Your Friendly Neighborhood Playgroup Bully
What do you do when your toddler son is now afraid of his constantly aggressive playmate?
Hi there Amy –
I know that everyone starts their email out with telling you how they followed your awesome pregnancy calendar, and even though I found your main website years before I started bearing children, I must admit I haven’t seen it. So maybe it’s awesome? Who knows! But I will tell you that I have a favorite among your children. I’m not gonna tell you which one though because I wouldn’t want it to you know, sway you, and stuff.
Anyway, I have a pushing/hitting/purposeful bad behavior issue. I have a 22-month old son and my girlfriend has a boy that’s 29 months. They are very alpha-malish and even though they are really just fine with each other there has always been some kind of rough and tumble the last six months. I have even joked in the past that we should just give them foam pool noodles and let them sort it out. However, it’s really gone to the next level in the last three months and came to a head today when her son pushed my son into the sharp edge of the wall. I saw it coming as they were chasing each other and I thought I’d mitigated it with “Careful boys!” and “Play nice!” but just as they ran past me, my friend’s son reached out and pushed and mine went down and came up with a nice goose egg and some residual bloodied scratches.
Our cumulative playgroup has also seen a lot of the same actions from this kid. Flat out push downs, slaps, kicks, pushing off slides, hard clobberings to the face with heavy toys that have sharps edges. I know a lot of this is par for the course. My son does these same things so I’m trying to be understanding. But where my kid and the other kids might do these things 1-3 times each in the 2 hours we’re at playgroup, my friends’ son will do this 12-15 times and it’s not getting better; it’s quite obviously getting worse. I’m trying to give this kid the benefit of the doubt because hey he’s only 2.5 years old and nature and survival of the fittest, but it’s getting to the point that my outgoing kid is actually afraid of him. My girlfriend reprimands his behavior with “We don’t do that because it hurts our friends and it’s not nice.” He gets strapped in a high chair for timeout and after the dozenth time, she threatens him with leaving playgroup and then does follow through. She said she talks to him before playgroup about not hurting friends and that after playgroup when her husband comes home, her son tells his dad that he hit Jimmy, he pushed Carson, and he kicked Sam in the face.
My friend and I used to get together 1-2 times weekly in addition to playgroup but that’s gone away because of how stressful it is to get our kids together. I don’t want to stop going to playgroup as well because all of us (7 mamas total) only have each other. No one even has a grandparent locally to help out so we’re all doing it alone with our husbands. But I think it sends a bad message to my child to keep bringing him into the company of someone who physically causes him pain multiple times in the course of a visit. I was okay with it being “kids being kids” until I noticed my kid shrinking away or immediately putting his hands up defensively to protect himself. And it really bites me in the arse that he can bruise up my kid and the worst he gets is being strapped in a chair. I don’t know what the solution is but he’s obviously continued to do this because his consequence is rather inconsequential to him.
So what to do?
Sincerely with thanks for your future impending advice-
One Ticked Off Mama
Add this to the huge pile of reasons I never joined a playgroup. Or, well, okay, I mostly never joined a playgroup because I am lazy, but I did always preemptively stress-out about the social/clique-ish aspect of it, and what I would do if I didn’t like one of the moms or didn’t like the kids or what if the other moms didn’t like ME or MY KID and ganged up together to ostracize me from the community or something. Maybe I’ll just…sign up for Gymboree instead.
So I don’t have any good insight into playgroup politics and conflict resolution, though I HAVE encountered children like the one you’re dealing with. The aggressive, poorly-socialized toddler who takes “rough and tumble” to a new level, who knows what he’s doing is “wrong” but just doesn’t care. And the parent who keeps on going and going with the same discipline techniques that all SOUND well and good — I mean, they’re doing SOMETHING other than blowing smoke rings at the ceiling while the kid attempts to smother his playmate with a dry-cleaning bag, a la Betty Draper — but the discipline techniques are CLEARLY ineffective and the consequences need to be modified, yet the parent just sticks with what isn’t working, and then stares at you in complete bafflement, like, “I’ve tried this one thing! Over and over! IT’S THE DARNEDEST THING.”
Depending on how close you are to this mom — and it at least sounds like you’re fairly close — you could talk directly to her, privately. Approach it like it’s a problem on both sides, and say that you’re concerned about how the aggression between the boys is escalating and aren’t sure what you — the Royal You, You AND Her, together and united and stuff — should be doing to fix the situation, since the timeouts and talks don’t seem to be working. She’s obviously aware it’s a problem, but hasn’t yet admitted to herself that’s it’s becoming MORE of a problem, and that maybe she should consult some books or the Internet and get some new ideas beyond what’s she’s doing. Sure, talks and timeouts and lots and lots of “hands are not for hitting, toys are not for throwing” work for some kids. But it’s not working here, so maybe you could offer up a brainstorming session to move beyond the high chair timeout, framing the conversation to include your son too, and what consequence he’d receive for the same overly rough behavior.
Not that I know what WOULD necessarily work for a kid like that — maybe a three-strike policy and then immediately out the door on the third offense? Zero tolerance and out the door on the first offense? Personally, I always yanked my toddler out at the first instance of deliberate hitting/pushing another child, and it rarely took more than a couple times before the lesson seemed to stick that if you want to stay at the playground, you best play nice with others. But this boy still might not really care, given the blasé reporting to dad that yeah, I kicked a kid in the face today and got in trouble for it. YOU KNOW, THE USUAL. Maybe he’s acting out for attention, maybe he’s watching violent TV, maybe he’s just aggressive.
But ultimately, that’s not your problem to solve. Your priority needs to be your son’s safety. And your description of him flinching and throwing defensive poses breaks my heart. It’s true that you cannot keep taking him to a situation where he feels unsafe — and in this case that’s an entirely justifiable feeling! It sucks, but there it is. This isn’t “boys being boys,” this is a boy being a bully, and then all the adults around your son are still insisting that he’s a friend. (“We don’t hurt our friends,” the mom says. Meanwhile, your son is probably thinking, “Lady, if this is friendship, I’M OUT.”)
If the other mom doesn’t step up and do something, and if the other playgroup members also mostly sit around passively while children are getting deliberately hurt because no one wants to hurt anyone’s feeeeeeeelllllingggssss…I don’t know. I don’t think I could keep going. I TOTALLY get that your needs for the social interaction and group support are super important and this is not an easy decision, but if you’re witnessing an actual personality change in your outgoing child and actual fear while you’re there…yikes. I imagine, if I tried to keep going with the current status quo, I would eventually lose it and cause Much Unpleasantness the next time my child got deliberately pushed and visibly bloodied with a pointed “DUDE. YOUR KID. THIS IS NOT OKAY.” outburst. And then everybody would gasp and drop their monocles into their teacups and murmur about my lack of manners and me, the community, ostracized from it, etc.
(I am picturing your playgroup being held at Downton Abbey. I am not sure why.)
Maybe I would try hosting, because on my own turf I generally feel bolder about policing other people’s kids. (HI KIDS. MY HOUSE. MY RULES. I AM YOUR GOD NOW.) Maybe I’d start with taking a break from the weekly group and focus on seeing the moms/kids individually for playdates, and then try the group again in a few months to see if Bad Seed has grown up a little and gotten better. Maybe I’d suggest the group change venues for the summer and try group outings to the pool, playgrounds, kids’ museums — nice big open places where the boys won’t be so on top of each other. I wouldn’t scheme and trash-talk and attempt to force the other mother out or anything, but I also don’t think I could keep going to a situation over and over again, knowing my kid was likely to be injured. That’s really no different than putting a kid in a high chair timeout over and over again, knowing it won’t likely change anything.