Battling the Playground Bully

Posted March 18, 2008 by

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My friends and I all have secret fears about our children. My friend Caroline is deathly afraid her children will get sick. She wakes up at night, heart pounding, wondering if the bruise on her son’s arm is really cancer. My other friend Jaimie worries that her daughter is so socially awkward that she won’t ever make good friends. My secret fear? That my son will be bullied in school, just like I was in 4th grade. (But that’s a topic for another blog post.)

Well, my fears were realized last fall. When I picked Alex up from the playground at pre-school, I saw him playing with some other kids, but as I got closer, I realized that one of the boys was actually throwing rocks at my son. Not only did Alex not say anything, he didn’t even move out of the way. When I ran up to the them, the tears were rolling down my child’s face, and all he said was, “Billy is hurting me.” Ugh. As I hugged him, I felt about 3 inches tall. How could we have raised our son and not taught him how to protect himself? (Never mind how to assert himself!)

At this point the teacher had also gotten there and was talking sternly to the other boy, but I felt frozen inside. I wondered, “How do I teach my son to fight back? And will he get in trouble if he does fight back physically?” My husband Joe, on the other hand, was ready to sign Alex up for boxing lessons at the local gym—never mind that our son is only 5. “That’s what my dad did for me when I got bullied at school,” he said. “After one fight, the problem was solved.” I had an image of Alex at 10, all his teeth knocked out, yelling “Adriaaaan!” Not exactly my idea of a good early childhood sport.

So Joe and I sat down in that “parents-trying-to-be-casual-but-we’re-really-freaking-out-here” way and talked to Alex about what was going on. We found out that “Billy” often picked on him at school. “He lies on top of me until the teacher comes,” said my son. “What do you say to him? Do you try to get him off you?” I asked. “No. I just wait until the teacher sees us,” said Alex. Man, did I really feel like we’d dropped the ball here! We enlisted the help of his teachers for this one, and started talking to Alex about what he could do, and also did some practicing and role plays with him in case Billy “pancaked” him again. (The teachers in his school also began to talk more to the kids about bullying in class, which has helped.)

I’m left with a conundrum, though: At school, kids are taught not to hit or hurt anyone, not to call names, to always tell the teacher if someone is hurting them. As a parent, I’m stumped—do we tell Alex to fight back? (Joe says, “Yes, absolutely,” and I have to say I agree, if it’s a question of Alex being able to protect himself.) But at what age does “telling the teacher” turn into being a “tattle tale?”

In the end, instead of boxing, we opted for Karate—a little less scary for Mom on the head-injury front. So far, it’s helping a lot. We found a great dojo where they teach self defense as opposed to aggressive, attack-style techniques. Last week, Alex came home with a big smile on his face. I got a little teary when he said, “Billy tried to push me down today, but I used my T-stance and he couldn’t do it.” He proudly demonstrated the whole thing for us and said, “Then I roared like a dragon and he ran away.”

If only that will still work when he gets to high school!


Elisabeth Wilkins is the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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