Between the ages of eighteen months and two years, my Noah was the biggest bully around. He could not be in the company of other children without attacking one of them. He would push, smack, bite, pull hair and, most baffling, grab a child’s face in his grubby little paw (usually around the mouth/nose area) and try to pull it off. On playdates, he would invariably pick up the heaviest object he could find and smash the other child on the head with it. In the park, he would casually walk up to a child and push him or her over and then stride off as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
He made no allowances for age or size: a new-born baby was as likely to be his prey as an eleven year old boy. Going to a friend’s house was a nightmare. Going to playgroups was a nightmare. Going to the park was a nightmare. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t make him stop. All I could do was permanently hover around him anticipating his next move and launch myself at him if I thought he was about to strike.
And yet, the irony was, he absolutely loved being with other children.
Soon after we got to Vienna, I joined an English speaking toddler group. They would sing, have a story, do a craft activity, have a snack, play with toys and then have more singing. I paid for a block of six sessions. It wasn’t cheap (€14 for a session), but I only ended up going to four. I just couldn’t bear it any more. Before we went go in to the hall, I would crouch in front of Noah and remind him no hitting, no pushing, otherwise we go home. I remember the last session we went to. Noah had taken his little toy giraffe with him, his favourite comforter at the time. A little girl, about eighteen months old, kept coming over and trying to snatch it off him. I told her not to and even found another toy to try to fob her off with, but she was determined to get Noah’s giraffe. Not once did her mother tell her not to try and take it, she just looked on, amused. But I knew what was coming. When she finally got it off him and refused to give it back, Noah finally had enough of her and pushed her hard. She went flying backwards and smashed her head on a table leg. Everyone gasped. I helped the girl back up and then turned to remonstrate with Noah, but I was too late. He grabbed a baby’s face from behind, one hand on each cheek, and just pulled. The baby’s mother screamed. I walked out and never went back.
I hated that other parents would look at my child and dislike him and think he was naughty. I hated that I was so helpless to stop him and that other parents looked at me and thought I was weak and ineffective. I hated the traitorous thought worming its way through the back of my mind: would my son grow up to be a bully? Does he have behaviour problems, I wondered? I thought about all of the teenagers I had taught. Was he going to be one of those? Was I going to be one of those parents constantly called up by teachers and summonsed to the school?
I phoned the health visitor. “They all do it,” she said. But not like Noah. She said it often happened when a child’s speech was underdeveloped, especially if the child was intelligent and had a good comprehension of the world around him. It was often a sign of frustration at not being able to communicate. And Noah’s understanding was far superior to his speech. In fact, it was when he started being able to put words together, just before he was two, that he finally stopped being a bully. Well, stopped being a bully to other children at least. He still lashes out at me and my husband.
Looking back, I also think it had something to do with moving to another country. It started when my husband moved to Vienna. Noah and I moved in with my parents for three months before joining him: I had to work out my notice.
Whatever excuses I am making for him, it was a phase and it passed.
“Would you rather your child was the bully or the bullied?” someone asked me at the time, when we were having a conversation about Noah’s behaviour. “The bullied,” I answered straight away.
Twice this week alone, we have encountered playground bullies. The first was in a small soft play area in our local shopping centre. The little boy was about eighteen months old. Noah happily landed at the bottom of the slide and the other little boy lunged at him. He grabbed Noah around the collar and shook him. “Hey!” Noah said, outraged. Then the boy started pummelling his fists in Noah’s face. “Leave it, Noah!” I warned as I leapt across the room. The boy was half Noah’s size. If Noah wanted to, he could have floored him. But Noah didn’t lift a finger. He was simply outraged that the child was allowed to hit him without anyone telling him off. His mother was sitting at the side, looking at her phone. I tried not to judge. I have been that woman, after all. But still…
Then there was a little boy of about five in the park yesterday. He was a skinny thing with a blue checked shirt and a Luke Skywalker hairstyle. His grandmother was supervising him, but she was no match for this evil little Jedi. Noah was climbing up a ladder which leads to a log walkway which leads to a slide. Evil Luke positioned himself at the top of the ladder so Noah couldn’t climb up. “Hey!” Noah said angrily and tried to get around the boy. When Noah eventually got around him, he made his way to the log walkway. He’s a bit nervous of it. It’s a walkway of logs chained together, so it isn’t very secure. Noah likes to crawl under the logs to get across, but yesterday, he decided to be brave and climb over each log. Evil Luke ran over the logs backwards and forwards, making it impossible for Noah to move. Then he jumped up and down making Noah’s log sway dangerously. I went charging over. “Nein!” I shouted at him. “Nein, bitte!” This is as far as my German extends. Evil Luke smirked at me and stood there watching as I helped Noah across the logs. I went to sit down as Noah whizzed down the slide and then ran back to the ladder to start all over again. I wasn’t sitting down for a minute before Evil Luke was back tormenting my son. I glared at him and glared at his grandmother. I didn’t like the boy. He was old enough to know better. But still…how do I know what is going on in that boy’s life to make him behave that way? Are some children just not very nice? And what if my Noah decides to pick up his bullying mantle once more and becomes that boy when he is five?
So would I rather Noah was the bullied or the bully? I still say the bullied. For I have been the mother on both sides and there is nothing worse than someone looking at your small, perfect, beautiful child with disdain.
May your bullying days be fully behind you, my Noah, and may you always stand up to bullies.