We were at the birthday party of one of my son’s classmates whose mother I knew in passing. It was a casual affair, a barbecue where the kids were allowed to run around and do their own thing. Normally that’s exactly the kind of party I love. Let them run. Let them play. Eat some barbecue. What could go wrong? Well, it turns out when the kids start to have conflict, a lot can go wrong, fast.
I heard some screaming as I was talking with a few kids’ moms, and turned to see my 5-year-old son cowering inside a playhouse as a bunch of boys surrounded him, calling him a “bad guy.” I’ll spare you my feelings on little kids and superhero movies, but I figured this was a pretty clear case where moms needed to intervene with their kids and tell them to knock shit off. My son was yelling at them to “stop,” and they kept on being jerks, as little kids are wont to do. It was a game, but it was bordering on bullying, and no one wants to go down that road, right?
I was talking to one of the boys’ moms, and I glanced at her to see if she was picking up the “let’s end this” vibe I was throwing down. I called to my own son to tell him to come eat some hotdog, giving him an escape from the sour situation without ruining the party ambiance. My son started to climb out when the other boys barricaded him with their bodies. Their mothers watched alongside me, apparently unfazed by their kids’ gang mindset and total lack of kindness.
At this point, I was done waiting around for one of them to buck up and bring down the bullying. I walked over and scolded each child surrounding my son before walking him away from their nasty game. I told them they needed to listen when someone tells them to stop. That it’s not OK to put their hands on someone else when they say “no.” That when someone doesn’t want to play you let them go. Things their mothers should have told them.
My son calmed down fairly quickly and bounced back, ready to play with a different group of kids, ones who were more kind and on his energy level. I, however, did not bounce back so quickly. I was still in mama bear mode, wanting to shred apart the kids who brought my sons to tears. Moreover, I wanted to know why the hell those mothers thought it was OK to stand idly by while their kids were actively bullying another child.
The mother of the birthday boy caught me as we were getting ready to leave, apparently feeling a bit remorseful about how my mood had turned after her kid and his friends had cornered my son. She asked if my son was OK, and added that she wasn’t quite sure what to do about the whole violent superhero games they all liked to play. It sucks when one of the kids doesn’t like it, but they usually just need to work it out on their own.
“Boys will be boys, you know?”
I didn’t nod my head in agreement. I gave a terse smile, thanked her for hosting us, and left with no intention of ever seeing her outside of school again. It was one of those moments I mulled over in my mind for days and weeks afterwards, coming up with the sort of response I wish I was bold enough to say out loud.
Besides the fact that boys being boys is a gag-worthy cop-out, I was appalled that this mother thought it was OK to just let the problem resolve on its own. Someday my son will have to work stuff out on his own, but at 5 years old it’s simply not appropriate to expect little kids to resolve their own conflict. It’s my job to guide my kid in resolving conflict, and that’s not going to happen if I resign myself to whatever Lord of the Flies shit they decide is appropriate on their own.
Raising my son to overcome conflict responsibly isn’t going to happen without my help, and it would be a whole lot easier if other moms would bite the bullet and do their part too. Because if they are left to their own devices, conflict turns to issues with consent and violence and bullying — issues that will be much harder to undo later if we don’t address them now. The mothers of those boys lost an opportunity to step up and teach some valuable, if uncomfortable, lessons to their sons that day — all because they thought it was better to let kids “work it out” on their own.
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