The Bully at the Play Date

If you believe that temperament and character are pretty much determined by the time we are born (give or take some environmental influences), then is it possible that bullies or potential bullies could show up at toddler play dates? You betcha.

As granny-nanny, I have been a frequent witness to toddler play dates, and even though children at this age tend to “parallel play,” I can almost envision the hurdles that some children will have to overcome.  While one is more aggressive, the other is more reticent; while one is more adventurous, the other is more cautious; and while one is more boisterous, the other is more calm.

Many of these traits are evident from birth and are reflective of normal development. But there are many unanswered questions. Do parents know how to recognize problematic behavior or which behaviors could use some intervention? Does intervention really work –  when and how? Can empathy be learned? Can we teach defense effectively?

When my children were little, I got to know some of their friends quite well.  From my viewpoint, I noticed character traits exhibited at two years of age persisted through the school years.  In fact, research has shown that at 18-24 months children begin to show outward signs of empathy, jealousy and embarrassment (Izard & Malatesta, 1987; Lewis, 2002).

In one case, a very intelligent little girl maintained her inclination to bully right through middle school, at which time I stopped following her exploits.  She was never overtly aggressive –  she was shrewd.  She was mean.  She intimidated others when she thought no one was watching; and she was able to accomplish this at a very young age! Her mother was not unlike her. Empathy was lacking.

Considering that the after-effects of bullying will plague the victim right through adulthood, and that it has been shown that younger children respond more favorably to empathy training (Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen, 1978; Radke-Yarrow & Zahn-Waxler, 1984),  it would be helpful for pediatricians, especially, to publicize any well-researched guidelines that are focused on pre-schoolers and toddlers.  This way parents would be able to recognize and appropriately intervene when there are potential problems with aggressiveness as well as with defenselessness before they enter the minefields of the school system.


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