Gorillas On The Playground

IMG_5164So, yesterday I took the girls to the local park to get some exercise, never realizing what mean-girl psychodramas were about to unfold.

Bridget immediately begged to be pushed on the swings, but I told her to GO PLAY. All morning they’d been chewing up the couch like overwrought labradors who needed to work off some adrenalin.

Which would never happen as long as I was still holding their hands. I settled onto a park bench to keep a loose watch on them. Bridget began testing her mettle against a miniature rock wall as Brontë sized up the crowd for potential friends.

I tried to get in a little reading, pausing occasionally to remind Bridget that the bucket of sand she was hauling off wasn’t hers. I smiled, noticing that Brontë had joined a group of girls, before returning to my book.

There were six little girls in the pack, of varying hem-lengths, braids and ponytails.  They were all running back and forth when the phone rang. It was John, who always calls me during his lunch hour.

And here is the lizard…

We were chatting about some server issue he was having at work when Brontë came running up with this little Johnny Depp looking kid wearing a comedy T-shirt. She crawled under the table as he blinked at her from beneath his shaggy brown bob. He seemed nice enough, so I ignored them while telling my husband about finding another baby lizard in the living room.

And that’s when Johnny Depp’s mom tapped me on the shoulder.

I politely hung up to face her.

She sighed…

“Umm, I wanted you to know that those girls have been bullying your daughter. “

“What? Really?”

“Yes. They were chasing her and trying to throw sand in her eyes. They were talking about throwing grass at her too, but the tall one with the ponytail was saying it was mean. I stepped in and told them they couldn’t.”

“Oh… wow. THANK YOU. I didn’t see ANY of that. How did I miss that??”

“Well, the one with the two French braids and the pink dress was the ringleader and I heard her say ‘not now, her MOM is looking,’ so they were only doing it whenever your back was turned.”

My face felt hot. “Thank you so much for letting me know, because I had NO idea.”

She nodded. I turned to look at Brontë, who was staring at the ground.

I don’t worry too much about Bridget on the playground. She’s the type who’ll roll her eyes at anyone who has a problem with her before promptly ignoring them. It’s a quality that will serve her well in this dog-eat-dog world.

But Brontë… this hurt her. She wants so desperately to connect with other people that she leaps at them without defenseless.  Rejection trips her and casual cruelty simply doesn’t compute. She just keeps trying, as though it must be a language barrier.

But what to do?

It was over now, and she was playing with Johnny Depp. Do I talk to the girls? Do I talk to the moms, who were all sitting together in short shorts and baseball caps at another picnic table, looking mildly as though they’d just smelled a fart?

“Do you think their moms saw what was happening? It was right in front of them.” I asked Mini-Depp’s mom.

“I don’t know, but I doubt they’d do anything if you told them. I hate to say it, but it’s always those cliquish little mom groups who have the bullying kids.”

“Well, I guess mean women were all mean girls once,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “I don’t get it, cause my kids would never get away with acting like that.”

“OH, I’d spank the crap out of my boys if I caught them throwing sand in some kid’s face and they KNOW it. These girls are brutal. That’s why I always played with boys growing up.”

I chuckled, thrown by her casual admission of spanking her kids, while resisting the urge to admit how I played with the boys too. It felt traitorous to spell out, like I’d be one of those women who brags about being more guy-like. As though it’s more evolved.

mean girls.jpgBut I knew exactly what she meant. Much as I loved the girl friends I had (and love my female friends today), boys were just… easier. You knew exactly how they felt about you and didn’t always have to scan their expressions for micro-hints of betrayal, just in case.

Hell, once I even made friends with a boy after splitting his head open. He had thrown an orange at my cousin’s mouth, on purpose, cutting her lip open against her braces, and I had chased after him with a stick to avenge her honor. Once he’d gotten too far away, I’d flung the stick at him.

He ducked, so it twacked him in the skull, which required twenty-two stitches to fix.

And though his mom never forgave me, he became my buddy the very next day. It was a little disorienting for me at the time, given how one misplaced comment could make a girl your arch-nemesis for life, but I guess he felt I’d acted reasonably under the circumstances.

Then I remembered how that red-haired, doctor’s daughter was always walking up to me on the playground, while I was minding my own business, to ask me questions about my clothes while smirking with her friends:

Where did you get them, she would ask. They’re awfully dirty. You look really poor. I’ve never even seen clothes like that. How can you wear them?

Her pack of friends would giggle as I ran away.

I turned to Brontë. “This park is for EVERYONE. You go where you want and you don’t let snotty little bullies push you around.

“YEAH,” Mini-Depp yelled. “It’s for EVERYONE!”

Grabbing her hand, we walked across the park and over to the table of moms, as their little girls smacked a teddy bear against a nearby tree.

Holding Brontë’s hand tighter, I walked in a slow circle around the moms until the girls noticed our presence. They paused the beatdown to find out what I would do next, the bear’s defeated glassy-eyes watching the ground as the ringleader held him by a broken foot.

I looked over at the girl in a pink dress and braids and she looked back, dropping the bear on his head.

Then she tilted her chin, clasped her hands, and spread the biggest, sugariest, most innocent smile across her face.

Teddy Bear lonely and sad alone in Love failureI stared back at her as though she were ten seconds from evisceration. I stared until her friends watched all the smugness disappear.

And then I sat down at the table of moms and stared at them too.

One of the moms popped up, cheerfully saying, “It’s time to go, kids!” They all packed up their stuff and left.

Maybe they thought I was crazy, but who cares? Looking crazy is an underrated move in the urban toolbox. Even I’m not even sure what I was trying to demonstrate, except what body language, alone, can accomplish.

Brontë squeezed my hand hard, saying, “You’re the best, mom. You protect me.”

We hugged as I thought about how in the hell to prepare her for stuff like this, how to teach her to stand up for herself without becoming a monster herself.

Because all the classic advice, that stuff about bullies just being insecure cowards in need of more approval, is truly unhelpful.

gorillas.jpgIt’s just the right thing to say. It’s the horoscope that rings true because it’s so vaguely universal: we’re all insecure at that age. We all have psychological defenses and the need to fit in.

These bullies were just alpha gorillas in lacy skirts, chest-bumping the competition right under the radar. Ruling through exclusion and fear.

But running to authority figures every time someone offends you gets you pegged as a crybaby. It wouldn’t work much longer.

Being nice to the bully doesn’t work either, and it just opens you up to further humiliation. You’re actually better off windmilling your arms until you don’t seem worth the trouble.

And we all secretly know it.

“Some people are jerks, Brontë,” I began. “Some are nice and some are mean. Some are usually nice but are having a bad day, and others… are just nasty. You can’t always tell from looking at them.”

She nodded.

“And you know what? Some grownups are nice and some grownups are mean too. You just have to find out and then be friends with the nice ones. But don’t let the mean ones know you are scared.”

“I was scared,” she said.

“That’s okay, but don’t tell them.”

“Next time I’ll tell them they’re a bunch of MANIACS!”

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Or make a joke at their expense. But never be the mean one first.”

We walked home as I silently questioned the wisdom of teaching my daughter to mock other children.

The issue seemed much simpler to my husband, whose face paled when I later related the story:

“So, we’ve got to teach her how to throw a good punch, then.” he said.

“NO, we can’t teach her to punch them. She’ll get into trouble.”

“You can’t *really* get into trouble before you’re 18.”

I sighed. “Look… Yes, I’ll admit that seeing Brontë smack that girl in the face would’ve been awesome. But we can NOT teach her to get into fistfights.”

“Why not?”

“Because she will get into serious trouble. She’ll be suspended and get talked to and be considered a troubled kid. Especially as a girl. They’ll think she has real behavioral issues. We can’t teach her to solve problems with her fists.”


“I mean… I get where you’re coming from. I was trying to teach her to not look scared and be confident and even insult them back if they keep bothering her. Maybe we should remind her to make sure no other grownups are listening?”

“Sounds good to me.”

Argh. I just don’t know the best way to teach girls how to navigate the female jungle. It’s a much nastier place then most guys realize.

Anyone else have ideas?

7 thoughts on “Gorillas On The Playground

  1. Ugh this just breaks my heart and makes me feel queasy simultaneously. I’ve been on that playground myself, the one scared of the mean girls. And I have NO clue how I would handle the issue of bullying. My daughter is still young enough that I haven’t thought about it. But this just reminds me that one day I will. She is however an intense little person with the personality of a PMSing gorilla and unshakable self confidence so I feel like she’ll know how to fight her fights but only time can truly tell. I think under the circumstances you did the right thing and gave your daughter sage advice. Let me know if she gets better at navigating this jungle after this encounter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I have too… many times! So when I watch it happen to my girl, it all comes back. I also see a lot of my child self in my older daughter–the sensitivity, the slight tone-deafness to conventional groupthink…. I wasn’t good at handling it as a girl and want desperately to spare her the same grief.

      It’s not the first time she’s been bullied, yet her little sister has been fine. Bridget is more aggressive and stubborn, which maybe sends a better don’t-mess-with-me vibe. It sounds like your daughter may be more like her. Which any luck, that will mean she has less of a problem too.

      The dilemma, for me, is teaching my older daughter how to not be a target without changing her into someone else, someone mean… for me, taking up fencing weirdly helped. Maybe she needs a hobby that puts her in touch with her feistier side? She seems better suited to drama though, lol.

      I’ll have to keep observing this whole dynamic and report my experiments and findings. I can’t be the only mom struggling with it 🙂


  2. Erin you rock! I remember once watching similar from the side lines at a gymnastics club, being powerless to intervene as I was on the other side of the hall but knowing full well what was happening. Freaking them out like this sounds like a great way of dealing with the little toe-rags. Hope Bronte’s ok xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww, thank you! These are such tough calls to make because I don’t want to teach my girls to be bullies themselves, but they need to be able to hold their own.

      People tend to view kids as so innocent and suggestible, but they can be really mean. These girls knew full well what they were doing was wrong because they only did it whenever my back was turned.

      Maybe it would help to teach my daughter how to project confidence–squared shoulders, standing up straight… I don’t know. She’s an unusual kid without quite enough of her sister’s raging-bull confidence to pull it off without occasionally getting picked on. We’ll have to work on it, somehow.

      That must’ve been so frustrating, watching from the gymnastics club sidelines. When I was working in a preschool, there were these boys who used to knock down this Asian kid’s elaborate block buildings and we weren’t ALLOWED to intervene! It used to just kill me to watch. We weren’t allowed to compliment the kid’s projects, either, so I’d just ask him lots of questions about it… while giving mean looks to the bullies. That seems to work when they’re very little, but I don’t know where it goes in a few years.


  3. Maaaaan, I am gonna be such a mama bear when it comes to bullying; possibly more than I need to be. I was bullied and abused as a kid, and so project every unresolved emotion onto my two year old. She and an older girl playing chase? Is is feeling ostracized because she’s being left out? Did I hear the word cootie? (I didn’t.) That boy just say she looked like a boy because she has short hair? Son, let me tell you… (His mother hear this and had a stern talk with him. He later came over and apologized.) She doesn’t notice these kinds of things yet, at two years old, and I fear I’m just imagining all of it.
    Though there was this one interaction with a neighbor kid. She had on a bike helmet and he was bopping her on the head, just out of nowhere. I sort of saw it but then realized what I was seeing and remembered she doesn’t have the words to tell him she doesn’t like it.
    One time, I know I saw it happen. He bobbed her and her innocent little face looked up and around like it was something that was supposed to happen, maybe a game, and I called to him in a voice I used to use with my homeless clients. He was like, I didn’t do anything. Without missing a beat, I said, “Yes you did; I sat here and watched you do it. Don’t try to tell me you didn’t. That’s a lie. You wanna lie to me now?” We don’t play with that neighbor much anymore.
    Then, at the playground, when other selfish little snotrags are leaning in on her at the top of the slide or going up the steps, I remind them loudly, “WE KEEP OUR HANDS TO OURSELVES!!” If their parent is close enough, and they should be, they’ll hear it and become aware something is up. If they’re not close enough, then if their little cherub tells them a mean lady yelled at them, well, they’re just gonna have to figure it out.
    But it’s hard. Thanks for the tips on what you did; I’ll add glowering to my list of things to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I SO feel you on this. I was picked on a lot as a kid too, and it really leaves a mark. I didn’t know how to deal with it back then, so when I see it happening to my kids (or any kid), it brings back all those feelings of powerlessness and makes me livid.

      Good for you for standing up for those kids! I know that, to some degree, kids need to learn to stand up for themselves, but at least getting adult support will help validate their feelings that an injustice is occurring (if that makes any sense).

      And sometimes I’m shocked by what parents let their kids get away with. One time I was at a playground where a little boy kept running up and kicking my daughter, HARD. His mother was *right there.* I mean, 2 feet away!

      I set him straight and was ready for his mom to say something, but she didn’t. Sometimes parents don’t realize what’s happening, but she just didn’t want to be bothered, it seemed.

      It’s so frustrating because you know those kids will just get worse as they get older if no one steps in.

      And one time, when Brontë was 3, she was trying to play with some girls when one of the girls walked over and whispered something in her ear. Brontë walked up to me, shaking, then collapsed onto my lap, sobbing. She wouldn’t tell me what the girl said, but it was obviously cruel.

      Argh. Glowering worked pretty well in this case, I think because the girls were so young and it was tough to be more direct when I hadn’t seen the behavior directly. But I’m gonna be more on it next time, trying different approaches and seeing what sorts it out best.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. No other ideas. But this. This is what I am scared of and not looking forward to. You were an awesome mama bear though. Way to react in the moment.


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