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How Do You Explain A Bully?

We went to Chick-Fil-A yesterday for
lunch, a reward for the girls’ patiently entertaining
themselves at home all morning while I did housework and failed to
lead them in fun games and craft projects. I like the relatively
healthy food choices, and Maddie loves the play area, so everyone
wins. Throw a guest appearance by Maddie’s best friend Maxum
into the mix and you’ve got a winning lunch time.

At any rate, the grown-ups were happily sitting on the shoe bench
chatting while the kids crawled and played over our heads in the
plastic observation cars and exploratory tubes, when I heard Maddie
start screaming and wailing. This was the close-to-panic,
I’m-freaking-out scream, and I launched into action, climbing
up those big twisty steps and squeezing myself into the tunnel.

When I got to the main play tunnel, I saw
it branched off into two side “rooms”. In the room on
the right, a four- or five-year-old boy was beating a little girl,
hitting her and pulling her hair. In the “room” across
the “hall” on the left was my daughter, screaming in
fright and scrambling to the back of the room. I stopped the little
boy, who immediately slithered away, and spent a few moments
talking to the victim, making sure she was ok. Was that her
brother? I asked. Nope. A friend? No – just some strange boy
who’d decided to whale on her.

I then turned to Maddie, who was still trembling but no longer
screaming. “Honey, did that boy hurt you?” “No,
Mommy, he hurt the other girl.” “Then why are you
screaming?” I asked, afraid she had some wound I
couldn’t see.

“Because of what that boy was doing to that girl! He was
really hurting her. I was afraid he’d come after me

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry you were scared, and you did
the right thing screaming out for me. I stopped him.”

“But why was he hurting that little girl? He was being so
mean! And he didn’t even know her! And I couldn’t do
anything to make him stop. Why would he hurt someone he
didn’t even know?”

And that’s the question we wrestled with the rest of the day.

How do you explain humanity’s innate mean streak to a
three-year-old? How do you crack open her safe shell of a world and
make her understand that she won’t always see danger coming,
that you can’t predict or explain why bad things happen? The
look on her face as she watched the little boy pulling the
girl’s hair – it was as if Maddie were watching a
vicious back-alley murder in person. Her shock, her
incomprehension, her desire for justice warring with her fear of
drawing attention to herself all mingled together on her face. How
often do I find myself going through all those same feelings, and
making the safer choice of not speaking up for someone less
fortunate, less protected than myself?

It’s not as if Maddie hasn’t experienced sinful
emotions firsthand: she’s had her share of taking a toy from
Cora just because she can, or trying to sneak a cookie because she
thinks she can get away with it. She even spent one day telling me
it felt good to say “no” to everything, and to hit
things with a stick, and we talked through both issues. But I
don’t think Maddie’s ever made the leap from doing
something wrong because it’ll make her happy – stealing
a toy from Cora – to doing something wrong because the act of
hurting someone else makes her happy – making Cora cry by
stealing a toy. Does that make sense? Maddie dimly sees that
Cora’s toy loss makes Cora sad, but Maddie steals the toy to
fulfill a selfish desire to play with the toy and Cora’s pain
is a regrettable but necessary cost of Maddie’s pleasure.
With this boy, though, the pain he caused someone else was the most
pleasurable thing about the experience.

I tried explaining that sometimes people are mean because it makes
them feel good, or important, or strong, and people often do things
they know are wrong if it makes them feel good and they think they
can get away with it. “But why would he be so mean to someone
for no reason?” she kept asking, bewildered. “Why does
that feel good to him?” And I have no answer.

At first, Maddie wanted to quit playing, so fearful was she of a
run-in with the boy in the small space. “Honey, it’s ok
to be afraid of that boy,” I told her. “I would be too.
But it’d be awful if you let that fear keep you from having
fun with Maxum, from playing and enjoying this space as much as you
want. Don’t let your fear keep you from doing something you
really want to do today. And if that boy starts to come near you,
just scream out and Ill come again, just like I did this

In the end, Maddie began playing again, one eye warily on the
lookout for the little tyrant. She and Maxum even made a game out
of hiding from the boy, which they both thought was hilarious. I
was glad she could turn her fear into a strength, could find a way
to play around it and not let that boy steal a fun afternoon from

Play time came to an end, but this is only the tip of this issue. I
know there’ll be bullies – boys and girls – in
school, and I won’t be there to protect her, to explain and
give her guidance on how to proceed. And I’m angry that I
even have to explain to her what a bully is, that I have to make
this three-year-old understand the nasty side of our human nature.

I resent having to teach her this lesson.


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