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Ask Dr. Sears: Protecting Against Bullies

Q. I have practiced attachment parenting with my two-year-old since birth. As a result he has become a sensitive, good child. I'm worried now that other children won't accept him. For instance, we belong to a neighborhood playgroup with children ages two to five. My child wants to play with the older boys, but they don't want to play with him. They even take away the toys that my son is playing with. Should I be sheltering him more from other children? What advice do you have for handling situations with "mean" kids?

A.
Attachment parenting (AP) begins with the Baby B's of infancy: birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby wearing, bedding close to baby, and the belief the parents should respond to crying. But the effects of AP continue throughout your child's life. Using my medical practice as a sort of laboratory, I've studied how attachment-parented children turn out in the long run. I've found that many AP kids, like your child, experience a "side-effect" to the medicine of attachment parenting -- sensitivity.

Children who spend the first couple of years held in a high-touch and high-responsive parental environment develop an internal feeling of rightness. They grow up believing that the world is a warm and loving place to be, needs are responded to appropriately, and people care for one another. Violence, insensitivity, and especially bullying, are foreign to them because these acts of insensitivity are not their norm. When the AP child encounters meanness, it's as if he feels "something is not right here..." This is why sensitive children often have difficulty adapting to the "real" world of the preschool and school jungle.

Yet one of the most important tools that parents can impart to their children is empathy. Empathy simply means the ability to get behind the eyes of another person and imagine the effect of your behavior on that person -- to think before you act. Here's where AP children shine. You want to preserve your child's sensitivity, yet help him adjust to the world of school. Here are some tips to try:

Surround your child with other AP peers. You might want to form your own playgroup or preschool, if possible. Look for a support group with other AP mothers, or start your own. The Attachment Parenting International website, www.attachmentparenting.org, can point you to an AP group in your area. If there isn't one, they'll give you the materials you need to help you start one of your own.

Don't rush your child into the "real world." You may hear the opposite advice -- that it's best to expose your child to different children and mindsets so he gets used to the "real world." Not so fast! Exposing your child to too many other kids of different behaviors too soon confuses the child. In the preschool years a child incorporates everything he sees and hears as the way things should be. In child development jargon, this is known as internalizing. It's better to ground him firmly in sensitivity during the preschool years -- preferably as long as age seven. By that age he'll be better able to make judgments about the rightness or wrongness of other children's activities. He'll view insensitivity as the wrong way to go.

Delay preschool. Unless you need your child to go to preschool -- if you need to go back to work, for instance -- keep your child home as long as you can. For many AP children, the only things they get from preschool are germs and bad habits. You can set up your own "preschool" environment at home by screening playmates and keeping away bullies.

Observe teachable moments. If you witness a situation where your child is a victim of a bully, use this as an opportunity to teach empathy. As we were empathy-training our children, we would use the phrase: "How would you feel if..." If your child pushes another child, intervene and say, "How would you feel if your friend pushed you..." If the bully pushes your child, talk about how bad that made him feel and why it is right to make other children feel happy and wrong to make other children feel sad. By the age of three, your child will begin to grasp these lessons.

Don't blame yourself for "overprotecting." By appropriately sheltering your child in the early years and grounding him with sensitivity and empathy, you are immunizing him against bullying and insensitivity when he gets older. While AP is a lot of work in the early years, later on you will be able to sit back and cash in on your investment. Someday a teacher will say to you: "My, what a sensitive and caring child you have."

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