Making Ourselves the Target

Boss gives worker a hard time; worker comes home and berates wife; wife yells at older child, who hits younger child, who beats on dog. Many of us understand intuitively that we only do unto others what has already been done to us. We do our best to pass on as little of the abuse we receive as we can.

A four year old comes into the playroom and starts up a rhythmic chant: "Stephanie (a younger playmate) is ba-ad, Stephanie is ba-ad." Two others take up the chant. It looks as if it could spread further--and I'm the only adult in the room. I know that I could assert my adult authority to make them stop--for now. I could threaten or scare them into not saying those things in my presence. I could try to shame them by talking about how unkind they were being. But clearly this isn't the first time they've tried out targeting Stephanie. By making it that much more illicit, exciting and dangerous, I'm pretty sure it will pop back up again, sometime when I'm not there. And I don't want Stephanie exposed to it at all.

So I try a totally different tactic: "I'm sure glad nobody's saying that I'm bad. They'd really be in trouble then." All at once, a much more dangerous, illicit and exciting opportunity has been opened up. One of them girds up his courage and tries it. I promptly play my ogre role, grabbing him and dumping on the sofa (a nice soft one). He laughs and laughs. "I hope that helps you remember how good I am." The other two jump in eagerly, calling me bad and getting dumped on the sofa--then two others who had been watching, then Stephanie, who has just come into the room. For ten minutes the room is full of cries of "Pamela is ba-ad," lots of laughter and little bodies falling on the sofa one after another. I can't move fast enough to satisfy them all.

They're getting a chance to unload all that abuse, but on someone who's higher up the ladder and would normally not be available as a target. But I've thoughtfully invited it on myself, and by being very clear that I don't believe a word of it and know they don't really believe it either, I'm neither a victim nor a perpetrator, and can be the end point for that abuse. They get it out of their systems without hurting anybody, and I don't dump it on anyone else.

After the excitement of the activity had died down, I found myself alone with Stephanie and got an unexpected bonus. Offering me a stuffed animal, she announced that it was calling me bad. I threw it on the sofa a few times as I had done with the children. Then, following her lead (the details of which have escaped me) I took the animal in my arms and said how sorry I was that it was feeling bad, that I knew it would never say things like that if something hadn't happened to hurt it, but I knew what it was saying wasn't true, and I loved it very much. Stephanie was listening very closely and I was delighted to get such an invitation to talk about what makes people hurt other people. Maybe it gave her some protection from the chain of abuse that can pass so easily from adult to child and from child to child. Maybe it even gave her some perspective to help break that chain.