"Mommy, she took away my toy!"
"Mommy, she's being mean!"
"Mommy she pushed me."
All common complaints from children whenever they are playing with their peers. But what is the right response? Do we rush to our child's aid and discipline the other child in front of their mother? Do we console our child and say, "Not everyone is as nice as you." Or do we brush it off and tell our overly-senstive child (after all no other children are running up and complaining) to work it out herself.
I've done all of the above.
None of them work out the way I want them to.
We have a long history of my daughter getting picked on by one of her friends. It's been going on now for 8 years. Now that I look back, I can't believe I let it continue for so long but to complicate matters, her mother was my best friend. When friendship between mothers is involved it is very difficult to walk away from an abusive relationship. My optimistic attitude told me that her daughter would eventually outgrow this behavior and that they would be great friends for life. I also thought letting my friend know when something particularly horrible happened that she would discipline her daughter and her daughter would learn from her mistakes and it wouldn't happen again. And I grasped onto the good moments and let them outweigh the bad.
I was so wrong on all counts.
They began playing together at the age of 2. I'll call the friend Charity (for this was the "mean" girl in my class growing up) and my daughter is Emma. We met at a library playgroup and Charity's mom - I'll call her Patty - and I hit it off instantly. I was fairly new to town and hadn't made many mom friends. She had lived in the area her whole life, but had also recently moved to our town. She told me later that she sought me out from that playgroup because I seemed "normal."
We began chatting on the phone, making plans for our girls to meet up for a playdate. The first playdate I was alone in the room with them while Patty was out making a phone call. Charity and Emma were standing at a playtable with a doll house in front of them. At this age, we all know that the play is parallel. They don't actually play together as much as they play next to each other. Emma was peacefully playing with a couple of the dolls in the dollhouse, cooing to them and talking quietly. Charity wasn't playing at all. She was standing and watching Emma play. Suddenly she reached out and grabbed one of the dolls from Emma's hand and held on tight to it. She looked at me then looked at Emma and waited.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAA" came the scream from Emma.
From me: "Charity, she was playing with that. You need to give it back."
Still staring she went to the other side of the room with it. Her mother returns to the room to see Emma in tears. Now Charity begins to play with the doll she took.
Since this was our first playdate and I didn't want to seem overly sensitive I simply said, "Emma is upset that Charity took the doll over there."
"Oh, Charity is used to playing with boys. That's just the way they treat each other." And she went back to her phone call.
From there the relationship grew and the girls became close friends just like her mother and I. We planned everything together. Beach days, playgrounds, walks, playdates, playgroups, moms nights out, etc. Our circle grew and grew. New moms and children were added. Patty and I remained the center of the group and the planners for just about everything we did.
When I had our second daughter, Emma had her first sleepover at Charity's house. When Patty and her husband had an event to go to Charity stayed at our house overnight for the first time.
And a memory from her first night with us.
"Mommy forgot to pack my special ducky. I can't sleep without ducky."
"Are you sure she forgot to pack it? I thought she said she did." I started to look in her bag but she pulled it away from me.
"It's not in there." She said.
I knew her parents weren't home and couldn't make an emergency ducky drop off. So I made a suggestion. "Emma has a ton of stuffed animals. Is there one you would like to sleep with instead?"
I gestured to the pile of stuffed animals in her toy box and then the ones in the closet and the ones on the shelves around her room. Charity's eyes did not follow my gestures. They settled on the one stuffed animal that was being very tightly gripped in Emma's arms. Her Maxie Dog.
"I want to sleep with Maxie." Charity stated. "I can't go to sleep unless I sleep with Maxie."
Immediate tears flowed from Emma. Maybe I should back up here. My Emma LOVES her special toys. That is the one thing even at age 10 she hasn't outgrown. Even today if someone else wanted to sleep with her Maxie I think she would cry. So imagine at age 3 or 4 what this did to her.
My hackles were raised. I felt like we were being manipulated by a 3 year old. I tried, begged, pleaded, I paraded a wide variety of choices of other animals in front of her. I tried avoidance (bedtime wasn't for another hour or so) thinking maybe she'd change her mind. Emma worried and fretted that Maxie was going to be taken away from her. She clung even tighter. I tried reasoning with Emma.
"She's our guest and maybe it would be good for Maxie to comfort our guest. You'll have him back tomorrow and tonight you can choose another special animal."
As the girls were getting their PJs on and settling down for the night I took a glance in Charity's bag. I knew this was her first sleepover and that her Mom would never forget to pack ducky. And sure enough there was her duck plain as day on the top of her bag.
"Oh, look Charity. You do have ducky with you."
"Why did you say you didn't?"
"I didn't want to sleep with him."
"Well, you can either sleep with ducky or one of Emma's other animals. You are not taking Maxie away." And I walked out of the room, highly irritated.
From then on I would notice other deceptive things Charity would do. She would tell Emma that she was older than her, making Emma believe it (even though she is and always will be 6 months younger.) Patty would say, "Oh, she's just confused."
The years passed. Occurences like this continued with each and every playdate and sleepover. Emma would come to me (usually in tears) with so many things that happened.
"Charity pushed me down."
"Charity told me she wasn't going to be my friend anymore if I didn't. . ."(fill in the blank with many options from drawing a picture for her to dancing naked).
"Charity told me that she thinks purple is stupid color to like."
"Charity told me that I look fat."
"Charity peeled all the glow in the dark star stickers off my sister's ceiling." In this instance I questioned Charity. At first she said Emma made her do it until little sister stated no, both her and Emma had begged Charity to get down off the step ladder. We had a ladder in the back, back corner of Allie's closet because we had just moved in and were still hanging pictures up. When I talked to Patty about this her response was, "Why was there a ladder in the room?" (Ok, that makes about as much sense as when she's a teenager and is drinking and you say, "Why was there beer in the car?")
"Charity told me that pink is a stupid color and everytime I wear it she makes fun of me."
"Charity shot me with a water gun right in my ear!" This one I witnessed first hand. Charity grabbed Emma's earlobe, pulled down, inserted the gun tip and pulled the trigger. Emma cried and cried and cried. Charity told her parents, "It was an accident. I just shot it in her direction." She didn't get in trouble even after I told my side of the story. "She said it was an accident." Emma ended up with swimmer's ear.
"Charity told the entire class what I weigh and told them she's skinnier than me." (In fact she's 10 pounds heavier than Emma.
"Charity wouldn't let me be in her group in gym class even though the teacher said get in groups of 3. She was the only one in a group of 2 and she wouldn't let me in."
"Charity wouldn't let me be in her group in music class even though hers was the one who needed another person." In this instance, Emma ended up crying in front of the class and Charity still wouldn't let her in. The teacher put her in the already full group instead.
"Charity told me that Tracy is allergic to bananas and could die if I bring bananas in my lunch ever again." (Not true)
Many of these instances involved me calling Patty on the phone and trying to discuss them with her. Each and everytime I was either met with, "She said that's not the way it happened." Or, "Emma is being overly sensitive." Or, "I think it bothers you more than it bothers Emma." Or my favorite, "You've got to let them work it out themselves."
Work it out themselves. This is the lazy parenting approach. This is the approach of, "I don't need to get involved because I know that my daughter will come out on top everytime."
I have bought books on friendship and bullies. We have roll-played what to say to Charity when she needs to stick up for herself. We have endured countless hours of discussing the right responses. We have hired a girl psychologist to come speak to our Girl Scout groups on bullies and sticking up for yourelf. We have taken breaks from the friendship when possible (after the water gun incident - took almost the whole summer off). But Emma still says nothing when Charity is mean to her.
"Because I don't want to be mean, Mommy."
She just doesn't have it in her to be sassy or mean back to Charity. I see her handle herself with other girls. Girls who she's had issues with in the past, she has been able to be sarcastic back to them when they make an unnecessary comment. She is able to roll her eyes when they say something inappropriate. And I don't hear about problems with them on a daily basis like I do Charity. Why can't she do this with Charity? What kind of unhealthy power does she have over her.
So when Patty says, "They need to work it out themselves," she knows as well as I do that Emma will just end up succumbing to the abuse and Charity will continue to dish it out.
I have to share a story of people-watching on a beach recently. There were several families together. Their children were playing at the water's edge building sand castles. We were closer to the kids than the parents were and I could hear what looked like an idylic summer scene was actually pretty malicious and mean. All the kids were picking on one girl especially. They were not letting her play with them. They were stomping on her sand castle. They were saying mean things. Each time she'd had enough, she would run to her parents to complain. Not once did a parent get up and come investigate what was going on. The fourth and final time she ran to "tell" her mom said, "You need to work it out yourself!" in an angry tone.
The little girl came running back to the spot with the other kids, picked up a huge clomp of sand in her hands and heaved it at one of the boys who had been especially mean, smacking him in the face. I couldn't help my response. . .pure, happy laughter.
The moms saw THIS happen. The boys' mom was horrified. "Oh, my sweetie, come here." The girl's mom was even more horrified and started yelling and screaming. The little girl ended up spending the rest of the time on the blanket by herself in time out.
My husband had been watching too. "Well, they told her to work it out herself."
I wish sometimes that Emma would pick up that clomp of sand and hurl it at Charity. But she won't.
So what is the straw that finally broke the camel's back?
Two weeks ago was the girls' final day of drama camp. Emma has been involved in drama of some sort ever since she was 5 years old. Charity just started participating in drama last year because her mom says she needs to get over her "shyness." During the performance in which Emma had about 20 lines and Charity had about 5, Charity continually was telling Emma where she needed to stand, when she needed to say her lines, where she needed to kneel down, etc. I saw this, my mother saw this and my husband (usually oblivious) saw this. Patty did not (or at least she didn't mention it. . .all she said after to Charity was, "You did such a great job. I am so proud of you for being so brave!" Emma complained to me later, "Charity kept telling me what to do. I KNOW what to do." She said in a heated, raised voice. I said to her, "TELL HER THAT." Emma shook her head and I said, "Someday you are going to completely lose it with her and I won't blame you."
Later that same day we were at our final swim lesson of the year which of course Charity was also in. After swim lessons the girls played in the water while we watched from the beach. After awhile Emma comes screaming in from the water. I run to her and see her arm in completely covered in deep scratches. She can barely catch her breath enough to tell me what happened.
"We were playing this game where someone was it and we had to grab kids and take them to a base and then other kids had to come get them out. Charity scratched me all up when she took me to base and then sat on me under water so I couldn't breathe and I was scratching and grabbing her leg to get out of the water. She let me out and then said I hurt her when I scratched her and said, "I can't believe you just did that" and she told the other girls that I was scratching and they needed to all stay away from me. Then they wouldn't let me play with them anymore."
While Emma was relaying this story, Charity and the other girls had come out of the water and were telling another girls' mom this:
"Emma was scratching us so we were trying to get away from her." The other mom told them to come to Emma and work it out. They came over while I was still standing with her. Charity was the leader of the group.
"She was scratching us." I looked them over. They were in bikinis. Lots of skin showing. Not a single mark on any of them. I pointed to Emma's shoulder and arm were red, purple, swollen welts were forming.
"I don't see any marks on your bodies. But I see this on Emma. It looks like it hurts a lot."
"It hurt when she scratched me too." Charity said.
"You need to play a different game."
My anger was mounting. The girls ran back to the water. I started to pack our things.
"I don't want to go Mommy." Emma said through her tears. I looked at her sadly. Despite everything she still wanted to take this abuse. I wanted to talk to the moms and not leave in a huff so I said, "Ten more minutes."
I approached Patty (who never left her chair during this whole scene) and said, "She is covered with scratches."
Patty's response, "They were all scratching each other out there."
My anger reached it's peak. If there hadn't been a bunch of Patty's friends there that I had never met before I would have blown my top (maybe I'm a wimp too). I quietly started packing our stuff. We left.
My mom who had been visiting us and witnessed everything, said in the car, "I know Patty is your friend, but how long are you going to let Emma hang around Charity and take this abuse?"
That sat with me for the rest of the day.
That night my husband saw the welts on Emma's arm (by the way they didn't disappear for 8 DAYS). He heard the story. He said, "That's it. No more. She is NOT to play with her again. Do you understand me? If anything happens to her, it is on your shoulders."
I nodded. I knew this was the way it had to be. And I also knew a toxic friendship was over. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Emma even seemed relieved. She knows she has enough other friends who treat her right that she won't miss out on having fun. She probably doesn't realize she may miss out on some group fun, but I'll make sure she has something else to do in the meantime. There will be instances we can't avoid. . .like Girl Scouts.. .Charity believe it or not is in our troop. In that case I will have to coach Emma ahead of time. "Surround yourself with your positive friends. If Charity approaches you, be kind, but keep your distance." I will be there and can intervene if I see her starting to take over. I have told Emma something that the Girl Scout guest speaker stated in her talk. "It's ok to move someone down the friendship tier if they don't treat you right. They can be moved from BFF, to good friend, to friend, to acquaintance. Charity has been slowing moving down the tier. Now she is considered an acquaintance."
Now the aftermath for mine and Patty's friendship. I haven't spoken to Patty on the phone for 2 weeks. We've exchanged emails. We've been invited to a couple of group beach days. I've convienently had other plans. But I know it will be tough to miss out on the group gatherings. I love our group. . .but I know we have to stay away. Tomorrow is a mom's night out. I would have to get a babysitter to go, so I declined the invitation. I have gotten about 4 emails from Patty begging me to get a sitter. I know if I see her and talk to her I will just become angry again, so I am avoiding her. But how long can that go on? I know I can't talk to her about this. Talking will end up in defensiveness, anger, blame on to us. There will be no point to it. I'd talk to her about it if I wanted to fix it (my idea in the past when I would bring things up) but this time it's unfixable. If I talk to her about without plans to fix it, that means animosity, burning bridges, ending things for good.
Tough to do when she's very active in the PTA - the one who plans all the events.
She's always the room mother.
She's always the one who makes all the plans for all the kids.
She's the one who makes all the plans for all the moms.
She's the one who knows everyone in town. She manages the gym where all the gossip goes to and from. She's got the inside scoop on me and everyone else we know. She is NOT one to make your enemy.
I can't stand having tension between me and someone else. I have to go to school events, PTA events, Girl Scout events with her and her group of friends surrounding me. I am not one that handles animosity, gossip about me and tension well. I would crack.
So avoidance is my only plan for now. I will get back into the mom's nights out eventually. As long as we don't talk about the girls we can still maintain some sort of friendship.
But if she asks me point blank someday why the girls haven't gotten together, I'm afraid of what my answer might be. I will have to tell her the truth. And then. . .
We may just have to move out of town.