(Over)Protective Fathers … or, “Other People’s Kids”?

Editor's Note - Copied an LTE of mine from yesterday that got away from me. I started typing a response, and it blew up. Instead of making a standalone FKB post, when I realized it was paragraph(s) long, I went back and added the cop-out "FKB(?) alert..." and hit "Mail Letter to the Editor".

Context: My daughter is very sensitive & emotional ... like, look at her the wrong way (make a face she thinks is mocking or angry) and she's ready to cry; give her a hug and tell her how amazing she is and she's beaming. Lately, she's been concerned (is certain) that other kids don't like her or are laughing at her. It doesn't take much to break her heart.

We were in the hallway at child care and I was checking her and Niblet into the computer system, when a snotty voice from her classroom (adjacent to the keypad, but out of my sightline) mockingly calls out to her, "What are you looking at!?!" as she's standing there next to me. We couldn't have been at the door for more than 10 seconds at that point. She embarrassedly looks down and away - and I damn near lost my shit. I leaned into the doorway and stared this kid down (7-9 years old maybe? - it's a classroom for various school-aged children, before & after school care) and he sort-of nervously grins in surprise at me, then leans back and looks at his buddy and snickers. Says under his breath, but loud enough to hear, "what's he staring at?" I stand there long enough for it to be uncomfortable, and he just kept grinning at me. So ... I walk into the classroom and over to his table. I stop about 6 feet away, with the table and some other students (and a "teacher") between us, I tell him in my dad voice that it's not okay for him to talk to my daughter that way. Tell him that he better not do it again, either in front of me, or when I'm not there. He stops smiling and just holds his half-eaten toast partway to his mouth. I say if I hear about it from her that he treats her that way again, there will be consequences (I did not define what they might be - pretty sure there isn't anything I could actually 'do' about him being a jerk ... at that point I was working hard not to yell or swear at him). Then I had my daughter come into the classroom, and told him to apologize to her. He did. The two "teachers" and the rest of the classmates eating breakfast just sat there. I was so livid, that I just nodded at his apology and Kernel and I walked out to take Niblet down to his room.

On the way back, her lead "teacher" met me in the hallway and asked if this was an issue that she hadn't been aware of. She seemed very concerned about it being bullying or somesuch. I said, "No," but informed her that my kid is sensitive and isn't very good about standing up for herself (quite the opposite, she shrinks and feels bad about herself). So, if there's someone being mean to her who's old enough to know better, and I'm standing right there, I'm going to call them out on it. I said that no more follow up was needed ... I just wouldn't put up with that kind of behavior.

I'm hopeful it isn't an issue, but man, it was not something I was prepared to deal with. I just reacted to the tone of his voice, and his response to my stare only exacerbated things. I guess I was hoping he'd be embarrassed or something ... I don't know.

There were a few immediate responses:

Zee German

In my head I'm seeing that video of the guy who starts knock-out slapping everyone in sight after something happened to his kid.

Might be a good FKB discussion, but if our kids are out there among...people, we best prepare ourselves for the inevitability of these situations. For the record, my son is usually the super-sensitive one who is now recognizing that he's an outsider in middle school. Tough place to be. He's an easy target for someone who wants to provoke a little entertainment. Still not sure how we handle it.


Good for you. I know it's easy as a parent to not engage in these situations as we think we may embarrass our kids. I had 2 situations like you describe. One, a kid in the hockey locker room was making fun of my quiet /introverted son. I did get in his face about it not being the way to treat a teammate. I then went to the Dad and explained what happened and described how I handled it. 9 years later the Dads and the boys are good friends. A couple years after that incident a neighbor boy, bullied my son on the bus. We are good friends with his parents, and he is a year older than my son. I called their house and the boy in question answered. I told him that I heard about the bullying incident, and that I was greatly disappointed. I told him that I was giving him one "pass" when it comes to bullying. I told him I would not tell his Dad this time, but the next time he would not be happy with the ramifications. Never had another issue since. Families are great friends. My son was actually proud that I stood up for him both times, which surprised me. Shorty after these 2 incidents, he had a couple situations where he totally stood up and had his own "Christmas Story/Ralphie" moments. Both times, he intervened when a friend or teammate was bullied and fixed the problem. Proud papa moments. I once had a supervisor that told me that as managers, we had to approach conflict like firemen. Rush into the fire and put it out. Don't stand across the street and hope it rains.

Update - No blowback at the school this morning, but Kernel did say the boy had repeated his "What are you looking at!?!" on the bus and indicated both that he is kind of a jerk (her word!) and that she'd told the bus driver. My initial thought was basically, "Well, I can't be with her 100% of the time, so good for her for doing what I'd recommended - tell an adult." On the other hand, we've been noticing a lot more lying from her lately, about really stupid (& easily verifiable) stuff; lies for reasons that make sense to her ... because she's 6. My second reaction was, "Did he really? Or, did she see how angry I was with him and liked knowing [seeing] how much I cared?" or something like that.

21 thoughts on “(Over)Protective Fathers … or, “Other People’s Kids”?”

  1. Z - It crossed my mind that my response could be construed as an implication that your son was a bully. Wasn't my intention and I certainly appreciated your additional context. Is the "outsider" label his and is it a new thing to him? Basically, was he part of the "in" crowd in elementary?

    zooomx.2 - good stuff. I totally agree that acting in defense of your kids when there's an obvious incident of inappropriate activity is tough but necessary. I hope I continue to have the fortitude to quell my hesitation/discomfort & step up. I'm also concerned that the nuance/distinctions between "normal" adolescent behavior & group dynamics vs. socially accepted (conditioned?) hierarchy (every social environment has one, yeah?) vs. bullying, are really tough to parse out and know how - or when - to respond.

    1. I should temper my comments, that when we intervene as parents, we need to make it a learning experience for all involved. I have dealt with way too many parents who are more after "a pound of flesh" from the misbehaving student, versus trying to solve the issue long term. Can of Corn - you handled it just right in my opinion.

      1. Yes a thousand times on the pound of flesh.

        That said, there are times....

        I grew up in an "accountability" household, in part because my dad was a teacher. The bias was always that complaints about me were true until proven otherwise.

        I kind of carried that forward. Until one particular episode where my daughter was in high school. A teacher called me at work one day to complain about some thing my daughter allegedly was doing that was vaguely plausible but out of character. We eventually figured out (with daughter) that this teacher had sharply changed her behavior and basically was targeting some of her best students (grossly inappropriate criticisms AND grading, false claims of work not turned in). We had to intervene to get our daughter moved to a different classroom.

      2. I appreciate that endorsement z - it wasn't easy to stick to the 'reasonable demand for respect' script.

        [edit] seeing Beau's comment below, maybe not even "respect", maybe "kindness"?

    2. CoC, I didn't take it as such. No worries.
      Mine has never been "in." As he's grown older he's just become more aware of the fact. Social-emotional connection has never really been a skill he's posessed (to include within family), so he doesn't recognize gestures of friendship when people do offer them, so doesn't reciprocate, and relationships don't get built. He wants to have friends, just doesn't really know how and comes off...off.

      The school recognizes that he's easy to provoke and are taking steps to contain his exposure to certain people and situations that are likely to get him cranked up. Ultimately, though, there will always be people that seem too loud or obnoxious, to arrogant in victory, too condescending in their responses, and the boy needs to learn the presence of mind to recognize the state he's in and take the steps necessary to defuse the situation or remove himself from the threat of losing control. They've given him carte blanche to excuse himself when need be and "safe places" to go to. That's just a tall order for him, as we all lose the ability to think rationally when highly stressed, and he's on the verge of that state near constantly. After dinner math homework or optional "yearbook cover design contests" are a life-or-death proposition, for god's sake. He almost doesn't stand a chance in the face of true adversity. His struggles have permeated every moment of our day, not always in our faces, but present nonetheless in a high simmer, ratcheting up the stress level for everyone, affecting our home environment, the life and career choices we've been able to make - his poor mother. It's like watching an oncoming wreck in slow motion and not knowing what to do about it and whether you're going to come out ok. Will natural maturation catch up to him at some point, or will intervening years of hormone flux prior to that point cement his self-identity as a loser or screwup or delinquent? Is he on the track of a budding artistic and creative mind that works a little differently than the rest of us, but is destined for amazing productions? Or is he the fragile, brooding, self-centered, head case who is convinced the world is rigged and personally out to get him? You can't tell these things in the everyday fluctuations in behavior. When you start travelling down a hopeful-looking path for a while and suddenly get yanked backed over into "reality"...it's tough.

      1. Heavy stuff there man. Pretty crazy to know what an unpredictable challenge life can be ... manage that, and then have to attempt to figure out how to help a dependent 'know' and manage that reality as well.

    1. I laughed at the hide-and-seek example. The trinket did that, plus when it was my turn to hide, she'd tell me exactly where I should be.

  2. About a year ago I had to contact the school and a couple of parents about Aquinas being left out and/or targeted by some of the other kids in his class. I certainly don't think what these boys were doing rose to the level of bullying (and I said as much to those I contacted it), but it was having a deleterious effect on my kid, and it couldn't continue. He has developed a much healthier relationship with most of the boys in his class. Indeed, now there are times I have to talk to him about his desire to exclude others, and how he has to not do that.

    We also had a problem with him playing too rough with kids younger than himself, where he was getting far too caught up in the game they were playing and wasn't stepping back to think "this is just a game, the rules that apply in life are more important." We expressed our disappointment and he seems to have gotten the message. I'm sure he'll forget it again eventually.

  3. Had a proud dad moment yesterday. Found out there's a new kid in Trey's grade (7th). Trey's personality is such that he's one of the more popular kids and even all the younger kids on the elementary campus, which my wife works at, know him by name. He's gone out of his way to be friends with the new kid even to the point that his class went on a field trip yesterday and Trey went on the bus first and saved a seat for the new kid to sit with him. The new kid's mom works at the school and told her son to hang out with Trey along with a few other "good kids."

  4. I'm gonna drop a plug in here for the book Wonder which has been a hit so far in our household (we're about half way through). I mentioned it during the last book day, but it really does a nice job putting you in the shoes of a kid who is bullied for the way he looks. There movie is coming out this weekend too, and the trailers make it look pretty faithful to the book.

  5. My wife is really good at confronting other kids or other adults when our son is being bullied (as well as talking to our son when he bullies others). One time she accosted an elderly woman who accused my 2 year-old of being a peeping tom because he got to close to her picture window. The lady was drunk, broke down in tears, and gave my son a stuffed animal (ewww). I am less comfortable confronting, especially since all instances we see now are at parks where he's unlikely to ever see that kid or adult again.

  6. So many hard issues. We want our kids to learn to handle their problems on their own, but when? How much? What is the right point at which to intervene?

    Taking my kids to the park to play on the playground structures used to scare the crap out of me. What if they stumble and take a header into some piece of the structure? Probably because when I was in about fourth or fifth grade a friend/classmate of mine had done so on the monkey bars and lost all her front teeth.

    1. Testing the world & their abilities - yup, I'm confident that I generally encourage and inform without concern that I'm preventing them from figuring out their limitations (safe v. stupid)
      Testing their place in the world (social interactions) ... whole nother ball o' wax.

  7. I find myself kind of a stickler for restrained use of the term "bully." I'm no expert, but I understand it as involving an imbalance of power and deliberate repeated targeting of an individual. My son has a "nemesis" (this is how he sees the world) who bothers him, and he's one of the individuals they're trying to separate him from in gym class. But my boy simply doesn't like the way the other kid conducts himself. Given that alone, I wouldn't have called the kid a bully, especially since my boy doen't like a lot of things that a lot of people do. With where that relationship has gone, the other does know he has the ability to provoke mine, so you creep a little closer to meeting the definition, and separation to engineer a solution makes sense.

    I expect kindness and considerate behavior from my kids at all times, but I do want them to know that not everyone is going to want to be their friend and not everyone is going to be nice and want to play with them. Safety, by all means, (in relationships and on play structures) but I'm not interested in smoothing out every surface for them.

    1. Yeah, there is an important distinction there. Certainly, with the exception of the elderly woman I mentioned (he was two years old!), what we deal with is strangers who don't want to play with my son and they have sometimes mean and hurtful ways of saying it, and then sometimes double down on their meanness when they get approached about it (and sometimes the parents just shrug their shoulders, which is the most infuriating). It's not bullying per se, just lack of kindness.

    2. As you acknowledge, I also claim no expertise in this, but your description of what constitutes a "bully" is nicely nuanced. Your second observation also hews very closely to what I strive for. Funny thing is, if I wrote those two sentences to my wife, she'd completely* agree with the sentiment, but in practice, we go about our efforts to implement/achieve it in very different ways. Can be hard to get on the same page.

      Also, someone described me as their 'nemesis' yesterday**. It's been a long time since I've had an arch-enemy.

      *in so-far as I know her... : )
      **wuz joak, though maybe only partially...

  8. Yesterday, soon after I posted on this subject, I get a call from a Dean of students at the high school, who is a good family friend. My son was caught throwing pencils and other objects at ceiling tiles in our beautiful new(ish) school. Damaged some tiles and will have to pay for them. The Dean also mentioned that my son last week messed around with a teacher's laptop and pulled up some dumb website to embarrass him. The proud papa moments don't last too long do they? I swear he is going through his middle school shenanigan faze as an 18 year old high school senior. Ever try to discipline or have a stern conversation with your kid when you are fighting back a giggle. Well that was me last night. I try to not be too hard on him, as he is basically taking a full semester of high school classes along side a full semester of online college coursework at the same time, while also in sports, DECA, Math League, Knowledge Bowl, and a few other things I can't keep track of. I think some of the shenanigans are just his way of dealing with stress.

    1. We used to flip freshly sharpened pencils and rubberband-shoot paperclips into the drop ceilings too - 2 pts if they stuck ... good times. (my high school was not new, or even newish, but we still did not do it in front of adults. no laptops available when I was there though)

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