A New York Times blog post by Lisa Belkin, “A Bully at Age 4?” raises the question, “How young is too young to be a bully?” A comment from a parent described a big 4-year old child hitting other 4-year old kids at school, not allowing other kids to play if he didn’t feel like it, biting another kid so severely through a thick jumper that bad marks were left, and punching another child in front of a teacher. The teacher asked the bully to apologize but the bully refused. The teacher did nothing further.
The parent wanted to know if the 4-year old was old enough to intend to hurt his victims and if he was a “bully?” Since the school wasn’t taking this seriously, the parent wondered if she was overreacting or if she should do something to protect her child?
In trying to define bullying and in thinking she shouldn’t act if the aggressor hadn’t intended to hurt his targets, I think the parent is taking the wrong approach.
Instead, she should begin by asking what she wants for her child. Do you want your child hit, bitten, cut out of games, punched? Don’t intellectualize about it. Don’t give excuses for the bully (For example: "He’s too young to understand the pain he’s causing").
If you want your child repeatedly abused, if you want to leave your child in the hands of teachers and administrators who won’t protect your child when he’s harassed or attacked by someone bigger turn your back and leave your child to the predators.
On the other hand, if you don’t want your child brutalized, maybe a little outrage would serve you well. Would you allow your children to do that to each other? If you want your child to be treated with civility and kindness, then you must act with courage and strength. Don’t wait to act until you’re absolutely positive that a kid’s behavior has risen into some mental category you can label “bully.”
If your child is too small to fight back, you have to protect him. Get the parents of other targeted kids to go en masse to the school principal and teachers. Hold them accountable to stop bullies like that abusive 4-year old. Apologies are never enough, but there are many options for meaningful and effective consequences: He can be given an all-day time out, he can be socialized while he's kept away from his targets, his parents can be held accountable for his behavior, and he can probably be kicked out of school if he won’t change his behavior.
If the school administrators are reluctant to protect the children in their care, you might explain what a little publicity can do. For example; would they like a national story on their school, “School Condones Bullying Despite Parents’ Protest”? Or simply move your child to a different school in which the responsible adults care about his emotional health and physical safety.
As an aside, in my experience, 4-year olds know if they can get what they want by brutalizing or abusing another kid. If their bullying isn’t stopped when they’re children, they’ll grow up to be adult bullies; in love and at work. But intention to hurt is not the issue. You can stop the bullying even before a child understands all the ramifications of that behavior. The child’s understanding of the consequences that will happen to him can be enough to stop the behavior.
Also of course, your 4-year old is finding out whether he can count on you to keep him safe and healthy or if you won’t protect him. If you justify or excuse the bully’s actions, you’ll be ruining your child’s self-confidence and self-esteem. All your life, you’ll live with the consequences of your actions and his decision about you.