Did I Just Make My Son A Bully?
Yesterday we attended a family party, and by family party I mean a giant gathering of what has to be the largest family on the Eastern Coast. I have 56 (first) cousins, that's without adding in spouses or children. It's generally a fun time, for the most part, but I'm running into an issue with Happyboy.
Happyboy is a gentle creature. He also happens to be a crossdresser. Early in his elementary years we had decided that we should invest in some martial arts lessons so that he could defend himself if need be when he's older. I would feel badly about thinking that way, but I have seen the realities of the crossdresser/transgender life, and the realities of the dangers facing them as they approach adulthood. I should qualify here, that when I say Happyboy is a crossdresser, what I mean is, he likes to wear "girls'" pants and shirts, as opposed to what are traditionally considered boys' clothes.
His martial arts instructor, after his first belt test, told me that his biggest challenge is actually hitting someone. The technique is there, he knows how to defend himself. But he completely steers away from actually harming another person. I watched this over two years, and finally decided that he had learned enough to defend himself, and hopefully if he was ever really attacked instinct would kick in. But it usually doesn't. I know this because over the years we have attended family functions, where the boys in my family are typical, testosterone-driven, rough-housing boys. They don't play the way we do in our house. As a teacher, we didn't generally have toy guns in my house, or projectile-throwing toys, or even slingshots or bows and arrows. A few years ago we loosened the reins on those restrictions because we saw how out of his depth Happyboy was when in a group of boys.
But he still isn't a rough-houser. He doesn't like to hurt other people, at all, so imagine my surprise when Coffeeguy had to remove him from the pool because he was pummeling another child on the back. Happyboy was crying, but trying so hard to keep it in, so I pulled him aside, away from the press of people, the crowded area that came from having such a huge family. We sat on the swing and I asked him what had happened. He bit back tears, and said "they always hurt me. They say mean things to me, call me weird, and then B punched me over and over under the water where no one could see. But I am the one who gets in trouble. I am the one!! They were even mean to me and called me weird at my own birthday party!" (It is now August...and his birthday party was in April.)
Happyboy sometimes exaggerates..sometimes he has more drama than trauma, and sometimes he brings up things from 6 months ago that you now can't do anything about. But he was clearly feeling pressured and upset--and not about "getting caught", which is sometimes the case. Clearly I hadn't been paying enough attention to the goings-on between the kids, and I felt awful. I also knew from past experience that addressing the issue with the parents would result in exactly nothing. One cousin had actually responded at one party to Punkgirl (who was coming to tell her that she was concerned because the child was playing alone in the busy parking lot) "I hope you're not coming to tell me that B did something wrong? Because I don't want to hear it, you guys can work it out." Now, I am all for kids working things out, but when your child has a habit of pummeling other kids, maybe you ought to listen first and then decide if intervention is needed.
So I watched for a few minutes. In the span of five, A, another child Happyboy's age, had engaged in rough-housing with C. They were going back and forth, even though A is much older. C fought back, and at first I simply watched, because their parents were there and because at first it was just rough-housing in the bouncy house with no one else in there. But eventually A began to choke C. Choke him, and pummel him, and C was saying "I can't breathe!" I jumped up, ran over, and said authoritatively, "Get off him, now! He can't breathe!" A looked startled, and jumped off, and ran to the other side of the bouncy (presumably to get away from me.) I took the sobbing C to his Mommy, who said "Well, I told him not to rough-house." As I looked at her eyes, I realized we were both guilty of not wanting to start "family drama." Nobody does drama like a big Italian/Irish family, where large groups are known to not speak to one another because you looked sideways at Johnny's mother for not asking him not to spit at the table. I headed back to Happyboy, and I thought hard about it. It was A's house. And I remembered I had noticed that when Happyboy had first gotten into the pool, A had handed him a pool noodle and said "we're getting B with these." I had thought they were playing a game. Happyboy told me that B had been pummeling him under the water to get the water gun he (Happyboy) had to give it to A. I realized A had set up a situation. He had stood back like a little Machiavelli and let them be angry with each other, while he sought out smaller prey to attack.