dogs run around the pack-leader.

The other girl was dark haired, and also very political in her interactions, but I actually didn't mind her; she could, you know, smile without her face cracking. These two girls were not yet enemies, but they were gunning for the same thing: to be on the top of the social food chain, a position from which the world should--and in this case did--conform to their desires.

But they always used their words, never their little fists.

The boys, however, were vastly less social in that way. They could shove each other, push each other, hit each other, and half an hour later, be playing together with different toys. They were very rough sometimes, because they did lose their tempers, but it was actually easier for the teachers--if informed--to curb that behaviour.

There was one exception. Another little blond boy. And for me, he was scary in a different way. He also rarely smiled, and when he did, it was never for a good reason, but I could see--so clearly--that this boy understood one fundamental rule of social groups: There was always going to be a victim in any group, and he was going to make damn certain it wasn't him.

Sadly, the child he decided it would be instead was my son.

This child, I had severe issues with; he would try to push my son off the slide (and not down it), among other things. He could lie like an angel--which, at age four, was disturbing. How do I know? I saw him do something, and five minutes later, when he was asked if he'd done it, he said no, he'd been someplace else; if I hadn't seen him do it myself, I would have believed him.

Now step back, and look at this classroom for a moment, because every single child in it is either four or five years old. They love their parents; they go home and they play with their toys; they have moments of joy and moments of terror or tears. They are mostly very cute, they are mostly helpful (if you're adult) and interactive; they are--children. If they are interacting with adults, they lose a lot of the social gaming instinct, and they can be delightful.

Let me go one step further. In my very first post, I spoke about the fact that children would blame my son for things he hadn't done, and tell the teacher when he hit them back or grabbed the toy he'd been playing with back--both acts, in the beginning, for which my son would then receive a time-out.

I do not think this was in any way deliberate malice on the parts of those children. Did they understand that they could blame him for things because he wouldn't tell the teacher? No. I honestly believe that it never occurred to them. Did they blame him for everything because they knew he couldn't defend himself? No.

What was happening, then?

There are two things. The first actually had nothing to do with bullying, but rather with something mentioned in the previous post. The children had collectively seen my son in trouble so frequently at the beginning of the class that when anything bad happened, when anything was broken, and there was no obvious culprit, they genuinely assumed that my son was the one responsible. They weren't pointing him out to bully him; they were pointing him out because, given what they knew and what they heard of my son's name in that class environment, he had become the likely guilty child. It wasn't that he was their scapegoat; they believed this.

The second:

Children are remarkably clear about what they want, and they're remarkably focused on getting what they want. What they want, however, is a complicated matrix into which social approval (in their case, parental approval/teacher approval) is mixed with peer approval and their own innate personalities.

However, at the age of four, children focus on what they want, what they think is fun, and what they need. When Peter hit my son, he hit him because he was annoyed with my son. Not more, not less. I don't even think he paused to consider whether or not hitting my son was wrong or right; he just reacted without thought. When Peter was hit by my son, Peter was annoyed and outraged, because it hurt Peter, so he immediately went to the teacher.

No child in that situation innately feels that they deserve to be hit. The fact that Peter hit my son first did not enter into Peter's equation at all. To Peter, it was not an act of bullying; the only pleasure he took from getting my son into trouble was actually the righteous pleasure of watching my son get punished for hitting him.

Did I dislike Peter? Well, on a visceral level, yes. But on an intellectual level, no. I could see All Small Children (and some sadly emotionally arrested adults) in Peter's reaction. There is a reason, after all, that we are told to grow up.

The alpha girls were the same. They didn't consider themselves to be bullying because they never do. The Queen Bee honestly felt hurt and angry when the little girl she was ostracizing didn't give her what she wanted, and she responded in kind. Was she being reasonable? Hell, no. But reason is something that has to be learned, and it therefore has to be taught.

This is why parents are so much part of the equation of making a school a safe zone.

The mother of the scary girl? She was an elementary school teacher, and she could not see the dynamic of her daughter or her daughter's group at all. And many of the mothers did try to subtly talk to her about it, because it was so glaringly obvious, and it was a concern.

This blindness is, sadly, natural. Parents love their children, and frequently, they just do not see them clearly in any context but parent-child interaction.

The mother of the other little girl, her putative rival, however? Eventually, some of the parents (not including me, because by that point she was in a different stream) got together and approached her mother because the dynamic was becoming scary. The mother's response?

"I was never popular as child. Never. And my daughter is going to be the most popular child in the school, I don't care what it costs or what it takes." She truly didn't; she would hire ponies for play dates. No, I am not making this up.

The only child of the pack that I considered well on his way to entrenched beta bully behaviour was the hell boy. Because he was the only one who was intent on preserving his own emotional well-being by ensuring that anyone else was the whipping boy. But he was also four years old.

And now the bad thing: I didn't really notice the children who didn't cause my son difficulties--and actually that was the majority of that class. I would come to know--and love--them as the years went on.

I tried, very hard, to see my son as the other kids saw him--and at least in this, the whole process of writing, of thinking about viewpoint, was actually very, very useful.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
mtlawson
Oct. 17th, 2010 03:46 am (UTC)
Having watched this dynamic with (now) three kids, it's scary how it develops. There are kids who got that behavior corrected and are turning out okay, and others who... well... you can imagine.

When my oldest was in fifth grade, she'd spent a year in instructional basketball with two of the other "queen bees" of the social structure. Neither of them were queen bees because they were talented physically, but because both were from very well off parents and knew how to get what they wanted.

One day after school, my oldest came home with an "in the dumps" expression on her face. She'd been contacted by an underling of one of the queen bees who told her that the queen bee was interested in being her friend, if she wanted to be friends with said queen bee, she should call her.

I could tell my oldest was seriously considering calling the bee, so I said to her, "Sweetie, if she wants to be your friend, she can call you. She can tell you that herself."

"Why?"

"Because she should do that. She sent someone else to do that job, which means you're not that important to her."

She brightened a bit, and nodded. "All she does is brag all the time, and talk sweetly to the teachers about all this stuff."

"Don't worry about the teachers liking them better. Believe me, sweetie, the teachers can see through that like anything. They aren't dummies, and they know all about those girls."
nancylebov
Oct. 17th, 2010 11:27 am (UTC)
*applause*
txanne
Oct. 17th, 2010 03:54 am (UTC)
Thank you for these posts. I teach MS/HS, and this is helping me understand some things.
rocalisa
Oct. 17th, 2010 04:14 am (UTC)
I do think that the reaction of parents is terribly important.

We had a minor bullying incident with my son as the victim earlier this year. The school was on it very quickly and I was very happy with their response.

Two boys were involved. One I have learned has some anger management issues (a terribly adult description of behaviour for a 6 year old it seems to me) and the school is working with the family on it. The other boy was mostly following this one's lead I believe.

Anyway, as soon as the mother of the second boy heard about this, I had a text from her apologising for her son's behaviour and promising he would be writing a letter of apology to my son immediately. He did so (my son told me about it, not understanding why this boy wouldn't then play with him on the spot, while the poor kid was trying to slink away in embarrassment) and they're happily playing together again. I have no qualms about my son playing with this boy.

As for the first boy, I've heard nothing and I'm much more cautious about interaction between him and my son.
dictator_duck
Oct. 17th, 2010 11:58 am (UTC)
I-- hm. I'll try to be coherent.

As someone who's grown up with ASD, this is -- almost painfully familiar, actually. It's touching to see how refreshingly you're in touch with how your son views the world, and while I definitely don't identify with all of his thought patterns, many of them strike a pretty solid chord with me.

Your son's pretty blessed to have parents who understand him so well--don't get me wrong, my parents are also awesome, but they didn't even know what Asperger's was until I was 9 (they're older--my mom's close to 60), and they never got personal counsel afaik on how to deal with it, just sent me to a few cool therapists (is that the term? I didn't find out until I was 14 that there was something wrong with me, because they were afraid of making me scared, I just thought the--behavorial therapists-- were neat adults I played with). Um, so your points about parents from other groups "normalizing" their children out of love -- yeah. I get it. I can pass, I mean, as normal--partially due to mildness--but it definitely ... it's probably not the best choice.

Um, also, your comment about your son not realizing everyone didn't know what he knew made me laugh sheepishly, because I still deal with that. Er, not to his extent, of course. I am 21, I've grown up a bit :). But sometimes the lovely people who know my thought processes have to remind me. (I also tend to assume that if I have not been told relevant facts, and have not uncovered any during my research, they do not exist! Because if they existed, clearly someone would have told me, right...? :))

I'm really lucky that my Asperger's is pretty mild, though, and that my parents are now quite supportive of me as I sort through my muck. Don't get me wrong! I know that. But ... thank you for writing this, both for yourself and for other ASD parents out there. I keep tearing up a bit, and -- well, I wish it was the sort of thing my parents had been exposed to. I think it would have eased a lot of their worries to know other people went through this, and had advice, and I'm sure it's something that's a balm to other parents' hearts, too.

Thank you.
(Anonymous)
Oct. 17th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Your child
Michelle, the series of posts on this topic are amazing. I have no children but everything that you say moves me. I can hardly wait for the next instalment. This is the type of information that should be available to all parents and all teachers wherever they are.
nerthus
Oct. 17th, 2010 05:23 pm (UTC)
As both the parent of an autistic child and a prek teacher of 4/5 year olds, your posts have just been so spot on for me. My classes year after year are exactly as you've described, with the alpha children, the bullies, the ones who are super sensitive and easily cowed or crushed, the alternating cycles of seemingly callous/mindless cruelty offset by moments of pure childlike joy and astonishing acts of selflessness and caring; I am always fascinated with observations of each child in my room individually and in his or her interactions with the other children. In a sense I almost prefer dealing with interpersonal 'issues' between boys rather than with the girls because the boys do tend to brawl, accuse, get over it, and go on, while the girls at 4 already have these complex, rigid, almost hierarchical interactions with each other and can be so cutting and hurtful to any little girl who isn't 'in' with the group. In ten years of teaching this age level, I have learned to separate (at least MOST of the time, ha) the child's behaviors at any given time from the child himself; at this age children do still confuse reality with imagination sometimes, are not usually purposefully malicious and they act out with their classmates sometimes for more personal reasons having to do with problems at home or a million other things, something even we adults do when we displace our REAL issues onto others who have nothing really to do with said issues.

As for my daughter, I only wish I had been as diligent and devoted a parent to her vis-a`-vis her autism as you are with your son; I feel I failed in many areas to give her all the assistance, therapy, and services available to her and was too often just flying blind. My daughter is 23 now and sadly cannot work outside the home or do very much because as well as her autism she has diabetes, had a mild stroke, has a genetic defect, and about nine months ago was diagnosed with severe degenerative arthritis; she has trouble even walking now, can't dress herself without help or lift her arms high enough to brush her own hair or teeth, etc. She has regressed a lot recently concerning her melt downs and autistic behaviors, but I think a lot of that is due to pain from her arthritis and frustration at not being able physically to be as mobile and agile, etc as she used to be. She gets very frustrated and her behaviors have gone from those socially/emotionally of a jr high age child to those of a petulant 5 year old. I just feel bad when I read about all the lovely gains other peoples' autistic children make and how advanced they all seem in social skills and interaction and in independence and self-sufficiency in comparison to my daughter. I feel guilty that she isn't able to function on as high a level as so many asperger's kids do. Lately it takes all of her energy and mine together it seems (I have auto immune disease and am often exhausted myself) just to get her to all her drs and physical therapy and we're about to try water therapy for her joints, etc. I seem to have nothing left over as far as trying to keep her 'connected' to the outside world and social stimulation, and indeed, if I press the issue she becomes hysterical and screams that she doesn't want to see anyone or do anything 'fun.' So I don't know if I should force the issue or just let her be; I know she has so much going on just dealing with her pain levels, even on strong meds which are messing up her stomach so she has to be on meds for that, too.
amber_fool
Oct. 17th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
I just wanted to re-iterate that I'm absolutely fascinated with this series of posts. It's always interesting seeing some of the childhood dynamics from a parent's perspective (I don't have kids, and don't plan to, so all I have is my experience).

I definitely saw a lot of that social cruelty with the girls in school, which continued even after to some extent. Once I was in college and Facebook was created, girls who made my life hell through school suddenly wanted to "friend" me. When people from our graduating class get together (we haven't had a reunion yet, but there was a funeral of a guy who as genuinely liked by people in almost every social group of the school), they'll come up to me like we're long lost best friends. Even now, so far removed from them and with some therapy under my belt, I expect something to happen. I expect them to wait for the right moment for some biting comments, or something completely unexpected that will be even more painful. And I hate that they can STILL bug me that much.
debela
Nov. 2nd, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
My son is 21 months old and, so far as I can tell, not on the spectrum.

Even so, this series of posts with their thoughtful, clear and contextually complete approach, is enormously useful and thought provoking. I feel like I am being armed.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )