I started working on this post a year ago no, that was two years ago, my god, and never managed to finish writing it. I like to pretend that’s because I got busy with other writing projects. The truth is it freaks me the fuck out.
So, at Rio’s school, there’s a play area outside the front door where the kids run around after their parents pick them up. The teachers hand them off to you, and then as you’re leaving the building your kid is all, “Can we stay to play? Just for a few minutes? Pleeeeeeeze?”
If you are not a heartless jerk and you don’t have a doctor’s appointment to get to, you join the other parents milling awkwardly around the front door while the kids run laps for twenty minutes around the handful of trees out front and climb on the inexplicable statue of an alligator with a chessboard mosaic on its back. Good times.
Shortly after starting kindergarten, Rio came to me in tears. The boys were scary. They would chase the girls. If they caught you, they would knock you down and kiss you. It wasn’t all the boys; the same few were the usual culprits. Rio was at a total loss. “We tell them to stop, but they keep doing it! What can I do if they won’t listen to me?”
Well. I’m a rape survivor. I had to fight back the urge to tell her to break their noses first and ask questions later. I seriously considered enrolling her in martial arts classes so she could learn to more effectively defend herself on the playground. And all the other places the boys’ mommies won’t be standing by to swoop in and rescue her from them.
Rio canned the martial arts idea with a huge ball of hate. “I WILL NOT GO IN THAT CLASS NO WAY AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!”
Rio, if you’re reading this many years from now and wishing angrily that I’d pushed the aikido thing because it turned out you really needed more self defense training than you got out of your childhood, I’m sorrier than I can ever say. I’ll try to sell you on it again this fall. Maybe I will even just finally say it is mandatory and let you kick and scream your way through class. I hear kicking and screaming is encouraged there anyway.
I digress. The thing is, I didn’t really know what to do to protect her. I still don’t. I looked into some aikido and karate classes but didn’t take her to one. I talked to her about using her words, and showed her how to hold her hand out and say “No!” in a loud firm voice. I talked to her teachers and the other parents. I assured her that she’d done the right thing to come to me about it, but I worried that I was less omnipotent on this one than we both wanted me to be.
The kids got used to each other. The boys gradually learned some manners. They’re all friends now.
Today, it started with Serena. A boy from her new summer camp was chasing her on the playground. At first, this looked like it was a fun game. Then she started really running away. She ran and hid behind my legs. He followed. She ran to the top of the climbing structure. He followed. She looked like she might cry but instead she said, “Leave me alone!”
They repeated this and I decided that was our cue to leave. I collected her and went to get the other girls. Which of course took a few minutes, during which this boy kept chasing her and she kept yelling at him – with increasing distress – to leave her alone. Finally, the other little girl with us stepped between Serena and the boy. She stopped him with her body and said in a loud, firm voice, “She asked you to stop. Please leave her alone.”
This kid is five, and she totally knew what to do. I have rarely been more impressed by a child. She made my day, and shook off my paralysis about what to do. Which was good, because it didn’t work when she stepped in. A minute later, the boy was at it again. Presumably the attention encouraged him. I’ve heard kids can be like that.
But now I tried it. I put my body between him and my daughter and said, very firmly, “She has asked you several times to stop. You need to stop doing this. You’re upsetting her.”
And that got the little boy’s mother’s attention. She came running, apologizing profusely even before she reached us, clearly understanding the situation. She’d seen this before, he does this to everyone, she’s so sorry.
I smiled benignly and said, “Oh, it’s OK. He’s struggling with this one, but he’s learning. Some kids have a hard time learning these things.”
Because I am just so socially conditioned to make nice. Because I didn’t want this woman to feel as bad as she obviously did about how her son was behaving. Because I didn’t want the kids to gang up on him now that The Authorities were coming down on him (which they were clearly gearing up to do). Because I like to emphasize that all kids are good kids who are learning how to treat each other well, and sometimes make mistakes.
All of that is true, but this dynamic – the one where boys use low-grade physical force and intimidation to bully girls and there’s nothing the girls can do about it – is really not OK. I’m not blaming this kid particularly, or his mom. Not all boys do this, but some do and I don’t know why. Maybe they watch too much TV or have lazy parents or older brothers who are a bad influence. Or maybe they just have the “chase pretty girls” gene. Maybe that’s a good thing – these could be the boys who grow up to be hairstylists or firefighters or Calvin Klein, I dunno.
I do know that the moment I had said, “It’s OK” in front of these kids, I wished I hadn’t. That boy needs to know this behavior is not OK. The girls all need to know it’s not OK. That they can say no and that their no should be respected.
As we walked away, we kept talking. I told N, the girl who interceded on Serena’s behalf, what a great job she had done standing up for her friend. She was totally surprised. “Me, what did I do?” “You used your words in a really clear way, and you helped Serena. That was a really good thing to do.”
I told Serena how proud I was that she kept using her words to tell that boy she didn’t want him chasing her.
Serena, “He wouldn’t listen to me. Maybe he just thought I was very pretty.”
N,”No. That’s not the truth. He does that to everybody in my class. He doesn’t think you’re pretty.”
Serena, a little sadly, “Oh. Well, he shouldn’t do that!”
N, “But he only does it to the girls. He never does it to boys. I wonder why that is? That doesn’t seem right.”
All the girls agreed, and I firmly supported, that he shouldn’t do that, and that it was just wrong to chase girls around and not listen to what they want.
This whole last bit made me want to go backwards and forwards in time at the same time and totally Hulk Smash the patriarchy of the last many thousand years plus the teenage version of this boy who ten years from now will chase and intimidate my daughter when she hopes he thinks she’s pretty.
Future teenage boy, I am warning you. Today was the last time I am going to smile and say it was OK when a boy harasses my daughter. You’d best start brushing up on your social manners and feminist literature now if you want to hang with these kids. Mess with my girls and I will come for you. I will come to your parents’ house at six o’clock in the evening and have a long talk with them about healthy relationships and good boundaries and exactly where you overstepped. I will not hesitate to ask that you be removed from my kids’ classrooms if you touch them without asking, so don’t even think about snapping their bras in 7th grade or pulling their skirts up on the playground.
In the meantime, now that I’ve gotten myself worked up enough to write about this problem, maybe I can solve it for my kids with some mandatory ass-kicking classes. Not because I think they should know how to break noses on the playground. Rather, because I seem to recall my stepson learning a lot of really good, simple ways to avoid bullying and confrontation in the first place. Things like the emphatic and clear “No” trick that I taught Rio a few years ago, that N used today. Tricks of body language that let you control an interaction and end it when you want to leave. Stuff I clearly don’t know to this day, since I was so ineffectual at protecting my own four-year-old from a peer who was experimenting with chasing her around on the playground.