Hands off my son!

What is most essential is building Ya'ir's confidence and including him in the problem-solving process.

bully 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bully 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I came home one Tuesday from staying late at work in Adultsville, serene, my ears ringing merely from the incessant digging outside our Romema offices and not from our three mini-musketeers. I was greeted by my husband, who filled me in while his mother gave the trio a bath. "A kid at Ya'ir's preschool bit him deeply on his chin," he said. "And other bigger kids drew on his shirt and painted his hair." My poor sweet flower! How could anyone pick on my wide-eyed innocent? "So I told him that if they come near him again, he needs to push them down and then go tell the teacher," my sabra husband added nonchalantly. What! Fight violence with violence?! That goes against everything I learned, from elementary school in Canada through high school in the States. How could he say that? Later that evening I saw Ya'ir pushing two-year-old Kinneret because she was waving a scarf at him. I stormed about and said under no terms was I ready for my son to push, whether at home or at preschool. And my husband and I agreed to disagree. I brought it to council at a Friday night dinner where both my husband's siblings were in attendance. "Of course!" scoffed my husband's twin, in rare agreement with his brother. "We've always taught Yo'av to hit back." Surprisingly, their mother agreed. "We raised our kids not to retaliate and they really suffered for it. To survive here in Israel you have to know how to hit back." Feeling torn about what is the best for Ya'ir, I turned to Beersheba-based child psychiatrist Dr. Alan Flashman. When I queried the idea of fighting violence with violence, Flashman chuckled and said, "Right, for the readers of The Jerusalem Post that is a question. The readers of Ma'ariv, on the other hand, would find it a funny American thing." The veteran American immigrant did not in any way belittle my concerns but explained, "Of course it is better to move people, including children, to becoming free of violence. The question that comes up, however, is whether it is possible for children to be the change element in their culture. In a society that is not committed to non-violence, not every child can be an agent of change. And when a child feels insecure and he's having violence done to him, he's not going to be able to change the world." As with every conversation with Flashman, I had the feeling of doors opening in my mind. Poor Ya'ir, I'd unknowingly been doubly burdening him with being picked on and taking it like a polite American man - lying down. FROM MY conversation with the good doctor, what is most essential is building Ya'ir's confidence and including him in the problem-solving process. "At age of four," says Flashman, "Ya'ir can know there's a problem and that it can be solved by taking a series of steps. It's not good to give a one-shot solution. If it doesn't work, he should be able to try another." Flashman suggests role playing at home, and as always, with humor. He could have pushing practice with his father, or instead of pushing, why not have Ya'ir roar like a lion or practice a karate chop to frighten away the big kids? "Violence happens when there's no thinking. Make violence manageable by managing it." Whatever the method, we can't just tell Ya'ir to perform; we must practice with him, build his confidence and make it come naturally. However, if he's really frightened and his instinct is to run away, he should also know where to go. And a third option is for him to stay closer to the adults for a while. As Flashman diplomatically puts my disagreement with my husband, "It's not so much a conflict between two sides of a family, rather finding what is suitable for the child." UNFORTUNATELY YA'IR is an easy target for bullies as he often copes by throwing up his hands and crying. "If the only thing he can do is cry, if he gets paralyzed, then they keep drawing on him and his experience may become traumatic." Flashman suggests play-acting creating different cries. "When the automatic response - crying - happens, he can do other stuff with it: stamping on the floor; screaming a word; growling; putting out his hands... If he eventually says, 'Why do I have to cry? Why not just put out my hands?' you know he's growing." Children are very suggestible, he says. Take their response and shape it from helpless trauma into something proactive. "Ask Ya'ir, 'Well you're crying. Is that the right kind of crying you want? Is it a strong cry? Let's create a good strong cry.' And Ya'ir will feel better and grow better." CONCURRENTLY WITH Ya'ir's assertion training (he's been following his father's directive and proudly telling us he's pushing kids who've tried to mess with him), his father and I must participate in the adult part of Ya'ir's problem and speak with the preschool teachers. "Being drawn on is humiliating, and it shouldn't be happening. It is an adult failure," says Flashman. In this case, a failure of the relatively inexperienced babysitters in the after-school program housed in Ya'ir's municipality preschool. Now here my instincts (and my mother-in-law's advice) were apparently sound: While Ya'ir was present I spoke with the very experienced and effective morning preschool teacher and later with the afternoon babysitter. "He needs to understand there's a partnership," says Flashman. "It gives Ya'ir a sense of confidence and it's important for kids to see adults looking for answers as well." Together we need to create a situation in which he cannot be bullied, which is good for all those involved, even the bullies themselves. It's a plan that should have many pieces, says Flashman, and should be built step-by-step. He suggests talking to the older children (and maybe their parents), and creating a dramatic mini-summit in which the kids are an integral part in working out how can we make this behavior stop happening. (He warns, however, that if the big kids get disciplined, they'll punish Ya'ir, so we need to also make them feel more secure.) "It's a puzzle of five or six pieces - not black or white - and the kids should participate," he says. "A child needs to be told there is a solution and that we're all going to put it together." Returning to my innate uneasiness with violence, he says, "You may ultimately want to put the puzzle together with no violence, or less violence. But Ya'ir's first step may have to include recognizing and coming to terms with his own arms and hostility." Then over time Ya'ir can make a choice: he will realize he can push back and may choose not to. "Keep a strong hand on where you want it to go," says Flashman. "But there's a difference between where you want to go and how to get there." The writer is the mother of two-year-old twins and a four-year-old. [email protected]