Monday, May 29, 2017

Without Labels

I recently told a story here about a child whose friends were calling him "bad guy," then running away. He wanted them to stop doing it and when they stopped he insisted on getting an apology, which he received by taking the bold move of going and asking for it.

The three children involved in the story had been playing together almost every day for the entire school year, their games were typically some sort of engineering project in the sand pit involving water. They called themselves the Octograbbers or Super Sharks. On the day of the story, however, two of them had chosen to play a running game, while their friend opted for the swings. As they ran, they attempted to re-engage with their buddy, trying to goad him into running with him by calling him "bad guy" and running away. At least that's what I saw. It was an experiment in friendship. That one child was hurt enough to demand an apology was simply an accident, not much different than one child getting sand inadvertently tossed on him as another digs.

Several readers wrote to me about that post describing typical preschooler interactions, both casually and urgently insisting that this was an example of "bullying" and that I'd either handled it well or didn't handle it well at all.

Let me assure you there was no bullying involved. Indeed, in my nearly two decades of coming to preschool classes I can count on one hand the number of instances of actual bullying I've witnessed. Bullying requires an intent to hurt another person and in this case, as in nearly every case, there was no intent on the part of one child to either physically or emotionally injure another. Certainly, some preschoolers get so angry or possessive or overwhelmed that they lash out at other children, but I hope we all can understand that this is simply what some children must go through on the way to learning to manage those big feelings. But instances in which one child sets out to intentionally hurt another are so rare in our preschool that they are hardly worth mentioning, especially since, as a cooperative with an abundance of caring adults on hand, little of this nature escapes our notice.

I suppose there may be preschools where bullying is more common. I expect those are schools serving populations in which children are more likely to be subjected to, or witnesses to, bullying in their home lives because that's where bullying mostly comes from: dysfunctional families. There are few things that cause me more sadness than hearing stories about young children who are so damaged that they take it out on the humans who should be their friends, their Octograbber buddies. Of course, I feel bad for their victims, but my heart really goes out to those young children who have been taught such awful things. By the same token, there are few things that make me more angry than adults who are too ready to slap the label "bully" on a preschooler.

I can only speak for my school, but ninety-nine percent of the time, not only are they wrong, but they are, in fact, the ones engaged in the bullying. It's a horrible label to hang on a kid who is, in all likelihood, just experimenting, exploring the possibilities of relationships, testing out what is acceptable and unacceptable, which comprises much of the work of human childhood. Harsh judgments like "bully" are the worst kind of name-calling: a bigger, stronger person calling a smaller, weaker person a "bad guy," knowing that the slur will sting.

I know that bullying is a significant concern as kids get older, but not in preschool, not in our preschool. I guess I'm writing this to remind adults to be careful of the words they use. Words like "bully" are super-charged, especially among adults, and imply a whole host of negatives, most of which simply can't be applied to preschoolers. It's always best to try to deal with any situation without labels.

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Arthur Battram said...

spot on, as ever, Thomas

Kena said...

When my daughter was young, I called her teacher in barely-hidden panic after witnessing a series of "bullying" events (one little boy would systematically slap her every morning as she arrived).

And her teacher patiently talked me down the ledge, explained that while it was unacceptable behaviour, it was not "bullying". It was just a sign that both children needed adult support and guidance to learn how to interact more positively, and that while they would certainly protect my daughter, they would refrain from using labels of "bad" or "bully" to describe unpleasant but age-expected behaviours.

To this day, I have immense respect for that teacher. And he was right: they did solve the problem with careful and light-headed guidance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I have a child with big emotions (and possible sensory processing issues) who is likely to scream and growl at classmates when frustrated. She has been accused of bullying and it breaks my heart that others would try to force my 7 year old into that role. By labeling her reaction to big emotions as bullying she feels worse about herself which makes it so much harder for her to stay calm. Please keep up the good work sharing a balanced and compassionate view of children.