Warning: this is a long one, but a very important warning to all parents.
It’s that time of year. Parents have been posting pictures of their children returning to school all over social media. I will be no different. But, with the onset of the new year, I feel implored to share an experience that all parents should be aware of, manipulative children disguised as friends.
When my oldest daughter first started pre-school at 3 (almost 2 years ago), she quickly made friends. Much to everyone’s surprise, she was not shy, quickly went into class, and made friends. This was especially surprising because she started a little over a month after everyone else, so nerves were to be expected. But, she placed a greater emphasis on making friends then being afraid and walked in by herself without even turning around to tell her dad bye. And, make friends she did. For the rest of the school year when we dropped her off, all of the kids would greet her when she walked into class, and they would all yell goodbye from their seats when we would pick her up. Two of her best friends were older than her and so that was their last year before moving on to kindergarten. My oldest finished school on a high note and the summer began.
When the new school year began (last year), my daughter was again excited to return to school to see her old friends from the previous year, and also to make new friends. There were lots of changes to get used to, even for us parents. Her old teachers switched classes, so she had new teachers (and we loved her old teachers) some of her friends switched to the other class, and her best friends from the previous year were gone. In fact, there was only one other little girl in my daughters class that was in her class the previous year as well. She was so shy, we hardly even noticed her. We will call her E. E and my oldest became fast friends, almost inseparable.
About 2 weeks into the school year, my daughter started to mention that she didn’t play with all of her friends at school when we would pick her up. When we would ask why she would say because E wouldn’t let her. We would tell her that she had no right to tell her who she could and could not play with, and that she should play with all of her friends, and she would agree. A few weeks later, my husband arranged a play date where we were to drop my daughter off to play. I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea, she was only 3 at the time, but my husband convinced me to let her go. First mistake, I should have stuck with my intuition. When we picked her up after the play date, E broke down in tears because my daughter was leaving and she didn’t want her to. I thought, Eh, she’ll get over it. On the way home, my daughter said “Mom, can we have a playdate at our house next time?” Absolutely, I quickly responded before inquiring about why, but all she would say was “just because.”
A few weeks later, E’s mom offered to pick up my oldest to go to the pumpkin patch for a playdate. My husband and I declined and said we would meet them there. While at the pumpkin patch, I took the time to observe the girls. My mom was with us and able to help by holding our little guy while my husband watched our other daughter. I noticed my daughter was trying hard to please E. Everything was whatever she wanted to do. At one point, I noticed my daughter playing by herself in one area, while her friend played in another. When I went over and asked her about it, she said E wanted to be alone right now. This did not sit well with me. I played with my daughter for a bit and continued to observe. That’s when I finally saw it, the manipulation first hand.
I walked my daughter over to the large pumpkin jumper for her to go inside and jump with her little sister and E. E’s mom was tending to her baby and not paying much attention, my mom was watching my son, my husband was getting snacks, and I was focused. Something just didn’t seem right. I noticed my daughter and E having a discussion outside of the entrance to the jumper. When I moved closer, I overheard my daughter trying to convince E that they could both go inside the +and play and jump together, but E wanted my daughter to wait outside while she went inside and played by herself. When I asked, what was going on, my daughter confirmed that I had heard correctly. I told them that they could and would both go in and told E that she couldn’t control who goes in and who doesn’t. E continued to throw a fit and pout when my daughter and her sister went in so my daughter came out. This pissed me off. Unfortunately, no matter how much I urged her to, my oldest wouldn’t go back in and so her sister came out also. E went in and had it to herself. When E came out, my daughter and her sister went in and proceeded to have fun. When E tried to go in also, my daughter said no. it was her turn. That was the rule E made up after all. E then proceeded to break down in tears loud enough to get everyone’s attention. My husband sprung into action asking what was wrong, and E proceeded to tell everyone that my daughter wouldn’t let her play with her. I quickly jumped in and explained what really happened.
The next week when they returned to school, I asked her teachers if they had noticed similar issues and they said no. They had only observed that they were really close friends and did everything together and that sometimes E wouldn’t even sit down until my daughter arrived to class. They thought it was cute. I thought it was odd. I let them know of what I had observed at the pumpkin patch, asked them to keep an eye on them. Sure enough, that same day when we picked up my daughter, the teachers reported that they observed an issue on the playground where E was yelling at my daughter because my daughter wanted to play something different, so they had to break it up. We were informed of similar incidents daily after bringing our concerns o their attention. My husband and I also noticed that the excitement that our daughter was once greeted with was no longer there and the enthusiasm my daughter once had about school was gone. Not only were the kids ignoring her, but she didn’t want us to leave when we dropped her off. The roles had reversed. My daughter was now the shy kid in class, and E was now the loud and outspoken one. We also noticed my daughter becoming more aggressive with her sister, and argumentative with us. She was a different child. We were checking in with the teachers daily, and every day there was a new report about how E was trying to control what my daughter was doing on the playground, keeping other kids from playing with her and vice versa, and basically controlling my daughter, and how they were continuously stepping in to mediate the situation, even going so far as to hold the little girl down when kids would leave so that my daughter could say bye to the other little kids, and the other little kids could say bye to them. When I asked to meet with E’s mom, the school asked to have the opportunity to resolve the situation first. The way they saw it, the girls were very close friends and still kids, and they didn’t want to just abruptly stop their friendship. This was very frustrating for my husband and me.
One day, while scrolling through pictures on his phone, my husband came across videos that my daughter had recorded about her “friendship” with E. She outlined how she was controlling and wouldn’t let her play with certain friends and was mean. She had created a video journal about what was happening and it broke our hearts. My husband and I talked to my daughter about it and she told us about how when she went to E’s house for the play date a few months prior, E locked her out of her room because she wanted to play by herself and made her sit in the hallway, and E’s mom did nothing, hence her wanting to play at our house next time. E also had a few opinions about my daughter’s background and culture (learned opinions) and shared these with my daughter. She also made it a point to not let my daughter play with any of the other black kids in her class. This resulted in my daughter having a major identity crisis, as if we didn’t have enough to deal with already. I actually observed with my own eyes, E pushing another little girl just for trying to say bye to my daughter and give her a hug. I immediately stepped in and told my daughter to give her friend a hug and told E that she could not tell my daughter what to do. Not only did my daughter give her little friend who E pushed a hug, she gave all of the kids a hug, and I made sure she was free to do so by keeping an eye on E who sat on the rug in tears as my daughter hugged the other little kids.
Enough was enough. The school was not making any progress, so I decided to call E’s mom directly and tell her everything that was going on. She was defensive but receptive and said she would talk to her daughter. We also agreed to talk every other day to see how things were going. I also informed the school of my conversation and explained the situation to them by asking “If you had a relative that was in an abusive relationship, how long would you sit back and watch before doing something? Would you want them to try to work it out, or would you tell them that it was an unhealthy relationship and that it needed to end?” This was how I felt about them asking me to wait for them to try to fix the situation, and explained that my daughter was ready to switch schools.
After that phone call with E’s mom, E did not show up to school for 3 weeks straight. E’s mom mentioned that she was trying to enroll E in a school closer to their house on the phone as though this would remedy the situation. Additionally, E’s attendance was always inconsistent. If her parents woke up late or E didn’t want to go to school, they didn’t make her. So, we didn’t worry about E not being there. We chose to focus on our daughter instead.
We made it a point to remind her of how beautiful she is and how rich and beautiful her culture is so that when she looked in the mirror she saw beautiful staring back. We also wanted to make sure that when she saw the beauty in her people and culture. We worked with her to remind her of how to play with all of her friends again because she said that she had forgotten. Sometimes this meant getting her to school a few minutes earlier so she could stand at the door and greet all of her classmates as they walked in, and we would take turns being by her side so she knew she wasn’t alone. After a week of doing this her friends warmed up to her again, and she warmed up to them. In the weeks that followed, we noticed she was excited to go to school again, her friends were excited when she entered the classroom, she was less aggressive towards her sister, and she was loving herself again. We also started talking to other parents who were approaching us, wanting to know who our daughter’s parents were because their kids were coming home raving about how much they loved our daughter. As we talked to more and more parents, they also mentioned how beforehand, their kids would come home and talk about how mean our daughter was because E wouldn’t let her play with them, but that things had recently changed. They also had stories about E that were equally troubling.
By the time E returned to school 3 weeks later. She and her mom acted as though nothing ever happened. We were confident that our daughter would be better, but she still struggled a bit as E returned to her old tricks. It was clear that her mom had not addressed the situation with her. But, my husband and I were determined to NOT let things go back to how they were. We sat my daughter down and told her that she could no longer be friends with this little girl because her actions were mean, and we stayed on her about it so that she wouldn’t resort to excluding her friends again for E. It was important to us that she find her voice again and come to a place where she felt comfortable telling E that her actions were not okay, and eventually, she did. Even though we asked her not to, she gave E another chance, and E continued to try to keep my daughter away from the other kids. It took some time, but we finally got through. After E’s return, it took another month of deprogramming but, my daughter started coming home saying she was no longer playing with E because she did not know how to be nice and she wasn’t being nice to her friends. When we would drop her off at school, E would ask my daughter if they could play together that day and my daughter would say “No, I tried to give you a chance yesterday, but you were mean and that’s not nice. You can only play with me if you can play with everyone, or you have to play by yourself.” We couldn’t have been more proud. She found her voice and courage again. We knew she would be okay.
Phew! I literally feel like we saved her. Yes, she was only 3 at the time, but the effects of the manipulation could have been long-lasting if this wasn’t quickly addressed My daughter finished the school year at the top of her class, with a plethora of friends, and with her joyful spirit intact. E’s attendance was still inconsistent, and, she was the only kid not present at graduation. Bullying can take many shapes and forms, and is very dangerous. As parents, we cannot assume that our little kids are safe from this because they are young, we cannot always trust that school officials will handle the situation either. Afterall, my daughter’s teachers didn’t really notice until we brought it to their attention, and this was just pre-school.
She starts TK this year at a new school and is very excited. I will be keeping a close eye on who she makes friends with.
I am proud to be a nosy parent. My kids come first!
The P.I. Mom