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Thursday, August 9, 2012

I won't give up on you: connecting with a 'bully'

The little girl is crying as she runs to me.

"Luke tried to pull down my pants!"

Luke has been in strife all morning. He's been punching, he's been pushing, he's been jumping out from behind the fort and making the little kids cry. It's pretty normal behaviour from Luke.

Every playground is a small
His peers are fed up with him. Nobody wants to play with him. The teachers are fed up with him too, and this pulling down pants- well, we're all shocked by that. It's the last straw.

I give the little girl a cuddle, tell her Luke did the wrong thing, settle her ruffled feathers. Tell her I Will Deal With Him. She goes back to play quite contentedly, now the rules are being adhered to.

I walk nonchalantly over to the soft fall, where Luke is racing around at top speed, and as he climbs the stairs of the slide I catch him up in my arms. It's the only way to get his attention when he's in this mood- sneak up and catch him. If I tell him to come to me, he'll run away. He knows he's in trouble. And he's the fastest runner in the school- if he doesn't want to be spoken to, he'll keep out of reach till some other crisis catches my attention and the moment passes.

Of course he struggles and shouts as I carry him over to the quiet area, where we can sit down. "Put me down! You're hurting my gizzards!" he yells, but I've been caught by that one before and watched him dance off laughing as I've let him go, fearful lest I be accused of rough handling.

Not this time. I know my hold isn't painful, I know I'm not being rough, though he's a well-grown, muscular boy and awkward to carry. I make it to the bench, sit down with him on my lap.

"I WANNA PLAY!" he shouts. "LET ME GO!"

His voice is loud in my ear, but he's not struggling. My hold around his waist is firm, but my hands are gentle.


"We need to sit here till you can stop talking with your hands," I say quietly. "It's okay to feel angry. But you need to say it with your mouth, not your hands. It's not okay to hit, and it's really, really not okay to pull the girls' pants down."

I stroke his arm silently till he stops yelling and relaxes a little, resigned to being kept here for the moment. I unfold his clenched fist and run it softly over the back of my hand.

"I need you to use gentle hands, like this," I say.

And I use my gentle hands to stroke his back as I hold him, trying to speak the message without any more words. He gets words thrown at him all day by the adults. He deflects words easily, staring boldly into your eyes while he goes right ahead doing the wrong thing.

But when I talk to him through my gentle hands, Luke starts to cry. Not angry tears, but great big heartbroken sobs. As he sits there shuddering on my lap, it's as though he shrinks back into his real size, his real age; he's not some monster, some oversized schoolyard bully towering over his peers. He's a vulnerable four-year-old child, confused and not understanding how to fit into his world.

I'm constantly surprised by the children's real size; I see them on the street, in their parents' company, and I do a double-take at their smallness. I watch them all day as they go to and fro within their little society of equals, the adults standing like pillars on the perimeters of their world, and I forget that they're tiny. I think we all do. Watching their microcosm at work, it's easy to forget the scale of things down there and use our adult labels on them. Lazy. Bully. Violent. Shy. 

When really, there's just one label that's useful: learning.

Luke is having trouble with his lessons- not the academic lessons, oh no; he's good at those. But the social lessons are way beyond him. I suspect that I know why; I suspect that what he sees at school and what he has modelled to him at home are so different that he can't reconcile it into right and wrong. His code is all over the place.

And that's not his fault, and I won't blame him for it.

I've seen Luke shamed before his peers, for repeating words that are part of every second sentence in his home. I've seen him shouted at and put in time out, for doing what's fully acceptable at home. Words, words, words. Anger trying to put out anger.

Oh, I'm not saying it's easy, dealing with a kid like Luke- it's not. The other children have to be protected. We have to be careful what he teaches them from his own unsavoury learning. But I will not give up on him; I will not make him feel worse about himself for failing to fit in to this little society.

Too often adults do give up on children like Luke. I know that my gentleness will be dissolved by the realities of the rest of Luke's daily life, and he'll come back tomorrow hitting, and pushing, and probably still trying to pull the girls' pants down. For many adults, looking at other people's children, that's enough to make their patience expire. It can seem hopeless.

So they'll label kids like Luke with adult terms, because it's easier to talk in black and white and give up on him than it is to deal with grey. They'll blame him, and they'll try to shame him; they'll look at his background and say "There's nothing I can do". Maybe one day they'll exclude him completely, so he ends up shuffled from one little society to another, fitting in nowhere, learning to feel content with standing out as the bad boy.

I've seen children like Luke expelled. Repeatedly. From preschool.

But Luke stands half a chance here. I'm not the only one who meets anger with gentleness. I'm not the only one who refuses to give up on him. And so I can sit here, stroking his back while he sobs, trying to connect, trying to explain how this world works.

Some other children come over and ask what's the matter with Luke. He's been crying a long time.

"He's feeling some really big feelings," I say, "and he's sitting here with me till he can use his words to talk about it instead of saying it with his hands."

They accept that readily. Some even smile at Luke in a friendly way; perhaps it helps them connect if they understand what makes him do it, too.

After a while, I say to him "Are you ready to go and play yet?"

He shakes his head violently, and I realise that now he's soaking up the gentleness, enjoying sitting on my lap- maybe even feeling safe there.

"Don't you want to play with Mitch?" I ask, naming a boy he seems to hang with quite a lot, and he shakes his head again.

I go through the names of all the other kids I've seen him playing near. He shakes his head each time.

I realise he doesn't feel connected to any of them. Not at all. It makes me infinitely sad, and more determined to connect with him myself.

"You don't have to like the other kids," I say. "That's okay. But you can't hit them or pull down their pants."

He's still crying. That's okay. I don't try to stop him. He doesn't want to play, he just wants to sit here.

So we do.

"You could play by yourself if you want. I was watching you on the playground yesterday. You can pull yourself all the way to the top of the fireman's pole. You're very strong. Or I could get you a football- I know you're really good at kicking the ball."

Luke stops crying around then, when I start telling him some good things about himself. But he won't leave my lap, this big strong hunk of active boyhood. We sit there for half an hour and he never even wriggles.

When it's time to go inside, I carry him on my hip, sit down for circle time with him still on my lap. Right now, he seems to want to be little. He is little, though he's the biggest kid in the room.

We're playing a colour matching game today.

"You can do this," I say to him. "You're good at colours."

And he's off. He's the first to name the colours, he jumps up and is the first to find the right colour in the room. And he doesn't punch or push or pull down pants for the rest of the day- not once.

It won't last, of course; I know that from experience. But I wonder what would happen if Luke had a daily dose of gentleness when he arrived, if he was swept up into an adult's arms for a cuddle and some quiet words to help him move from one world into another. If he was reminded every day of his strengths, reminded to speak with his mouth not his hands, reminded that it's okay to cry and seek a kindly adult when feelings overcome him.

Later in the day I catch his eye, and he holds up his arms to me for a hug. It's so unlike him that I almost burst into tears.

Love is the answer, even if the answer only lasts for a day. I won't give up on you, Luke.


  1. Thanks. I pledge that I won't give up on Luke either!

  2. Such a nice post. I think you should also encourage other people to do the same thing to him in future, otherwise he will only listen to you and will behave good for your sake. My brother was those naughty kids, and when my mother started giving him all this quiet time and attention with gentleness. Still to this date he's one person in her presence and completly opposite behind her. He only obeys her and don't give a damn to anyone else......

    1. You're absolutely right, Akshaya. I am going to put that idea to the director of the service as she is another person who works with gentleness.

  3. Oh my gosh, you bought tears to my eyes, that is brilliant!!!

  4. I am always constantly caught out by how small the children look out of school too!

  5. Gentleness and love...

    just two words that can create wonder

    thank you very much

  6. Thank you. That was just beautiful and it is why I am becoming a teacher. I have a capacity to love others and I will love the children I teach and never give up on them despite others doing so. Thank you for reaffirming why I have chosen this vocation.

    1. Well, that comment warmed my heart. Good for you, Marie.

  7. Annie, you just made the world a better place. Pure & simple.

  8. I've heard people talk about the Luke's of the world in the most horrible way, as if they are only problems to manage, rather than little people who need to be loved. I love your technique of calmly stroking him, thank goodness there are teachers like you.

    1. Yes, so have I, Kirsty. It's easy for people to write the Lukes of this world off as a bad job, and to be scathing about people who handle situations like this with love instead of hard words and 'discipline'. I guess some would call me a soft touch or a bleeding heart. I'll take it, because it's water off a duck's back once you've seen how well love works compared to anger and rejection.

  9. Oh Aunt Annie, I have tears in my eyes....
    That's such a touching narrative. Anyone who is unmoved after reading it is probably not human. I see so many kids in the playground, at a mall, who could easily be branded "bully", "nightmare" and I always wonder when the parents/caregivers are going to see the damage they are doing the child by not seeing him for who he is- a child.

    1. Exactly, Anon. It's so important to see children AS children, not as little adults.

  10. I so needed this today. I have a set of twins at my centre (twins! Double the challenge!) that are so aggressive and violent that the smaller children begin to cry when they arrive in the mornings. Yesterday, I was at my breaking point - I felt like a terrible teacher that I couldn't protect the others, and was in the yelling stage. It made me angry, what they were doing! In my mind, I had branded these boys bullies. I need to, every day, remember that they are still children, and treat them as such.

    Thank you.

    1. Ah, twins- I had that problem once, before I had a clue how to deal with it. I feel for you. Good luck with them.


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