There are two sides to every mean kid: the sweet child within and the mean behavior they can display. The important thing to remember, whether your kid is the one being mean or receiving the mean, is that there is, indeed, a sweet child within.
I recently found myself addressing both sides, of what is turning out to be, a very duplicitous analysis of mean kids. I have two boys, ages 5 and 6, and aside from their brotherly meanness to one another, they are relatively sweet children.
My little guy started kindergarten last month. The first week of school there was a child who had him in tears multiple times. All he could convey is that this child was “being mean.” When I asked for examples all he would tell me is that child was invading his personal space and not respecting his request to back it up a few inches. Whatever was happening, this child was getting under my son’s skin. Every day there was a new report of meanness.
My two favorite:
He said he wanted to talk about Minecraft.
He hit me, then he did a back handspring and kicked me in the face.
So, this child is not only mean, but also a hardcore Minecraft enthusiast/baby ninja. He actually sounds really cool but somehow it is coming across as mean. Hmmm.
I talked with the teacher who affirmed there were some problems and she and the other child’s teacher were addressing them. Then the stories ceased, as did the mention of this child. Until yesterday when I went to the school for lunch. Easton made sure to point out this child across the lunchroom. “See that boy in the purple shirt over there? That’s the boy who is mean to me.”
I thought for a minute. What to say, what to say? Then it came to me.
You know, Easton, when kids are mean there is usually a reason. Maybe there is something in his life that makes him sad on the inside and he shows it on the outside. Or maybe no one has ever shown him how to be nice. Maybe he is trying really hard to be nice and make friends but he doesn’t know how. So if he is mean to you again, why don’t you say “If you want to be my friend, you need to be nice. If you talk nice to me and give me my space I can play with you.”
He thought for a minute and said, “No. I don’t want to do that. He’s not sad on the inside, he’s just mean.”
Then there is my first grader, who I caught being mean to another child.
Hell to the hell no!
He was saying rude things to this child and trying to leave him out -total power play. For whatever reason, my son thought he had some rank over this other child and was flexing some (unattractive) control muscles. I pulled him aside and we got to the bottom of it: he didn’t like this child, on that day. Such is friendship. Some days you love your friend and other days you need a break. But never is that an excuse for meanness. After talking, he understood that you can’t be mean to someone, even if you don’t want to play with them.
Young children are doing the best they can to make sense of their world. At 5 and 6, my kids are working off the example my husband and I set, their own instincts and social cues from their peers. They try to do their best with what they are given. I venture to guess that every person has a “mean kid” story to share. We have all been the target of a mean kid or two and we were mean to some other poor kid at one time as well. Every parent has a story of a kid who was mean to their child. It seems to be a part of growing up. But does it have to be?
I know children will experiment with boundaries and see how far they can go with adults as well as their friends, but I am learning more and more that the conversations on kindness and compassion are crucial. My kids already talk about bullies. They see bullies as mean ole monsters who could hurt them or their friends. While this may be true, this bully is also a child who is hurting and crying for help.
New PSA campaign: Compassion for Bullies. It could work! In all seriousness, what if we taught our children not only to “stand up to bullying” but to separate the individual from the act, and see the person with eyes of compassion. Maybe that kid needs someone to sit with at lunch, maybe they just need a friend. Instead of knocking them down a peg with shame and labels, we elevate them with love and kindness.
When I see my child being mean, I never imagine it going to a level I would consider bullying. But how do I know? I can’t be certain. Those few mean words he says time and again to the same child will start to leave residue on that child’s heart, and over time he plays a part in the stain that residue leaves.
Compassion and kindness.
Over and over.
Talking about compassion. Practicing kindness. Humanizing these issues for our children. Giving them the tools they need to be a better citizen of this world. To start changing the way they regard themselves and they way they treat others.
When someone is mean to my child, I take it personal. That is my knee-jerk reaction. I want to point my finger and call that kid a meanie head diaper face. (That’s the G rated version.) But I try to see them through the eyes I see my own children when they are mean: sweet on the inside. Maybe struggling that day. Maybe simply overtired.
Let’s start the conversation about how to respond to meanness in ways that will encourage and change the behavior. Let’s mend their little hearts and teach them how to be kind.