I think this is a very broad topic that takes on many layers.
Let’s list all the players in a typical playground setting: Yourself, your child(ren), other children and the other parents/caregivers. Given all these facts there is a good chance that you and/or your child will have some sort of interaction with someone else. I love it when my children make a new friend on the playground and they all get along. But there are times that my child or someone else’s child will not, let's say, “play nicely.”
First and foremost, anyone taking a child to a playground needs to remember that it is their job to look out for their child as well as the other children at the playground. This is not your break! I see too many adults getting caught up in a phone call, talking to other adults, reading and a few times napping – this is not appropriate behavior.
I enjoy seeing adults playing with their children at the playground but I feel it is also important to step back and let them have some independent play. This way they can have an opportunity to learn from you how to behave with and around others in a social setting and get the opportunity to act it out for themselves. All the while, you can be at the sidelines to help them out when they run into a problem, whether that problem is from someone not being kind to them or your child(ren) not being kind to someone else.
We need to be very close by when our children are very little. A very young child (your child included) will in most cases act on impulse, from taking a toy from someone, to screaming, crying, hitting or biting to express themselves when they become frustrated. Prepare yourself for the fact that anything can happen. It is your job to correct any negative behavior, console a child, acknowledge their feelings, redirect and show appropriate behavior, as well as show pleasure and encourage positive encounters in your child (and other children). This can be done with a simple look or by saying something to the child or the other adults in charge. This is how children will learn socially acceptable behavior. I try to use diplomacy and humor when dealing with an uncomfortable situation.
Last summer a group of my twin parent friends and I would meet at a local playground every Saturday morning. All of our children got along well (as well as us adults). Then, one weekend, a sitter and her two charges started to come at the same time as our group. The older boy, around the same age as my children, started to tease and bully our group of kids. At first I went to the sitter to try to get her assistance in dealing with him. I found out that this was her first time with them and that she could not even remember the little boy’s name. (I am not exaggerating when I say that it seemed he had a new sitter every weekend.) My heart went out to this little boy.
In order to address this issue, I waited until there was another incident and I went up to the little boy and said, “We would love to play with you but we can only play with people that are nice to us and are our friends. Would you like to play nice and be our friend?” The look on this little boy's face was priceless. I think he thought I was going to yell at him. At first his face relaxed from a scowl, then he looked confused, then I think he became embarrassed and stomped off.
He didn’t stay away for long and soon was back tormenting the group. My children would run over to me saying, “*Clyde is not letting us go down the slide.” I saw the whole incident unfold. I did not interject until they no longer knew what to do and asked for my help. I went over to Clyde and said, “Clyde I see that you like going down the slide. How would you like to be in our slide race?” I then told him and all the children the rules of the race and said, “But only friends can be in the race. We would like you to join. Will you be our friend?” Well, this made him a bit mad and he began to grumble and walk away. I said, “Too bad, we really want you to play. You think about it and we will start and you can join us if you change your mind.” I then lead the children in the slide race.
All this time during the slide race, I was keeping an eye on Clyde. He was standing by a pole sadly watching us. I was really playing up the fun we were having. I started to say things like, “Hey Clyde, I saw you earlier go really fast down the slide. I bet you can go faster than me.” This made him smile. It only took one more encouraging statement and he was soon on the slide. A few times he pushed or cut ahead in the line and I would simply remind him that we all were friends and we all needed to play fairly. He would stop himself and correct his behavior. After a little while of playing, I then said, “Wow, you all have worn me out. I bet you can keep racing but I need to take a break.” I then removed myself to the sidelines to watch.
Occasionally, Clyde would get a little rambunctious and I would gently remind him that we were all friends. I would also interject positive encouragement for all the children to continue to play together. A few times my children would say things like, “Clyde was not our friend, but now he is playing with us.” I knew they were simply processing all the events that were taking place, however it reminded Clyde of his negative behavior. This would make Clyde angry and I’m sure embarrassed. I would quickly say, “Now Clyde is being nice and is our friend. Isn’t that right Clyde?” To which Clyde would look sad and shake his head yes. I would encourage the children to now think about all the fun they were having. This is just one scenario of playground bullying turning out well.
There have been times that I have had to tell my children that not all children are going to be our friends and that we must let the bully know that they are not acting kind toward us and that we must move on. At that point I stay close to my children, as sometimes the child doing the bullying will continue pursuing my children. I then tell the child to go away, to stop following and go play elsewhere. If they do not, I then explain to the parent or caregiver what has been happening between the children. Most parents will assist in working things out.
Only one time did I have a nanny completely ignore me and say to her charge to go back and play. This was while she was on her cell phone. This happened when I was a nanny for a little boy named *Ben. We stayed to play at the playground but kept being followed by the other boy. I remember Ben was upset and confused, as if he had done something wrong. This was a learning experience for him and me too. I explained that it was not about him and that the child seemed angry with everyone. I said, “Look at that little boy. He could be angry for many reasons. We may not know why but from what I can see, I feel sorry for him.” He said, “Sorry for him? He is so mean.” I said, "I feel sorry because no one is giving him any attention. Remember when he came in and the nanny was on the phone and he just ran right in. They did not say one word to one another the whole time until she told him to go play when I talked to her. Remember how he sat next to her and she reached into her bag and handed him the juice box? How he couldn’t open it so she snatched it out of his hands, opened it and roughly gave it back to him? I think we need to keep that in mind and have a little empathy for him. Not to say that he can treat us unfairly but we can try to protect ourselves and see the whole picture not just our anger at him. We tried to reason with him, we tried to play elsewhere and we tried to get another authority figure involved. Now it is time to realize that not everyone is going to treat us fairly so we must now move on."
I left the park that day feeling sad for Ben. He learned a hard lesson, but I was glad that I was there to help him through it.
Next week I will talk about how to handle when your child is a playground bully.
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(Editor's Note: The opinions in this article are those of Parents“R” Talking. The opinions are not medical advice. Always consult your pediatrician about any changes you are contemplating.)
*All names have been changed to protect identity