Smotherhood: When Your 3-Year-Old Gets Bullied…By Your Close Friend’s Kid
“Mama, Ella said I’m a poo-poo head.”
“Mama, Ella said I wasn’t her friend anymore.”
“Mama, Ella said I’m a boy because I have a boy’s name.”
These were, until recently, headlines from my daughter’s days at preschool. Alice, who is three now, started at a local preschool at two and a half, making her the youngest child there. Her older brother had gone until he graduated to kindergarten, so she was comfortable with the surroundings; still, it was a big transition and she was only going two days a week, which meant every week she had to reintegrate, navigating social dynamics that were well beyond her ken.
I was reassured at the time by the fact that a friend’s child, a regular playmate of Alice’s, was also enrolling. Visions of tiny little BFFs danced through my head, two girls learning the ropes of preschool 2gether 4 ever.
Then Ella cut Alice loose. It happened on the second day they were there together: Ella, who was a five-mornings-a-weeker, drew a big fat public line in the sand. “Your name is ALEX,” she said to Alice in front of another girl. “We don’t play with BOYS.”
Of course, Alice didn’t know what to make of this. She was six months younger than Ella, which was no doubt akin to leprosy in Ella’s mind. And Alice’s slight frame makes her look even younger than she is, so she might as well have had a neon “LEPER” sign pasted to her forehead.
That night, lower lip trembling, Alice reported the day’s events to us pretty coherently, given her age. My husband and I were gobsmacked, dismayed, appalled, outraged: Could it be that girls were this mean this young?
We coached her on how to respond, overcoming our baser instincts to hunt Ella down and warn her off, mafia-style: “Tell her ‘My name is ALICE, and that’s not a nice thing to say.’ And if that doesn’t work, go find a teacher and tell her what’s happening.”
The next day it was the same thing, and the next and the next. We anxiously consulted the preschool manager and the teachers, who assured us we were doing the right thing and that they would keep a close eye on these interactions. But Alice continued to tell us that kids were calling her “Alex” and weren’t letting her play with them.
Around this time Ella’s mom, a newish friend, asked if we could have her kids over for the afternoon, and I said yes, thinking it would be a chance for me to observe them myself. Sure enough, Ella insisted on calling my daughter “Alex.” Alice and I both corrected her, but Ella would simply pretend she hadn’t heard. She also dominated their play physically, refusing to share and pushing Alice around to the extent that I had to step in.
When Ella’s mum came to pick them up I delicately raised the name confusion and my friend, a lovely mom with a sharp wit, seemed a little abashed, laughing it off as her daughter’s inability to form the sibilant “s” sound. I was pretty sure this was no speech impediment, but didn’t want to press the point; what could be more awkward than telling a friend her angelic-looking daughter is a bully?
A few weeks later, with little obvious progress and a daughter who was increasingly resistant to preschool, my husband changed tactics. When Alice complained of being excluded by Ella, he threw conventional parenting advice to the winds and said, “Well, sweetheart, next time give her a big smile and say, ‘It’s funny, you have a boy’s name too … FELLA.’”
Miraculously, Ella’s speech impediment was cured overnight. It was a turning point: Alice gradually started to look forward to preschool instead of dreading it.
But we definitely breathed a sigh of relief recently when Ella was withdrawn from preschool altogether. Somehow, I think the respite will be short-lived.