Towards the end of the day, all the younger kids at my children’s daycare gather together in the gym for free play until the ‘late’ parents (that’d be me) come to pick up the last remaining strays. I think it’s one of the best parts of their day, getting to run around, play ball, build towers and ride around in toy cars.
Whenever I arrive, it’s the same scene – they both come running with wild abandon, shrieking, “Mommy! Mommy!” and “Mama, mama.” It’s definitely my favourite part of the day.
And they always want to hang around for a little bit longer, playing with me in this great open space. The boy loves to be swung around with a scarf (not as bad as it sounds) and walking around on his hands while I hold his feet. The girl adores climbing all over me and showing me how she rolls around on the mats. So the other day I thought nothing of it when I took my usual seat on the floor, checked to see that the boy was otherwise engaged, and snuggled my daughter for a few stolen moments.
And then the boy appeared, crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
He couldn’t answer. He was crying too hard.
“He hit him. In the stomach,” said one of the boy’s classmates, pointing to a younger boy.
I looked up in shock. By this time, the teacher had made her way over and was questioning the other kid.
“Did you hit him in the stomach?” she asked. The younger boy nodded.
My son was devastated. I realized at the time that this was the first instance of pointless violence he had experienced. Sure, he’d gotten into fights over toys and snacks, but this stomach punch came out of nowhere. For no reason. Just one kid picking on another.
The teacher took my son’s hand and walked him over to the other boy.
“Apologize,” she said.
So my son looked at the boy and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Not you!” I cried. “Him!”
But my son didn’t get it. He’s such a sweet, soft-spoken and gentle soul that he felt he must have done something wrong to have gotten that punch. But within a few minutes, everything was forgotten and he was back to playing ball.
Or so I thought.
Late that night, over the monitor, we heard a soft, almost muted crying coming from his bedroom. My husband and I looked at each other. When this kid wants something, he’s not shy about calling out for us. He’s got a fake cry we can spot a mile off. But this was different.
He was sad.
My husband ran into the room.
“Buddy, what’s wrong?”
“Daddy, is there school tomorrow?”
“I can’t go to school, Daddy. If I go to school, someone’s going to hurt me.”
“Buddy! Why would you say that? Did someone hurt you?”
I had just finished recounting the story to my husband moments earlier.
“Yes. I was hit in the tummy today, and if I go back tomorrow it will happen again.”
“Oh, no it won’t,” my husband said, “I’ll make sure of it. I’ll take you to school tomorrow, and I’ll speak to that boy, and I’ll tell him not to hit you anymore. And if he does, I’ll SIT on him!”
That elicited the requisite giggle, and after a little more conversation and assurance, the boy finally fell asleep.
But a little innocence was lost that day. He encountered bullying and pointless violence for the first time. And he was afraid for the first time. In a concrete, but also abstract, sense. Suddenly, the world wasn’t what he thought it was.
And I had been sitting there the whole time, unable to protect him.
I had been sitting there the whole time.
I felt like I failed him.
I felt like I was the one who’d been sucker punched.