Preventing Bullying: When Does It Start?

Filed under: Back to School


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"Mommy!" My 5-year-old tugged at my sleeve. "Are those 'The Bullies!?'" He motioned toward a group of teens in front of the high school.

"Those are just teenagers," I said. "What makes you think they are bullies?"

"We learned about it in school," he replied.

I remembered the school had just held an "anti-bullying assembly." It seemed unremarkable at the time, but I found myself wondering whether it really made sense to teach 5-year-olds about bullying. Like most parents I'd like to do what I can to prevent it, but when does it start?

My son now understood bullies as something akin to the boogie man -- if the boogie man looked like a teenager and hung around in groups on street corners. He also wanted to shoot them. Clearly, this was not the intention of the assembly. But what should I say to him?

Thinking back, I had my first discussion about bullying when I was around the same age. We didn't call it that. My mother and I were just talking about a girl at school.

"She's always copying me!" I complained. "And she picks her nose at nap time and she eats glue."

"What's her name?" my mother asked.


"Can you think of any reason why Cindy would want to copy you?"

"Because she's a creep?" I ventured.

"Maybe she's jealous of you?"

"Jealous? Of me?"

"Does she have many friends?"


"Maybe she's lonely?"

I hadn't thought of this.

"I bet she cries herself to sleep."

I pictured Cindy crying herself to sleep. I felt terrible.

I'd like to say that as a result Cindy and I became BFFs. We didn't, but I was more kind to Cindy after that, and I played with her when other kids wouldn't. Looking back, the best thing about my mother's little intervention it was that it was perfectly pitched for a 5-year-old.

That little bit of empathy went a long way. I never forgot it and over the years I stuck up for and befriend many Cindys. When I moved in high school and found myself on the receiving end of the local bullies, it helped me to emerge from that difficult time stronger and more confident than ever. My bullies, I thought, probably cried themselves to sleep.

Flash-forward to the playground. My son exclaims, "Ben is so stupid! He says he has a Lego Pokemon, but they don't even exist!"

"Why do you think he'd say that?" I ask.

"I don't know!"

"Maybe he knows you like Lego and Pokemon and he's trying to make friends?"

"But that's just dumb!"

"Maybe he needs someone to teach him about this stuff. Remember how sad you were last summer before you made friends at camp?"


"Maybe you could show him your Pokemon game? "

"I guess..."

Childhood is filled with unpleasant encounters and sometimes they get out of hand and become bullying. It's not always easy to for adults to know when the line is crossed, let alone kids. At a very basic level, though, teaching even young children to put themselves in someone else's shoes is an excellent place to start.

Nancy McDermott is a freelance writer and mom of two boys. She blogs at The Parenting Mystique.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.