Keeping Your Child from Becoming a Bully or Being Bullied

A while back I linked to Mama Eve’s post “My Children Are People.” Ever since then, it’s been on my mind. After an intriguing day at the playground had my head caught up in this idea, I saw Peaceful Birth and Parenting’s quote that really hit home with what’s been circling around in my mind when I’m out with other children and parents and when I’m at home with my daughter.

Respect is the foundation of connection. We teach children respect by modeling respect. We model respect by treating children with the same respect we expect. “How we treat them is what we teach them.” -Pam Leo

This seems simplistic enough. My experience as a teacher of all ages tells me that the nature of learning (in humans) is such that most of us don’t learn best by hearing people say things. Audial learning is not, it turns out, the most effective for the majority of people of every generation. We actually learn best by seeing and doing and by interacting with an object or idea in as many different ways as possible — even the ways we are not so good and fail at become key to learning. One thing I learned in the classroom (and as a mother) is that modeling is always taking place; I am always teaching, and learning is always happening.

Back to the quote….

If how we treat children and babies is what we teach them, what ARE we teaching our children?

[I tried to write about what happened at the park the other day, but it just keeps getting too long. Here’s the short version.] Three children were playing. One girl didn’t want to play the game the other two wanted and was getting bossy. The mother of the other two children told the girl that if she was going to boss people around then she should play separately. The little girl (barely 5) ran over to her mom and said she wanted to go home. When her mom calmly asked why she said because the other mother “told her to go away because she was being mean.”

What do we teach our children when we step in and solve a conflict?

Every time a problem arises, it is an opportunity for children to be active learners, expressive communicators, creative thinkers, and empathetic companions. They have a chance to see the why behind the compassion and sharing. Practice helps them find solutions to difficult situations and hard feelings in order to build confidence and a strong sense of self. The real goal is true (not forced) kindness.

Despite our good intentions to teach a noble value, we can cut off the chance to understand the complex emotions and motivations, to practice healthy expression of feeling and opinion, and to genuinely care for and connect with another human being. When we jump in and solve the problems for children to teach problem-solving (even early on when conflicts are small), we risk telling children that they aren’t capable of solving these issues on their own. Indeed, we often tell them to find an adult if there is a problem and not to try to solve it themselves.

There are times to get involved, and I’m not saying that mother should or shouldn’t have gotten involved. I do think, though, that how we get involved models to children how they can problem solve on their own. What we do when we get on the scene is significant. We can guide either (any) side of the conflict towards an open, respectful dialogue and a mutually accepted solution.

…….so this situation is kind of charged…….

Picture this more basic, common scenario:

Two cute, roly-poly 5 month olds thrill themselves with their new skill by sitting up on a blanket together with their parents. There on the blanket is the prized, squeaky giraffe (that everyone seems to have, for some reason). One baby spies and excitedly plays with (chews and drools on) the giraffe. Baby #2 sees the other baby playing with the giraffe excitedly and takes the giraffe.

What would you do?

What if the first baby started to cry? Hysterically?

What if that was your child who took the giraffe? Or your child crying hysterically?

Most of us would consider taking the giraffe and giving it back to the first baby, especially if it was our child and even if the first baby didn’t cry about it. We would take the toy and say something like, “That’s ___’s toy” or “___ is playing with that right now.” Sometimes we would solve the dilemma of more children than toys by getting another giraffe (since they are aplenty) or another hopefully appealing toy. Seems like the problem has been taken care of because everyone is now drooling away on something happily.

This has been me. I’m sure it’s been the vast majority of parents at some time. This is a normal thing to happen. This is a normal thing to do.


….if how we treat them is what we teach them…..

I want to teach them to be considerate and kind.

To teach that we don’t take toys away from others, I took the toy away…..

What else could I have done? No one wants a kid with an aggressive, greedy, “all mine!” attitude. This was my teachable moment.

Did I wait and ask myself why my child took the toy? Did I wait and observe the first baby’s reaction? Did I wait and give these two children a chance to grasp what was happening? Did I give them a chance to express caring, remorse, hurt, sadness to each other and learn what taking from others means, what it feels like? Did I let them learn why we don’t take from others? It seems less hurtful perhaps to learn through practice starting at this stage when things are smaller.


I guess I’m saying and talking about all this because the other mother at the playground mentioned that we teach children to get an adult when there is a problem. Then she brought up a story about bullying where 8-9 year olds did nothing for months until someone got really hurt, and the little girl’s mother (who was thankful for the intervention) brought up a story about a kid cutting in line repeatedly in front of all these children who were waiting kindly and patiently and no parents no children said or did anything to stop him. Everyone was afraid to intervene on their own behalf.

As a teacher and a mother both stories struck me. Maybe because I’ve been thinking about this “what am I teaching them” stuff. Most children during free play will say if they care about something, and most children will tell some adult. How could not a single child say anything? If you extend the adult intervention method of teaching (not through modeling, but through saying and directing), why would a child speak up for themselves and other children when they have been taught to get an adult?

My mind started to wonder, could we curb bullying by treating children, even young babies, how we want them to treat others? Conversely, are we teaching our children to be bullies and bullied? Despite all our regaling of heroes who did the right thing, are we modeling for our children the way we want them to learn to be? What happens if we don’t?

This is perhaps a touchy subject, but…..WHAT DO YOU THINK?

4 responses to this post.

  1. Sheila, Thank you for this post. I think it opens up a very important dialogue. I have someone in my life who parents in a very controlling way and it is so clear that no matter how many words of empathy or choices she uses the overall message she is teaching is that she is overwhelmed and in charge because if she wasn’t able to control their behavior she would lose it. Her consequences have corporeal overtones.

    Its a sad state of parenting. But such an important contrast to how I would like to parent. I too have been thinking about modeling and how central it is to parenting. As a human I would say I learn 90% of what I know from modeling. (I’m not such a creative thinker but that was beat out of me at an early age.)

    I notice how Ami adores me, she watches my every move. She waits on every word, she is absorbing every minute detail of interaction. I don’t try to “behave” or be perfect, but I am aware of my tone, my intention, my anger, my creative problem solving or lack thereof. I am aware of those I put in contact with her on a regular as models too.

    And as non-PC as this may be I have been calling her Bully. Because she is so assertive and demanding at times, which I like, especially for a girl. She is also kind and thoughtful and occasionally shy, but I call her Bully because I want to lighten what I feel is not the most acceptable personality for a small female in this world. She is strong both physically and emotionally and dominant. She knows exactly what she wants and usually knows how to get it. She is the same size as the biggest 20 month old boys I know and she can hold her own with them as well as with older kids, usually holding onto a toy for dear life if someone tries to take it from her.

    I try to let the kids work it out most of the time but there are times I just step in. I’d love to hear any thoughts on how to creatively deal with intense situations between kids. I find it especially difficult if I don’t know the parents (I hate the park for this reason).

    Much love,


    • Janelle, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I hope it’s ok that I don’t respond fully because you are hitting on so much of what I need/want to say in a followup post I have in the works. I am grateful that you are thinking about these things and willing to discuss the ideas. Just having the intention of conscious modeling makes a huge difference. It is also hard to live this way in places like the park. That’s why the child-led playgroup is important to me. I want to be around others who can help me work on this.

      So, let me add your input to my thoughts and writing. I hope we can continue this discussion at that point as well.

      p.s. Missing you and Ami. I would love to see that girl in action! BIG HUG


  2. Schools teach respect to children but only their parents have the most influence on their own children. If the child does not show respect in his own house, it is highly unlikely he will show it anywhere else.

    You may want to read my recent published article on Teach Children The Importance Of Self Respect And Respect For Others.

    Very Involved Parents


    • Thanks for reading and commenting, VIP. I saw your article, but will read it more fully when I get a chance.

      I admit in this post I kind of strayed from the respect focus and dove into the “how we teach them is what we teach them” part. Another friend brought up the idea “What is respect,” so I may just find myself writing a post about respect one of these days…..


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