Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Bullying: Mom to Mom

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Dear Marjo,

My eight-year-old son is having a problem with a playground bully. He’s not being physically attacked or anything. But it’s more than teasing. This other kid is always taunting him, rounding up other kids to exclude him, and kicking his soccer ball away, among many other things. My son has been asking him to stop, but it just results in more ridicule.

I know I need to talk to his mom. But I’m so angry, and I know I won’t be able to keep my cool. I’m also worried that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, and that she might be just as mean herself. That would be hard enough on me—but what if she encouraged her kid and made his behavior worse? I feel like I’m on very delicate ground here, and I’m not sure which way to step.

How do I talk to the other mom to stop the bullying without blowing my top or making it worse?

Signed,

Tiptoes

 

Dear Tiptoes,

“Delicate ground” is an understatement. There’s a reason why you don’t get between a mama bear and her cub! When someone hurts your child, of course your first instinct is to come roaring in with your hackles up and your claws out. One giant swipe and the danger is gone, leaving you to hug and reassure your frightened little one. Who cares what the other mom thinks? All that matters is protecting your child.

What’s hard about this is the “delicate” part. I myself came out swinging the first time my son was bullied. He was only six and I wasted no time cornering the other mom in the school hallway. It was the end of the school day and the other moms and kids were swirling around us. I could smell crayons from the first-grade classrooms and cookies from the school cafeteria. But it didn’t matter. No cookies, crayons, or cute kids were going to calm me down. I got in her face and let the words fly. She was defensive, I was more heated, and then she got mean and said a few choice things about my own son. By that point we were both red-faced and speaking in angry whispers before we turned and walked off in different directions. That was eight years ago, and we haven’t spoken since.

Boy, did I screw up. The bullying wasn’t my fault, of course, but I mishandled a chance to stop it. I forgot to keep my goal in mindto stop the bullying—and instead let Mama Grizzly take over. The bullying continued, I’d demolished any hope of working with the other family, and I’d made myself look stupid. Learn from my mistakes, Tiptoes!

Mistake number one: I cornered her. I mean, literally. She had no escape, which is exactly what I wanted. But I shouldn’t have been surprised when she roared back. I put her on the defensive, standing between her in front of me and her son in back of mealmost literally between a mama bear and her cub.

Mistake number two: I embarrassed her. Verbally attacking her in the school hallway? In front of all the other moms? I looked a little like a bully myself. If I could do it over again, I would have taken a deep breath and kept the discussion private (at least at first). Since we saw each other every day after school, a phone call felt a little too forced. But I could have “bumped into” her and had a “by the way” conversation. Too casual? Maybe. But it couldn’t be worse than a public attack.

Mistake number three: I wasn’t prepared for the conversation. I shouldn’t have started off with words like “bully” and “mean” and “attack.” Maybe her son was mean to other kids and she’d already heard those words from other moms. Or maybe this situation was new to her. This is where tiptoeing might have been a better strategy. If I had said, “I’m having a problem with Danny and I’m hoping you can help,” immediately we’re partners, linking arms as fellow moms and working together for world peace (or at least playground peace). Follow that with, “Danny seems to be a little afraid of YOUR DORKWAD SON William. He mentioned there’s been some teasing and a few other things. It’s all coming through him so who knows what’s going on, but could you help me figure it out?”

Here’s the very worst part: The second time my son was bullied, this time by a physically aggressive kid who actually injured my son, I didn’t stop it quickly enough. I remembered my mistakes from the first time and put a muzzle on Mama Grizzly. I tried to be nice to the other mom and patient while she worked with her son. And I was forgiving of the school’s slow action. That experience was the lowest point of motherhood for me, and will always be my biggest regret and heartache. But in that case, there was no way I could talk with the other mompatiently or notand stop the bullying. Instead, I should have gone through the school, advocating hard and fast for my son, and protecting him before I protected others (including myself).

So, Tiptoes, the short answer to your question is: There is no short answer. Talking to the other mom rationally and coolly might workor it might not. Roaring like a mama grizzly might be the best way to get her attention. Or maybe not. Or, if this is a school playground, maybe you need to get the school involved, especially if they have a clear and effective anti-bullying policy. In any case, it will help to take a deep breath, remind yourself what your goal is, and then determine the best way to accomplish that goal, with or without the other mom’s help.

XO,

Marjo

Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.



Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.


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