It was a gorgeous day outside today. So we went to a small heritage festival in a wooded park in the morning with some friends. M passed out on his mommy on the walk back to the car, continued sleeping all the way home and dozed another 45 minutes or so in my bed when we got back. After he woke up, we had no choice but to go to Costco, since I had eaten my last bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats for breakfast this morning. We also needed a few other things.
When we got home from the store, there were three older kids and a three-year-old outside in the common lawn area of our condo complex. Playing in the dirt. They were laughing and seemed to be having a lot of fun. During my three trips unloading the car (they didn’t give me any boxes today), M glanced over once or twice. When I had my last armload, he asked to go and play “in the sand with mine friends.” So when I got everything mostly put away, we headed right back out. The weather was still beautiful, and the kids had a bunch of toy and dirt things going on.
I walked over with M and recognized the three-year-old as a boy we’ve encountered with his parents on many various occasions when we’ve been out among our neighbors. I didn’t recognize the other kids, but I helped M introduce himself and ask if he could play with them for awhile. He grabbed a toy that no one was using and dug right in. I walked over to our stoop, maybe 10 or 15 yards away, so he would know where I was but not get in his way.
He said please when he wanted a toy, or just picked up something that was not currently in use, and though he ran over several times to show me what he had, he always took it back to the group when I asked him to (he’s in the habit of playing with Mommy or Daddy, so it’s only natural that he wanted to include me). I was super proud of his maturity, and for a few blissful moments, all the kids played happily in the dirt together.
But maybe the second or third time M came running to me with a toy, the three-year-old came closely after him and snatched the object from his hand. No words. M burst into tears. I comforted him, and I asked him if he wanted to go and play with something else or go inside. He went back over to play. But as soon as he picked up something else, the other boy snatched it away. It even got to the point where he grabbed M from behind and wrestled the toys away from him. To the point where one of the older boys came over to try to help M, and when he was finally released, the older boy put his hand on M’s shoulder, bent to look him in the eye and asked if he was alright. M said, “I’m alright,” and promptly ran over to me again.
And again I asked if he was ready to go inside. Because with all the tears, it didn’t really look like my son was having a good time. Though I have to give him credit for going back again and again and trying to stand up for himself. To have some fun playing no matter what. So he went back over, where there was now dirt being thrown up in clouds, in no particular direction. He got dirt in his face and came running back to me for that. We brushed it off, and he ran to join the group again.
But this last time, as he approached, the three-year-old fixated on his every move, he bent to the ground and picked up two big handfuls of dirt. I saw it coming, though M didn’t. The boy stalked over to M as he got closer and threw the dirt right in his face. I saw it coming, true, but I hoped that my observation would be wrong. Because what kind of child was this? And where were his parents?
I yelled his name and firmly shouted, “Why would you do that?!” Because how much can you really try to discipline someone else’s child? I was more concerned with M, anyway, who was distraught and confused but physically unharmed, though a little dusty. I told M that it was time to go inside, to which he asked for five more minutes and started getting upset about that. I said to him, “It’s not your fault, it’s nothing you did. But when our friends keep being mean to us, then it’s no fun to play anymore.”
I had assumed that the other boy’s parents were just around the back of the other building, but I was surprised when they didn’t show up during any of the physical confrontations between our two. This is a boy who ended his first meeting with M with a kick to the shin (after which his mother promptly hustled him home from the park where we were, all the while apologizing profusely). Though after that first time, he’s been pretty decent to my boy whenever we’ve crossed paths. And one or both of his parents have always been with him. Aside from their absence, though, I honestly could not believe his behavior. It was such a stark contrast to what I’m used to seeing from my own child.
I explained to M as we came inside that I didn’t know why that boy was being so mean to him, but his mommy and daddy needed to teach him how that kind of behavior hurts other people. M sometimes has to be reminded not to throw sand or dirt, and now at least he has a very real experience to show him why I do so much reminding. We came inside and found his own, similar toys. He had some milk in the cup of his choosing, and I made extra efforts to reassure him that he had been doing everything right out there with those kids.
I don’t want my boy to follow the example of this neighbor kid, but part of me was a little bit disappointed to see him break down and cry so much and so easily. I was still really proud of how he kept trying to join in the playing, even after being bullied in such a way. A secret part of me hoped that he would get fed up enough with this little snot’s behavior and sock him one. Though it was probably better that he didn’t, and so we learned the just walk away lesson today instead.
It was hard for me not to intervene at the first sign of trouble. Especially as the only adult in sight. The older kids were super. They were patient and curious to watch how it all would play out, and they tested the waters of intervention when they, like me, felt that things were escalating between the two preschoolers. I very much want my son to be able to stand on his own, to resolve disputes and find compromises, to make friends or not on his own terms and in his own way. So I have to just shut up and let him go. Let him try and just comfort and attempt to illuminate the lessons when things don’t quite go the way we expect.
Fortunately, I’m pretty confident that M is beginning to really understand that he can always talk to me about how he feels and what’s going on in his life. I made sure to let him know that I was on his side, that I’ll always be on his side.