Q. My son is a normal, happy 4-year-old who attends a good day-care center where he has many friends.
There is one little girl in his group, however, who "loves" Johnnie in particular. She is always hugging and kissing him, is very possessive and enjoys ordering him around. She is very intelligent and mature for 4, and has told her teachers and parents that she and Johnnie are married, and even are going to have a baby! Johnnie seems to acquiesce passively in all this. He says that he loves her too, and usually willingly and happily plays the role of boy friend.
There are times, however, when play is not so smooth. They fight, and the little girl usually gives more abuse than she gets. Johnnie has come home with scratches and bruises. I and his teachers have told him to walk away when the little girl starts to play rough. Sometimes he does, and sometimes he hits her back. But much of the time he allows her to pick on him.
I do not think this playschool masochism is healthy, and I don't like my child getting hurt. But if he is unwilling to defend himself, what can I do? The teachers are very attentive, but they cannot watch them all the time and, as I said, they usually play nicely. What should I do?
A. Four-year-olds are so full of bravado and brags that it's sometimes hard to sort out their behavior. In all probability, this is just a temporary concern caused by one child who's used to getting her way and another who's an easygoing fellow, rather than a case of sadomasochism (or marriage or babies). They just talk and act in wild ways, for this is the Age of Make-Believe.
It is surprising, however, that a good day-care center would allow one child -- boy or girl -- to bully another, particularly to the point of scratches and bruises. It may happen once, or even twice, but after that the teachers should be on guard enough to forestall trouble before it happens. They do this by looking for the pattern to a problem, then stopping the sequence in its tracks.
Since this hasn't happened, you'll have to intervene. You can't permit your child to be hurt, and the little girl needs to be protected, too. It's a fair bet that she also has had some scratches and bruises, and if she hasn't, it's just a matter of time before your happy, normal son belts her a big one, which may make her decide this marriage wasn't made in heaven.
It's time for you to observe your child's class for a whole day -- even though you'll have to take off work -- to see how this situation has gotten so out-of-hand. When you do observe, don't interfere with either the planned or the unplanned activities, even to pour the juice or end a fracas. You're supposed to be invisible, so you can see how the staff handles problems. Notice if the teachers are aware of most of the misbehavior before it starts, admonishing the children if necessary, or using body English to lead the instigator elsewhere, but generally preventing it before it gets very far.
You also want to watch your son, to see how much he stands up for himself with this child, and with other children. If she is the only one who gives him grief, then she may need special help or he may need to play in a different group. But if he has trouble with all the children, then he needs more teacher support to stand up for himself.
It's a matter of curriculum. If the group is playing farmer that day, he's the one who needs to be given the new peach basket or the sack of potatoes, so he'll know he has the right to play with it for 10 minutes or so before he must share it with someone else. When a child is given the chance to be first in a structured situation, he learns to be assertive at other times. He also needs to be encouraged to speak up for himself, not by being told to "Speak up!" but by being asked what he thinks about a plan or an activity and by being asked first. The child who is treated respectfully by the teacher invites respect from other children.
When you ask to observe, you also should arrange a parent-teacher conference several days later, so you'll have time to organize your thoughts -- so you'll accuse less and be heard more -- but not enough time to forget your impressions.
Ultimately you may decide that the day-care center isn't as good as you thought or that it needs more staff to function as it should.
Even if no changes are made, you may be surprised how much better the teachers can watch their charges, when they know the parents are watching them.