Q: Last night, at parent/teacher conferences, my daughter’s teacher told me that my daughter is very bossy and mean to many of the other kids. She said that my daughter, Kayla, controls the “in-crowd” and that the rest of the class would do anything to please her. The Kayla I know isn’t a bully. Help!
A: First of all, kudos to you for seeking help! So many parents hear that their child isn’t perfect and “grieve the loss” of their perfect child by going through the same stages of grief that those grieving an actual loss might go through (albeit on a different level). The most popular stages of grief for a parent who has been told that their child isn’t perfect are denial and anger, with the anger usually being directed at whoever delivered the news—usually a teacher. I’m so glad that you’ve taken this to heart and that you’re seeking advice.
Now, although I’m glad you’ve taken this to heart, I also don’t want you to beat yourself up about it. All kids go through stages and phases, and your daughter acting mean and bossy does not make you a bad mom or make your daughter a “bully”.
When your toddler has a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store, that’s not ok with you. You definitely don’t want her to be tantruming, and you’ll do your best to teach her the proper way to behave. Although she’s likely to tantrum again, despite your best parenting, you’ll continue to set a clear and consistent message about what is and is not acceptable. At the same time, you’ll try to figure out if there are any root causes to the tantrums: Is she tired? Hungry? Overwhelmed?
The same principles apply with older children. We will teach them the proper way to behave, set a clear and consistent message about what is and isn’t acceptable, and try to figure out what could be causing the behavior.
1. TEACH THEM THE PROPER WAY TO BEHAVE
We want our children to be kind, and as Jewish moms, this is something that we assume our children understand innately. After all, they see us welcoming guests, cooking food for the sick and for families that just welcomed a new baby, and showing respect for our elders. With so many mitzvot revolving around kindness, it’s actually pretty shocking that any Jewish children (or adults) could possibly be anything but kind.
Alas, along comes our Yetzer Hara—that voice inside that knows that the best way to get us to mess up is to trick us into being unkind. Along with that, we are humans who (at all ages) might get tired, overwhelmed, or tested in ways that make it difficult to be kind. All of this means that although our children should understand that kindness is of utmost importance, we need to put actual effort into teaching this.
We do this by constantly looking for teachable moments. Rather than just dropping off dinner for a family that just had a baby while our kids are at school, make them part of the dinner delivery team. Explain: “The Sterns just had a baby, and mommies are so tired after having babies that we try to make it easier for them by doing some of the cooking, so that the mommy can rest.” When we invite Shabbos guests that aren’t from our immediate social circle, we can explain that as well. “The Kleins just moved to town, and when we invite them, it helps them feel welcome.” Or, “Malka doesn’t have any family in town, so we invite her and make her feel like we are family to her.” Although we are accustomed to helping without fanfare, “showing off” the kind things we’ve done to our kids makes them aware of what they should be learning from.
The parsha of the week and every Jewish holiday are packed with social and emotional lessons as well. Avraham and Sarah welcomed guests. Rivka showed kindness by giving water to Eliezer and all of his camels. Yosef forgave his brothers, even though we would have understood if he had held a grudge. Although most teachers send these messages in class, YOU are your child’s first and most important teacher, and you can look for opportunities to bring out these lessons in whatever your child is learning and in whatever you are doing.
2. SET A CLEAR AND CONSISTENT MESSAGE ABOUT WHAT IS AND IS NOT ACCEPTABLE
As you watch your children interact with each other or with their friends, DO allow them to play without your constant intervention. However, when the playdate or interaction is over, you can mention things you noticed that were extra kind. “It was so nice that you helped Moshe catch up on the homework he missed while he was absent.” Or, “Did you see the look on Shana’s face when you complimented the Magna-Tile tower she made? It must feel great to make her so happy!”
At the same time, you can comment on behavior that you notice that isn’t acceptable. Unless it feels like an urgent matter, it’s still a good idea to wait until the interaction is over, except with very young children. “Hmm Kayla, I wonder how your friends feel when you make all of the rules and decisions.” Or, “I wonder if Dovid will want to come play here again if you keep taking away everything he tries to play with.”
In Kayla’s case, since you’re not seeing what is going on, you can still have a conversation with her about acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Before you speak to her, have two things in mind:
1. It is possible that the teacher does not have the whole picture; she might only see what Kayla is doing in response to whatever happened out of her earshot. Therefore, when you speak to Kayla, rather than being accusatory, ask her, “What’s going on—I hear that the girls in your class are finding you mean and bossy, and I know that’s just not who you are. Can we talk about this?”
AT THE SAME TIME,
2. Be sure to let her know that regardless of what other kids are saying or doing, you expect her to be kind and inclusive. Try to get her to see how other kids perceive her actions, perhaps reminding her of a time when she was left out, or when someone said something mean to her, and ask her to reflect on how she felt when those things happened.
3. TRY TO FIGURE OUT WHAT IS CAUSING YOUR CHILD TO ACT LIKE A BULLY
In my book, Sara the Bucket Filler, I explain Donald Clifton’s “mashal” of buckets. The basic concept is that we all have an invisible bucket which holds our good feelings about ourselves and about the world. When our bucket is full, we feel happy. When our bucket is empty, we feel bad. People with empty buckets tend to lash out and/or try to make themselves feel better by making others feel bad. Think about it as a mom: When you’re tired, stressed and/or upset, you’re likely to snap at your kids, your husband, or anyone else who crosses your path. When you’re rested, your to-do list is under control, and things are going well, you’re much more likely to be cheerful and energetic.
Any time a kid is mean, especially when you feel that it’s not in their nature to be mean, there is something going on. Don’t call 911, just take a step back and try to figure out what that might be. A teacher or close relative or friend might be able to help you figure this out. Here are some basic questions you can consider. Of course, there could be any number of reasons for her change in behavior:
-Is there a new classmate or other class dynamic that has made Kayla feel as if she needs to fight for her “place” in the class?
-Has school gotten more challenging, causing her stress and/or anxiety?
-Is she under self-imposed (or parent-imposed) pressure to be perfect?
-Is she getting enough sleep?
Having a reason for being mean is not an excuse for being mean. Figuring out what is going on is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You MUST still remind her that being kind and inclusive is non-negotiable. However, if you can pinpoint what is wrong, you can help Kayla get through this stage quickly. Kayla might need a self-esteem boost in the form of extra attention. Perhaps you can help her cultivate a talent or hobby so that she has something unique to feel good about. In certain circumstances, you might consult with a therapist or bring her for some therapy sessions to help her through this. With a mother so quick to get advice, and when you follow the steps listed above, I am confident that Kayla will be back to being herself in no time.
One last point—it sounds like Kayla has incredible leadership capabilities. Please speak to the teacher and/or principal to develop more healthy ways for her to maximize this potential. Great leaders can change the world!