Should I Interfere If My Kid Is Bullied on the Playground?

When our child has an altercation with other kids, it's hard to resist our protective urge to interfere. And often, you shouldn't. But Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says it sometimes helps to turn a mishap into a teaching moment—for everyone involved.

Playground Problems Two kids bully a third
Photo: Playground Problems

-Playground Problems

My son is almost 6-years-old now. One day after school, he was playing with some older kids at the elementary school playground. My son was going up the slide, and there were 2 boys sitting in the middle of the slide. These two boys weren't going up or down, just waiting there for some other friends. My son tried to go around them, but was pushed off the slide, landing on his back, head, and elbows. I picked up my son and yelled at the other kids. "Why would you do that?" I comforted my son. We were lucky he didn't get seriously injured. The other mother was not anywhere to be found, so no one was watching over her kids. How should I tell her about the incident? Should I also inform the school?

I want to complain but am not sure what to do. It could have been a nasty injury, so I don't want to not say anything.

—-Playground Problems

I feel like a broken record with my pleas to parents to back off and let children figure out hard situations, either completely on their own, or with less hands-on steering from us. The big exception to this is when we see a safety concern (physical or emotional, like bullying). Children and accidents go hand in hand, so we will not prevent injuries, but we can do our part to seize teaching moments so at least some accidents won't happen again.

In my work as a psychologist in children's hospitals, I saw first-hand the outcomes from children landing at a specific angle from a fall. Mere centimeters can separate a scary, almost-tragedy from an actual tragedy. If I let the fear part of my brain take over, I would never allow my children to set foot on a playground. Obviously, that would result in a different type of harm, and we can't live in fear of what could happen. But I share this because although your son ended up physically fine, depending on the height of the slide, this type of fall could have seriously injured him, which is why I agree that you should speak up.

It sounds like you want to make sure you speak up in a way that won't be perceived as complaining, which is probably more likely to be dismissed. I offer some tips for communicating in a proactive way coming from the perspective of preventing a future injury, instead of a reactive way of focusing on what could have happened to your child.

The Other Mother

Any time a child even unintentionally places another child in harm's way, it should be addressed as a teaching moment. My guess is that the pusher in your situation impulsively shoved your child without a thought of how it could hurt him, and he needs to be aware of the possible consequences in the same way we teach children to look both ways before crossing the street. A stranger yelling at him may get his attention, but he will learn best from his own parent, so yes, you should approach his mother.

Communicating concerns with other children's parents can be tricky. How well we know them and their personal parenting style can affect how they receive our message. I ask myself, "Would I want to know if my child did that?" In your situation, I would. If you know this mother belongs to these children, it seems like you know her well enough to broach the topic.

Assuming most parents would want to know if their child almost injured another with a risky behavior, you could open with: "I'm telling you this because I would want to know if it had been my son." Clearly, you have no control over how she responds. Instead of imagining the worst response, imagine the best: "I am so glad you told me! I will have a talk with him and I'm so sorry. How's your son?" I consider that the standard, human response! Any other reaction is not about you, and hopefully you can let it go, knowing you did your part.

Complaining or Informing?

A few weeks into my son's kindergarten year, he told me about some older boys who seemed to be targeting him on the playground. My son is not only the youngest in his grade, but also physically small, so one of my worries as he entered elementary school was this very possibility. One of my parenting goals is to not be "that parent" who overreacts and rushes into rescue their perfectly capable child. But I decided this playground harassment warranted adult intervention because of the power and size imbalance. When I let his teacher know, she thanked me and promised there would be eyes on the situation. I never heard about it again, and he has in fact grown into a socially independent and capable second grader, even though he's still small.

At your son's age, he is on the weaker end of the power imbalance, and needs adult support. School cultures seem to focus on safety more than when we were running around on the playground as kids, I'm guessing partially due to liability concerns, but also because of the greater awareness of the importance of students feeling safe at school. Sharing this incident with your school staff could cue them to review playground safety with all students. I do not want to judge these other boys too harshly as this was a split-second poor decision, but if there happens to be a pattern of these children putting others at risk or other bullying-type behaviors that you don't know about, the school might want to be aware in order to keep supervision high.

Even if the school responds that any incident after school is not on their watch, if this same incident happened during school, they could be on the hook. From my perspective, communicating with a school administrator even through email would be an act of informing rather than complaining.

The Bottom Line

As much as we do not want to dwell on what could have been a worse outcome from your child's playground push, bringing it to the attention of the other parent and the school could end up creating more safety for everyone. Fortunately, your son is physically unharmed, which can help you approach these communications calmly as a proactive measure, rather than with blame and judgment. Accidents happen. Children are impulsive. But where we can increase safety, as the adults, we should do our part.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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