Every weekday morning, I drive my three-year-old son George to day care. He tends to be sluggish in the morning, so I try to keep him alert by chatting with him. It’s tough to figure out new topics of conversation each day, so we tend to go over the same few subjects — who his friends are, what they’re learning in class — basic toddler topics.
“Who’s your best friend at school, George?” I asked him one day.
“Brady. We play together.”
Then, unprompted, he says, “Tommy pushes me.”
“Does he push everybody?”
His class consists entirely of other three to four-year olds, so I couldn’t imagine any of them could cause any sort of injury to any other kid. And if we were having this same conversation when George was in third grade, or junior high, I might worry more about bullying, and cliques, and popularity. This was about one kid being mean to my kid. I was more than a little annoyed.
No parent wants to raise a bully. We all want to raise good kids. We want our kids to be better versions of us… More forgiving, more even-tempered, more loving. On the other hand, no parent wants to raise a pushover, either. Our base instinct is to teach them to fight back. As a dad, my first reaction was to tell him to match aggression with aggression. I wanted to tell him, “Never push first, but always push last,” or “Don’t start fights, but make sure you’re the last one standing,” or “Make sure you win, and the instigator loses.”
But that’s the kind of philosophy that gets us into trouble, whether we’re 3, 30 or 103 years old:
If you’ve been wronged by someone, make sure you wrong them back, and hard. After all, they started it.
Down that path lies everything from cyber-bullying to road rage to school shootings. Violence doesn’t spring from nowhere, but it can arise from the feeling of anger and helplessness at some real or perceived slight. Sometimes it’s easy to just let it go. Other times, it’s difficult not to want to do some damage to the perpetrator.
“George, if he pushes you again, you tell him that you’re not going to play with him until he apologizes, and stops pushing you. You got it?”
The lessons that George learns at 3 years old, and the choices he makes, will be the lessons he eventually passes down to his little brother, and to his kids, and his grandkids. I’m not under the impression that my son’s interactions with Tommy are going to make Tommy a better friend to others, or that he will always meet aggression with calm. I’m also not going to try to push George to befriend this classmate, or help him learn how to express himself; that’s far too big of a burden to put on a toddler. I just want him to remember to stay calm the next time any of his classmates are in the mood to start shoving.
At the very least, I hope he doesn’t grow up thinking that it’s okay, or necessary, to strike back.