Help Inoculate Kids Against Meanness

Veruca Salt

I'm working on a chapter about addressing scary religious concepts  with kids — Satan, hell, the 10 plagues, that weird thing Abraham almost did to his son that one time. Basically all the rather menacing stories aimed at making people "be good." Luckily, more and more religious families are viewing these stories as myths and metaphor — which removes their power considerably — but there are still many, many families (and places of worship) who teach these things as history and truth.

Unfortunately, when these concepts come up on the playground, they can lead to awkwardness, confusion, arguments, even bullying.

Anyway, the whole thing made me  want to share with you guys something my daughter and I used to do together. She was 4 and about to enter preschool — a whole new world where I wouldn't always be able to offer my protection. I told her that sometimes kids say and do mean things, and that at some point a kid might say or do something mean to her. (I don't think I used the term "bully" — I think that was a word the schools introduced later.)

Mean

We talked about all the ways kids hurt her feelings. Then I helped her come up with ways to handle these types of situations, and we role played some of them.

Maxine used to love to do this. I'd say things like, "Your hair is too curly" or "I hate your dress" or "I don't want to play with you." After each of these remarks, she would summon the attitude of a snotty teenager, look me dead in the eye and say "I don't care." Then she'd turn around and walk away with a swagger. She loved it.

After a while, we'd reverse roles, and she'd lob insults at me. She loved that even more.

The whole thing was very fun and funny. But it was also really effective. She felt prepared, and I felt confident she could handle herself on the playground.

Now that Maxine is 7, she still considers this her fallback strategy. When her cousin, Jack, was 3 and having some anxiety about entering preschool himself, Maxine didn't hesitate before offering up her own advice.

"If someone is mean to you," she told Jack, " just say, 'I don't care!' and walk away."