Loving the Bully

It was early on a Saturday morning. I was facing a long day alone with the children, and they were squabbling already. Just the thought of what our day could be like made me tired. The older one grabbed a toy away from his brother, claiming ownership. The younger one started to complain loudly, knowing that grabbing out of another person's hands is frowned upon in our family. I restored the toy, and hoped for some peace and quiet while I finished my breakfast. My older son could be wonderfully thoughtful, kind and generous in social situations with his peers, and I was counting on those qualities to come through. This time they didn't. He snatched again and his brother burst into tears.

I knew I had to do something. I also knew that the obvious response--demanding different behavior of my firstborn--might produce momentary relief, but was not going to make my day, his, or his brother's go better. Something was going on for him that couldn't be handled by appeals to his best thinking. I could have sent the conflict underground by coercion--which I've done many times before, in that tone of tired irritation that I'm sure most parents know well. But the prospect of having whatever-it-was pop back up in different forms all day long felt even more exhausting than my current tiredness. So I reached for the energy to try something different.

Restoring the toy--an eagle--to my youngest, I picked his big brother up--to physically keep him from getting it back--and moved the whole family to the play room, where a carpet and soft chair always make a conflict look easier to handle. Holding him in my arms in the chair, I was trying not to communicate too much annoyance, and he must have picked up my willingness to look for a genuinely good solution. He started playing a "sneak out of my arms" game, which we'd played before. I feigned inattention and let him sneak, but always grabbed him back before he could get to his brother. After a few minutes of laughing/wrestling/gymnastics/keep-away, he lost all interest in the toy eagle. His brother played with it in delight and total absorption for a few more minutes, then decided that our game looked like even more fun.

He dropped the eagle and demanded to have a turn. I tried to accommodate them both (not too successfully)--and when they ended up squabbling over me, I turned it into a general wrestling session, until their tone with each other indicated that good relations had been restored. They moved easily into some other activity and I went back to the kitchen to finish breakfast and the dishes.

It wasn't a perfect day from then on,. We had other fights, in other combinations. But I wasn't inwardly seething--or outwardly erupting--the whole time, and the success of that intervention stayed with me. Rather than doing the obvious--comforting the hurt child and scolding the bully--I had tried a different way. I directed my love and attention to the bully, knowing that something hard must have been going on for him to make him act that way. I used my adult power to keep him from further abusing his brother. (It can't be good for anybody to be left alone to abuse another human being--and it's certainly not good for the victim.) But rather than judging or condemning, I stayed close and gave him plenty of time to vent whatever it was that weighed on him. And going with that hunch ended up changing the dynamics much more thoroughly than any scolding could possibly have done. We all ended up winners.