Bullies are a part of childhood. They’re, sadly, an integral part of the everyday grownup world. How we learn to deal with the creatures is integral to our life experience.

When my kids were little, we lived in a small city that was fairly homogeneous. Very little crime or threatening circumstances for the families who resided there. There were mean kids, yes, and I suppose, my daughter and son had bully moments I never heard about, but it wasn’t a regular thing. Because if I had heard of such circumstances, that bully would have gone down.  I would have called parents or dealt with the child directly had I seen the crime – anything to protect my beloved offspring from the horrible experience.

That instinct remained intact long after my children became adults. A few years ago, my son and I were walking in his neighborhood to get a cup of coffee. My son is a big guy; 6’3” and in shape.  I always feel extra safe when we’re walking together. This particular day was in the pre-grandchildren days, and I was relishing the one-on-one.

When we approached the coffee shop, a mentally ill young man was nearing us. His clothing haphazard,  he was muttering to himself, and he was clearly disturbed. We gave him a wide berth. As we were about to pass him, he stopped and looked at my son, who, due to the weather, was wearing a stocking cap.  The disturbed fellow began yelling at my son, challenging him, shouting threatening insults and starting to move in my son’s direction. Something had been triggered, and there was no going back.

I, a good six inches shorter than my boy, tried to step in front of him, in between he and the would-be attacker. To, I suppose, take whatever physical assault was coming. It was instinctual and stupid, but a natural maternal reaction, despite the fact that I was nearly seventy and my son a hearty thirty-five.

My son told me to back off and to retreat, which we did, the crazy guy started following us, continuing to yell obscenities and threats. He eventually stopped – no physical altercation, but it was an unpleasant experience.

So, when it comes to bullies, my orientation has always been clear. They’re horrible, and I would and have done anything to protect the people I love from such entities. So, it has been a surprise to me to learn that my stance on bullies has changed since I’ve had grandchildren.

My seven-year-old granddaughter plays daily with her next-door neighbor, who is a year older. During Covid in particular, to have a child so close whose parents are in complete accord with protocols and who are lovely people, has been a godsend to my daughter and her husband. This little girl has an older sister who is very solicitous of my seven-year-old’s younger sister, so it’s been a lucky happenstance since they’ve moved into the house a year ago.

Now, this neighbor girl, let’s call her Zelda, isn’t a bully. But she has a strong personality and can be unkind or impetuous. She’s a good kid – just has those traits as part of the package. Most of the time, my granddaughter – let’s call her Glenda – manages Zelda’s ups and downs. But the day of the fairy garden was a very bad day.

Glenda had spent the entire morning building a ‘fairy garden’ in her yard. She’d devoted hours creating a house, food, and magical environment for her fairy figures, and was enraptured with the result. She’d waited all day for Zelda to come and view her work, hoping the two of them could continue adding to the kingdom.

When Zelda arrived, she wasn’t interested in the fairy garden. She had other play options in mind and refused to participate in Glenda’s plan. When Glenda said she’d rather continue building her fairy garden, Zelda kicked the whole thing apart. Destroyed it. Glenda was devastated.

When I heard the story, I was struck by the thought that, had the scenario happened to my daughter when she was the same age as Glenda, I would have come to her rescue, made it right via the parents or the child herself.  I asked Glenda what she did when Zelda had damaged her garden, and she admitted she went into the house and cried. I felt her disappointment and her little heart breaking. But I didn’t feel the need to come to her rescue, nor would I want my daughter to do so.

At this point in my life, I finally understand that bad experiences aren’t necessarily horrible. Bullies are still unpleasant, and their presence will never advance the growth of human consciousness, but they play an important role in our lives.  Bullies provide growth opportunities and strengthening exercises, offering some real actualization potential. Running away or being protected from their antics is just avoidance and acquiring strategies and coping mechanisms develops important life skills.

Zelda will continue to occasionally behave badly, and Glenda will have to find a way to manage the experience. The more she manages, without her parent’s protection, (or, clearly, that of her Nana), the more she’ll grow and strengthen.

It’s not that she’s any stronger than my daughter was – they are both very tender hearted. I have simply learned that protecting children from certain experiences doesn’t serve them well. Life is, and continues to be, filled with unpleasant challenges. My own mother was constantly fearing for the worst for me in any circumstance, and I grew to be a fearful child who developed into a fearful parent. My daughter is smarter. When mentioned I’d heard of Zelda’s bad behavior, she sighed and said the parents work hard to manage her occasional outbursts. I said,

“This will be a good learning experience for Glenda,” and my daughter agreed. Neither one of us want Glenda or her sister to ever have psychic or emotional pain, but that is part of childhood, and the human experience.

Would I still step between my grown son and a madman? Yes, in a moment of crisis, I’m sure I would. It’s the ‘lift the car to save a life’ instinct. But in the unfolding process of life, bullies are part of who form us, for better or worse. And bullying behavior is filled with teachable moments.  In my granddaughter’s case, my daughter talked Glenda through her feelings and strategies for future conflict. That’s the right and reasonable approach, rather than my former overreaction and overprotection my daughter experienced in her childhood.

It’s just one more lesson I’ve learned from being a grandparent. Not my favorite, but none-the-less, one I have come to value.

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