I have been shocked in my six years as a parent how early kids begin acting cruelly to one another. I have heard this is sometimes worse with girls than boys, and having only girls thus far, I have nothing to compare it with.
As early as preschool, my daughter would come home in tears about another child calling her mean names. I was shocked! Sure, we had experienced the occasional struggle over toys during toddlerhood, but name-calling? Already?
It only got worse in kindergarten. My daughter’s “best friend” was often cruel, deliberately leaving her out and making unkind remarks. Things escalated one day when the classroom teacher told us that our child had pushed her friend down and also hit another girl that they were playing with. When we confronted our daughter, she burst into tears and sobbed, “Those girls are always making up stories about me!” We believed her, but didn’t know how to handle it. The next day the teacher called back and apologized. “I’m so sorry, your daughter was telling the truth! The other girls confessed that they lied about what happened.”
I was astounded. The idea of five-year old’s making up lies about their friends was very jarring – if it was like this now, what did we have to look forward to for the next 12 years?
Now that I am a parent, I understand how difficult, even heart-wrenching it can be to watch your child suffer. The love we feel for our children is ferocious and powerful. There is something almost primal about the instinct to protect your offspring- from actual physical danger and from the heartbreak of rejection.
Another challenging question is this – When do we as parents intervene and when do we let our children fend for themselves? It is so tempting to jump in and rescue our children from “mean girls”, but then we run the risk of turning into the popular cliché, “helicopter parents”. Nobody wants to raise children who are unable to make their own choices or who are overly reliant on their parents.
Now I certainly don’t claim my child is perfect – far from it. She has a tendency to brag when she is trying to connect with other kids, she is sometimes greedy and impatient, and she definitely forgets her manners at home from time to time. I am well aware that during social disagreements, she may very well be partially responsible when things go wrong. Additionally, she is extremely sensitive, and may be far more prone to hurt feelings than other children.
But when I see or hear another child being openly cruel to her, my mama bear claws come out. I can’t help it – it really does feel like a biological instinct!
The other day we had a group of friends over; when they couldn’t agree on a game, they became very rude and left the house abruptly, leaving my daughter standing in the doorway crying. The next day, when we greeted the school bus, my daughter eagerly ran up to one of the girls and began chatting. A few moments later, she returned to my side, eyes wide and chin quivering. When I asked her what was wrong, she burst into tears and told me her friend had really hurt her feelings. I’d had enough of this nonsense, and out came the claws!
Does anyone else struggle with their instincts to protect their children from pain, their desire to encourage independence, and the frustration of children who are unkind? I have a long road ahead of me, and I’m afraid to admit, I don’t think things will be getting any easier.
Stephanie Sprenger is the mother of two young daughters, and lives in Colorado. As a board certified music therapist, she works part time teaching early childhood music classes. She is also a freelance writer and blogs at Mommy, for Real.