Kids ran in and out of the front door of a neighbor’s house, scrabbling with basketballs, pausing to check in with their parents, moving on.
“You mean because Sammy’s a bully?” she asked. She said it so casually.
“He’s not a bully,” I stammered. “He just has trouble expressing himself sometimes, and —” She rolled her eyes, and I felt infuriated and ashamed. What was I supposed to say? Didn’t she know it wasn’t “bullying” when Sam sometimes used his teeth, or his hands, instead of his words?
Sam’s my second child, and he’s a tornado. He walked at 10 months and climbed the bunk-bed ladder a few weeks later. He’s physical and strong-willed, much more so than our older son, Leo, who’s 9. Leo never hit anyone except sometimes me. By the time he was 3, his verbal skills were sharp, and if Leo got whacked by his friends, often he had provoked it by needing to have the last word. But distracted parents on the playground don’t always see the lead-up. They raise their heads when a blow is landed, and the hitter is instantly labeled: That’s the bad kid, we all think. Or, perhaps: That’s the bad parent.
I might have thought that once or twice myself. I don’t recall ever calling Leo’s friend Jas a bully, but I might have wondered whether there was something wrong with him or whether his parents should have come down harder. Because, between the peals of laughter and the normal back-and-forth, Jas and Leo would inevitably begin to argue. Frustrated, Jas would hit. And Leo, who never experimented with hitting back, or putting up his arms, or shouting at him to stop, would cry. None of us could figure out how to break the pattern.
For adults, witnessing violence between children can be alarming. Most of us wouldn’t dream of hitting a friend. So when we see a kid hit, it’s difficult not to view the behavior through an adult lens. We ascribe to children an unrealistic expectation, an unrealistic faith in their prefrontal cortex development. We know, rationally, that kids that young can’t pause and think, “I’m so furious, but instead of whacking this person in the face, I’ll walk away.” But when we see it happen, rational thought often goes out the window.
Do I sound like I’m rationalizing, here? If I do, it’s because I find myself in a position I never thought I’d be in. I have a toddler who hits other kids, who’s been biting at day care, who pinches us and, when we get mad, looks us right in the eye and does it again. In these moments I find myself flooded with anxious questions about my sweet second child, with his blond halo of curls and his dumpling cheeks. How can he be so breathtakingly lovely one minute and the next, a terror? Is he a bad kid? Am I a bad parent? Does his penchant for aggression now mean he’ll grow up to be an aggressive man? In these times, that last worry feels particularly poignant.
But the answer, of course, is not necessarily. When I play Jane Goodall, I observe that my son acts out when he’s hungry, tired or frustrated; because he’s curious or excited; to say hello; and to express the inexpressible, something like, “Mom just showed up to day care, and now I’m confused about who’s in charge, and I really don’t want this little girl to stand so close to me.” What I’ve learned from scouring the Internet, talking with parenting specialists and doing daily check-ins with Sammy’s day-care provider should be comforting: Toddler biting and hitting are normal. Kids bite and hit when they can’t yet express their needs safely.
But it isn’t that comforting when the other mom on the playground tells her kid to be careful around mine, and when the prevailing belief is that highly physical children are unusual or dangerous. That they should be punished. And, most damaging, that they’re bullies. Bullying is targeted, systematic behavior. Bullying is when a fellow sixth-grader writes “fat slob” on the back of your sweater in chalk after weeks of torment. (True story, mine.) Sammy biting to find out what will happen? Not bullying. Sammy pinching when he’s frustrated? Not bullying. Not fun, not okay, but also not bullying.
I’m glad I never stopped Leo from playing with Jas. I’m glad that when another parent asked why I would let Leo hang out with someone who hit him, I stood up for Jas’s mom. “She’s doing the best she can to help him stop,” I told that person. Jas is still Leo’s best friend. They fight like an old married couple. They make up games that no one besides the two of them could possibly understand. Their friendship taught Leo, and our entire family, about compassion, and that kids are wired differently. That sensitivity manifests in many ways. And that there are no bad kids, just behaviors that need to change. This understanding is dear to my heart now that I know what it’s like to be judged by strangers (and friends) for my child’s behavior.
I know Sammy’s going to turn out just fine. I hope if we keep at our gentle, firm approach of “No biting. Biting hurts,” and show him alternatives that he’ll start high-fiving instead. But in the meantime, I’m struggling. That’s when I turn to Jas’s mom, who weathered years of judgment because of her kid’s behavior and who responds with grace when I text to say: “I’m so mad at him. Why won’t he just stop??”
“I see you,” she tells me. “I’ve been there. I know you’re doing your best.”
Susie Meserve is a poet and essayist based in Berkeley, Calif. Her collection of poems, “Little Prayers,” was published earlier this year. Find her online at susiemeserve.com or on Facebook at Susie Meserve, Author.