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Justine Fedak teaches her daughter to beat bullies at their own game

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Updated: January 10, 2013 8:37PM

Before I had a child, I was unaware of just how cruel children can be to one another. And I’m not just talking about bullies that intimidate with brutal force — I’m talking about those that use words to try to dismantle a peer’s psyche.

But before I tell you the most recent story that led me to write about this phenomenon, I’ll talk about the first time I experienced it — when my daughter Ally was only four.

Ally came home from school and told me about a little girl who’d said that Ally couldn’t be part of a certain group unless she had a Winnie the Pooh doll. I was perplexed by this, and hated seeing my child hurt and dejected simply because she didn’t possess a particular toy.

Then, like any parent would, I became furious. I wanted to rise to my child’s defense. But at that point, I wasn’t a very experienced mother — I’d had only four years on the job, and was more confident confronting my colleagues in the workplace than I was confronting four-year-olds on the playground (or their parents). I realized that I only had one option with Ally: to tell her the truth.

So, as best I could, I explained what I believed had happened. I told her that for centuries, human beings had excluded one another for a number of incomprehensible reasons — for being of a different race, having a different religion or merely coming from a different place. I taught Ally the meaning of the word “exclusion,” and made sure she knew that her pain was real and justified, so she’d never dish it out herself. And I told her I’d gladly get her the toy — though I couldn’t imagine why she’d want to be a part of a group that created such hurtful rules.

She didn’t, as it turns out. The next day at school, Ally told the little girl that she disagreed with any club that excluded people in any way, and that she didn’t want to play Winnie the Pooh anymore. The kids stopped playing with the dolls altogether.

As Ally continued to grow up, we often discussed why people could be cruel — because they were insecure, and criticized others to build up their own self-esteem. I told Ally about when I’d been bullied as a child, and how I’d sunk down and gone quiet each time. The kids who’d bullied me had fed off of my reaction; I’d played right into their hands. I wanted her to learn from me so she wouldn’t repeat history.

Let me return to the most recent incident that led me to write about this. Just the other day, Ally told me about a boy and girl at school that had come up to her and said, “You suck.” Then they waited for her response — which was simply to smile, say, “I guess I do suck,” and continue playing.

I was so proud that she’d had that confidence. And that’s why, when she finished telling me her story, she asked me to do something for her. She said, “Mama, I think you should write about this in your column, so people know how to handle themselves when this happens to them and can feel really good like I did.”

She was totally right. If a story ever needed a little ink, it’s this one. I love you, Ally Cat, and I’m proud of you.

Justine Fedak donated her fee for writing this column to the Noah’s Arc Foundation.

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