Making Game: How can I deal with stealing at school (by other kids)?

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My 5-year-old has just started kindergarten (Australia). Today he came back home and said another bigger child stole a toy he was playing with (a beyblade).

“He is such a bully, dad – he just came and took my toy.”

“What were you doing when he took your toy? Didn’t you ask him to stop it or tell a teacher?.”

“I did, but he didn’t listen. Teacher tried to find him, but couldn’t.”

How do I deal with such a situation – so that it helps my child and I enable him to deal with these things in the future?

P.S.: Due to my conditioning, I didn’t, but I could only have told him to – “see the guy next time – ask him for the toy nicely, once. If he doesn’t listen, break his nose and forget about the toy” But I am thinking that will be a wrong thing to instill in a 5 year old. However another thing to note is that he will be a non-white kid growing up surrounded predominantly by white kids. He will always wear prescription glasses and have a bit of a speech problem – so I am also inclined to think my approach isn’t quite wrong. The school has hundreds of kids, and I do not think the teachers will be able to isolate this kid and help my child.

I’m sorry for what you’re going through; bullying is terribly distressing and something that can make you feel really helpless as a parent. Helpless, because it’s an acute problem with no quick fixes. I think, however, there are several things you can and should do in this situation.

In communicating with your child
Your top priority is to reinforce your child’s sense of self worth. In bullying, there’s a real risk that the child will internalize the bullying, and come to the conclusion that they are somehow wrong, or that they somehow deserve how they’re being treated. You need to see your child, validate their feelings, and make sure they always realize that what they’ve experienced was wrong, and that they’re entitled to expect fair treatment from others.

I strongly recommend against advocating for fighting back, as you hint at. This will risk undermining my prior more important point. It will skew your kids value system towards violence and bullying, and it will put your kid in harms way. Teach self defense, by all means. Retaliation, absolutely not.

Acknowledge that ending the bullying is ultimately out of your control. Working towards this is the responsibility of the school. Make sure your child doesn’t get the impression this is something they should solve. There may be ways to avoid being targeted by the bully, but your child shouldn’t own the problem of correcting the bully.

In communicating with the school
The school needs to fix this. Be relentless. Do not accept that this is out of their hands. Keeping your children safe while they’re in their care is their absolute top priority, trumping any educational objectives. Make sure they’re on top of this, and make sure they’re putting blame where it is due; that they don’t try to shift responsibility towards adapting your child’s behaviour, as may be appealing when dealing with the bully is a lot more difficult for them as well.

Teachers who aren’t taking this seriously cannot be accepted. “Tried to find him but couldn’t” absolutely will not do.

Do accept, however, that the steps taken may not look exactly like what you may have had in mind. As a parent of the victim, it is easy to crave vengeance, but this is not their role, and this is not what you need. What you need is for the bullying to stop, and successful violence prevention may well focus more on working constructively with the bully than on exacting punishment.

The balance you need to strike is making sure they’re on top of this at all times, while at the same time staying cooperative and not making yourself a part of their problem. Keeping a log of incidents may be helpful in meetings with the school administration, to keep the discussion matter-of-factly.

In communicating with the parents of the bully
Don’t. (This section previously cautioned against some aspects of reaching out to the other parents, but it was argued in comments that the risks of this are always higher than the potential benefits, so simply avoiding it always is preferable. The entire discussion can be found in chat for those interested).

If he doesn’t listen break his nose and forget about the toy

Yes, this would be a wrong thing for several reasons, not least the cost/benefit of “playing with a toy” at the age of five vs “eventual expulsion” if he internalises that message.

I’ve heard stories of kids who were let off of punishments where they’d done something daft, and immediately gone and “smacked the snitch”. Congratulations, now you’re suspended, who really suffered here?

I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for physical self-defence, but it’s at a much later age, when you can make appropriate judgement calls. And even then “he tried to take my thing, so I hit him” is how people end up with sentences for assault.

My advice would be:

1) Firstly, let your son know he did everything right. He didn’t start a fight that might have got out of control, and that would have got him in trouble, he made it clear to the other child that they were doing the wrong thing, and he went to the appropriate authority. If it didn’t work out the way he wanted this time, it was still the absolute right course of action to take. You’re proud of him.

2) Let him know that if the teacher can’t find the bully, that can happen. Tell him that you’ll speak to the teacher to make sure they take it seriously, and to let you know if it happens again, especially if it’s the same boy.

3) Speak to the teacher. Don’t get angry, just say that your son was confused by what happened, and obviously you weren’t there, so you’re just trying to get more information from the adult in charge. If the teacher did what they could, tell them you’d appreciate if they talk to your son about what happened next time, and that you’re annoyed that it seems to have been dropped.

The school has hundreds of kids I do not think the teachers will be able to isolate this kid and help my child

Firstly, that’s their job. It’s a hard job, but that’s their problem. Your problem is raising and caring for a child under on what sounds like a higher difficulty rating than most. You’re right to calibrate your expectations in terms of managing your own frustration, but as far as your interaction with the school’s concerned, you have a right to be down there every Tuesday until the end of time to discuss how your child’s being looked after. Don’t get annoyed, just be persistent.

But secondly, it’s not clear from what you’ve written if this is part of a repeated pattern or whether this is an isolated incident. Little kids are like this. My daughter has friends who act like bullies when they’ve had a bad day, but get along great with her at other times.

A five-year old is basically struggling with everything at this stage, and their impulse control is non-existent. They may have just seen a toy, wanted toy, taken toy, without thinking about the child currently holding the toy. That’s really normal at that age. Arguably that’s the whole point of early years education, to train them out of that kind of asocial behaviour. But it’s therefore literally the teacher’s job to help them navigate this situation, and you’re allowed to demand they prioritise that over reading the Gruffalo.

I have no kids, however I can tell you what worked for me as a bullied teenager, and may be useful for others. I live in Mexico, where bullying is present from kinder garden to, sometimes, high school:

It is always hard to be a kid with disadvantage over the bullies, most of the times it’s all about physical strength. That’s how I grew up, since I was average tall and specially slim and weak. By the middle of secondary school I joined a group similar to Boy Scouts, which was way more demanding physically than the Scouts but also had a disciplined enough system as for keep the training, but relaxed enough to not be any closer to soldiers. Every Saturday there was full of workteam from morning to late afternoon. Both workteam and contact sports developed naturally on me the bravery and the strength (if necessary) to face my bullies, and it really worked! They take advantage of anyone they know they can do it with, and unfortunately asking politely to stop being treated like that is useless (my mom proposed me the same solution).

So, I propose you to take your boy to practice any sport that may challenge him constantly against others in a friendly way (tae-kwon-do, football, etc), as for his capabilities and likings. It will make him feel more self-confident and even will be benefited in other aspects of his life.

In addition to the excellent answers suggesting how to work with the school, this is a good lesson for your son in relation to the toy. We’ve had conversations with both of our children about the wisdom of taking things precious to them to school, along the lines of:

You’re welcome to take that to school, but if you do understand there is a risk it will get lost, stolen, or even taken by someone unintentionally (who has a similar item and believes it to be theirs). Only take things to school you’re willing to take the risk of losing.

It’s certainly not his faul that it was taken, and we’re not victim-blaming here (and do make sure to make that clear): rather, it’s like locking your bike. You know that it could be stolen, so you take appropriate measures to prevent it.

I would also recommend marking items, particularly things like BeyBlades that are undoubtedly common in the schoolyard, in such a way as you can identify which ones are his. This will help if there are further accusations of stealing. (Of course, it will make them not tradeable, which is a concern with BeyBlades, but perhaps make sure your son understands the tradeoff here.)

I know this goes against most all of the traditional advice:

Teach your son to befriend the bully

Yes that’s right, empower your son to be the better man in this situation. Bring the bully a wrapped present, bring him some cookies, talk to him, pour some love on this wayward soul and watch his tough exterior melt quickly. Most likely these behaviors are driven by his home life, or lack of one. Some positive love and attention in his life could not only turn this situation around in the blink of an eye, but you are teaching your son life skills of how to deal with difficult people non-aggressively.

A lot of really good answers here, I just want to add that there are likely to be similar situations in the future where the teacher/carer will not see what went on or not think it important enough. The kids may not think it is important enough, even.

Some time ago my son and other small (4/5) kids were playing with toys at the after-school care place. A larger boy (7/8) came and wordlessly tried to take the toy from my kid who also wordlessly held on to it for dear life.
The boy then took a toy from a girl. She just walked over to a drawing table and started drawing.

I had watched this from the window and was taken aback, but didn’t really know what to do. In hindsight I should have told the people working there.
But at the same time it seems that the smaller kids were not too upset.

My point is that such situations happen, and while we have to teach kids wrong from right, it may happen no-one is there to immediately step in or they are confused and inert (like I was). But even in that situation it is not the end of the world.

Make A Teaching Moment

I think the top answers give really good advice that should generally be followed. This idea is a bit out of the box, and makes a few presumptions. First, it assumes that you can afford to buy your kids whatever toys get stolen. Second, that you can afford to buy your kid a cheap video camera, whether built into a low-end smart phone or a standalone device.

Some bullies are themselves victims who are simply acting out their frustrations because they, too are powerless in other contexts. Other bullies simply see that they can get their way by force, and only learn their lessons much later in life when the rest of society pushes back and they end up in jail or on the losing end of a lawsuit or out of work because nobody wants to hire them. And, of course, some bullies are clever sociopaths who become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. You don’t know which kind of bully your son is dealing with, but on some level, it doesn’t matter.

First, teach your son that he is lucky to have toys. There are lots of children in the world, and even in his country/state/province/city/neighborhood who can’t afford toys, or only third-hand toys. He should be grateful for the things he does have which are much more valuable, like a supportive family, a safe home, opportunities, etc. The toys are less important, and learning to let go of them now is good exercise for the future, when other forces beyond his control take them away.

Second, buy your son two toys: one to replace the one he lost, and one (or more) to give away. Third, give him a camera that he can use to document interactions with other kids. A cell phone with GPS tracking is obviously best, because you can prove that it’s yours and usually locate it with a tracking app if it gets stolen. I’m counting on 5 year old bullies not be clever enough to swap out SIM cards at school. If your bully can do that, you should switch schools. 😉

Tell your son that you want him to give the second toy to the bully, and that you want him to do it in the most public place that he can, like during lunch, when all the other kids (and teachers) can see. When he does, he should say something like: “Ted, I know you really like this toy, because you took mine the other day. That made me sad, but then I realized that maybe your parents didn’t get you any toys. So my dad got me a new one, and one for you too. Here you go. Maybe we can play together later! Oh, and if you like this one too, you can have it.”

Of course, any adults watching will recognize this as a pure power move with no good counter. The kid will either recognize that he has been labeled in a particular way and reject the label (possibly in a way that requires teacher intervention), or he will accept the gesture as genuine, and give your kid a chance at reconciliation. Naturally, your son should be as genuine as possible. If he can befriend and co-opt the bully, he will learn a valuable lesson that will be useful for the rest of his life. And if the bully acts out in front of everyone else, he will have a camera and hopefully the attention of adults in the room to defend him.

If you suspect that the staff at your son’s school are not fully engaged, then you should tell your son to position himself in a way such that one or more of them are in the frame as he records the event.

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