Playground problems - how to handle a bully the right way

A PSP member writes.: "I'm writing more for my husband than for myself - but in any event I'm hoping for some insight from the collective about an ugly incident that happened this weekend. He can't shake his anger and frustration and honestly, I'm bothered by it too and would love to hear some thoughts on the matter..."

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The scenario:
Sunday afternoon, my husband took our 2.5 yr old daughter to the crowded Harmony Playground so I could take a much needed nap. While there, she played with various toys (other kids' toys) in the sandbox and no one blinked an eye. She later saw some colored chalk on the ground and ran to play with that too. It had been lying there for a while so my husband didn't stop her or think it was a problem. A few minutes into her drawing on the ground, a 6 or 7 yr old boy ran over to her, grabbed it out of her little hand and began screaming at her to get away from his stuff. She looked at him stunned and confused (remember she's only a toddler) and as my husband approached to break it up, the boy "hocked a loogie" in her hair. He didn't just spit at her, he really went for it with all his might. Sufficed to say, my husband yelled at the kid "HEY! THAT IS NOT OK!!! GET AWAY FROM HER. WHERE'S YOUR MOTHER!!?" The boy just looked at him and didn't respond. Quickly, a group of parents came up and asked what the problem was. My husband explained what happened and then even showed them the wad of body fluid still in our daughter's hair. The father of the child basically shrugged it off and said "well what do you want me to do about it?" and the other parents in the group said my husband was overreacting and that he had no right to yell at the boy. The child hid behind his father's legs and smirked while this happened. My husband, angrier now than ever said something like " you need to discipline that child - is this how you're raising him? To disrespect other children and act like an animal?". The other dad replied - "well i didn't see it so i don't know what to tell you". Even after my husband showed them the disgusting proof of what the boy did - they had no interest in holding the child accountable. Seeing this was pointless and that they were now becoming an angry mob, he took our daughter and left. Apparently they were making nasty remarks to him as he left, but it was mostly in Spanish so he understood only some of the words and tone.

Now the problem is that he's battling feelings of inadequacy; i.e. that he didn't protect his little girl and believes these parents dismissed something that was bordering on an assault. He is not someone who normally takes ANY kind of nonsense from others so he did exhibit a huge amount of self-restraint in this - but now he feels he allowed himself and our baby to be abused. Obviously there is no going back, but i'd love to know how other people would have handled it. As parents, we all want to protect our kids and of course we can't lay our hands on someone else's child unless that child is in the act of hurting someone - and then only to stop it and nothing more. So what does one do when parents refuse to take responsibility? My daughter is too young to understand what happened there (i hope) but in a year she won't be and we'd like to be better prepared for the right way to manage the situation. I'm all for letting kids sort their own stuff out as long as there's no danger, but this crossed the line and the age difference also made it more extreme. Any thoughts or advice is greatly welcomed."



  • Think of it as a lesson in compassion and empathy
  • Redirect and remove your child from the situation
  • It's a life lesson to learn how to deal with jerks
  • This is NYC where there are crazy people! It's a lesson in managing that
  • It's OK to step in and say "HEY, THAT'S NOT OK."
  • Discpline without emotion: be stern, no yelling
  • Think about what situation the bully must be in at home
  • The practical: try other playgrounds more toddler-friendly: Vanderbilt, 3rd street playground, the BBG


Recap from the Original Poster: "Thanks to EVERYONE who offered perspectives, shared stories, frustration from our situation, advice and empathy. It's really nice to be part of a community where we can rely on each other to help one another through tough situations. Below are the answers I received so everyone can benefit from the great collective response. I should have mentioned I'm pregnant and my own emotions are slightly escalated, so your reactions to our situation helped me to see things in a realistic and helpful way. Here's to hoping we can all take the high road when faced with playground drama."

"I'm sorry I don't have better advice but I would recommend avoid harmony playground like the plague on summer weekends. I highly recommend the nature playground in the north part of the park and the Vanderbilt st one in windsor terrace. Both aren't nearly as over-run as harmony tends to be. Harmony when overrun really stresses out both kids and parents. May I also be so bold as to say that perhaps there were some class/racial overtones in that exchange? It sure sounds like it and I don't think your husband could have done anything differently, except perhaps have a discussionwith your daughter about how sometimes there are other things going on in a persons life that make them behave they way they do, and there is nothing we can do about it, except ignore or walk away and not let it bring us down. An excellent opportunity to teach empathy and understanding."

"Oh how awful! Regardless of what the other dad saw or didn't see, your child is a TODDLER!
We recently had a similar frustration of inaction by parents. My husband and I were dressed up and heading to the theatre, (an almost unheard of date night) running a little late, walking along PPW to head to the subway at 9th street. A boy in front of a house on PPW- maybe about 9 years old - was standing on his stoop with a hose that wasn't running and he aimed it at us and turned on the nozzle right on us! We were furious and yelled at him. Neither he nor his parents, said anything to us. No apologies nothing. And we hurried on to the subway to not miss the play. This was a child old enough to know better. And the parents were right there, silent.
I am afraid I don't have specific playground advice, except to suggest that you try the 3rd street playground instead of Harmony, as it is much better suited for little kids. You won't find many older kids there. It seems to be for the 18 month - 5 year old set. And it is much less hectic. So sorry this happened to you. My brother was bullied a lot in school, and would come home with spit in his hair. When I got older my heart broke for not only him but for my poor parents who, despite all attempts, were powerless to make it stop."

"I am so sorry for what happened.  That sounds absolutely disgusting.  I have learned to stay out of the playgrounds on the weekends especially in the summer.
What I did was buy a membership to the brooklyn Botanic garden and go there. The new discovery garden is great!"

"I will be super-curious to read the responses you get to this post.  But I would say to your husband that there are certainly kids who, basically, no one ever says no to, and (he's right), no one is teaching or "disciplining", whatever form that takes, and they're not so pleasant or easy for everyone else to deal with.  I have definitely felt slightly crazy and like "that parent" at times, including my all time favorite a couple of years ago, telling a child at the 321 playground after school that chucking his shoes into a crowd of kids below was not OK, while no parent or sitter was anywhere to be found.  And I recently had a child of about 6 or 7 bald-faced lie to me in the playground after I watched him snatch a toy out of my son's hand (4 years); when I went over to see what was going on and explained my son had been playing with that, he said "it's mine".  I asked "you brought it from your house?" He answered yes, but of course he had not.  Later watched the same child get into minor altercations with several other kids over various things.  I find it's best to remove or redirect my son, more or less, as your husband did, to the extent possible, but as he gets older and more independent, that's not always possible and requires assessing whether there is actual risk to him vs making it a bigger deal than it needs to be.  Oh, and last weekend a kid I would say around the same age or a little older age threw a basketball in his face at close range.  Poor kid was stunned into silence...not a common occurrence!  Good times.  Best of luck navigating the jungle, er, playground."

"So sorry this happened to your family. I wonder if the only thing to do is explain to your daughter that not everyone is going to agree with you, even when it seems obvious to you that they did something wrong. It's a difficult life lesson, but you showed her that you and your husband are there to support her and love her, no matter what happens. Good luck with this - I totally understand being so angry. Horrid!"

"Wow—I felt a little PTSD reading your husband’s experience. I had a similar experience that included me, at the end, being called “White Trash” by a mother At Harmony playground. I will spare you (and me) the retelling, but it’s as simple as this—just being a parent doesn’t’ mean you’ll be a good one, and even though you have to have a license to fish or drive a car, you don’t need one to be a parent.
Asshole parents raise asshole kids. Your kids are going to grow up and have to deal with jerks and rude MFs and unfortunately for your toddler that started last weekend at the playground. My guess is that the behavior the little boy exhibited is something he’s seen.  The best thing for your husband to do is get out his Zen pillow and practice compassion for the child who has to grow up with parents who have taught him such behavior.
As for me—I still haven’t let go of all my anger at the f’ing bi*^# that called me White Trash, but I’m still trying to see her (and her 10+ year old daughter who was running up the slide as toddlers were trying to come down) in white light and hope that they have learned to be more compassionate and safe around other people. Strength to your husband—it’s super hard to let go of anger when your kids are disrespected and mistreated by other kids—especially when parents don’t do what you think is the right thing…."

"I am actually getting physically angry just *reading* your post. I can't imagine how angry your husband was from actually being in that situation. I am absolutely horrified by how that father responded, though I can't say I am all together that surprised by it. I'm sure you'll get a few "he shouldn't have judged the parent" responses-- but in this case, you absolutely CAN judge the parent, because the parent showed you first hand how he chooses to handle something like that. Its one thing to judge a parent for the behavior without knowing how they would respond-- some kids are very, very challenging as we all know!!  But-- you got to see it! He didn't respond!  In that moment, this parent actively choose to allow this behavior. I don't care how tired that dad was or what might have happened earlier or how challenging that child is-- at that moment, he just reinforced that spitting is OK. In my (ever so humble, clearly) opinion, spitting the most disrespectful behavior a kid can usually come up with. I think its up there with biting-- a common strategy a kid may try, but not a behavior an adult can let slide--- and there are NO excuses for that. (I work with kids with emotional and behavioral problems-- this is not something that some kids just "do." There are always strategies-- and letting it slide will NEVER work!)

So what to do.... I think the only thing one can do in that situation is tell your own daughter how unacceptable that other child's behavior was, and how in your family, you have different rules about how you express frustration than what that other child did. You can say that its OK that the child didn't want to share at the moment, but it was NOT ok how the other child expressed that. I think unfortunately, its something of a waste of time to try and reason with a parent who responds to their child's behavior like this-- and like your husband noticed- can seriously backfire. I don't know if I would have been able to hold my tongue either, but at the end of the day, if this is how a parent is choosing to address these kinds of behaviors, a heated confrontation from a stranger is not going to change that. I think he did the right thing by just leaving. UGH.  NOT OK!"

"That is awful, I am so sorry it happened. I think your husband did a great job of handling the situation. The key is how to move on. I have found that as my daughter gets older (almost 4) it is really hard to watch her be emotionally hurt. We were in San Francisco visiting her older cousin who she adores a month ago and this older cousin wanted nothing to do with her that evening (a complete too cool for school attitude). I was heartbroken for my daughter and really surprised by how much hurt and even rage I felt toward her cousin about this, because it is actually totally normal behavior. Spitting and yelling at a 2.5 year old when you are 6 or 7 is not normal behavior at all so I can't imagine how much I would be upset over that. I think it is really useful in a one-off, (i.e. there is no going back) to think about why it is still bothering him. The despair at the state of the world, the sadness we feel for kids who have parents who don't set limits for their kids, our own sadness at the times we were teased or bullied as children, the shame we have for the moments however few and far apart when we bullied, the realization that OMG we actually can't protect our children all the time for everything. These are basically metaphysical questions that all come up through an incident like this and these are all questions we should be really upset about so it makes sense that he is still having a hard time with it. Maybe talk to him a bit about how he is feeling and processing and hopefully in a few days time it will start to fade. I would probably stay away from Harmony Playground for a while, but that is just me."

"It takes a village. I am writing because I want your family to know I fully support the initial action taken by your husband in confronting the child. I also believe if someone else is not parenting their child, and it intersects with the well being of my child, I am absolutely going to step in. What a painful situation. In an effort to always be our best selves in a situation, I encourage you and him to discuss amongst yourselves and your friends with children various ways of how you could have handled the situation. It does seem to me, that the situation quickly escalated from your account. While I'm certain emotions were running high on both sides, constructive communication is hard to hear when one is being criticized, which i would have to guess stopped the father of the boy from being able to move forward too. We are all striving to be our best version of ourselves. We don't always get there. My advice, from having had a similar but different playground situation with a 6 yo taunting and harassing my then 2.5 yo without provocation are, the pieces of the scenario your husband can walk away with feeling like he owned the situation-he jumped in and DID protect his daughter immediately. He DID stand up for her in an appropriate manner and reproach the older child. When he evaluated the situation as not being repairable in the moment, he removed himself and daughter out of harms way. All of these choices he should be confident in. "Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in this world, but it has not solved one yet." -Maya Angelou
Try to treat it as an isolated event and a learning experience on how he is modeling the kind of person he wants your daughter to grow into. How he would want her to be able to both identify injustice and and stand her ground for it. Also what skills is he going to teach her about conflict resolution. I wish you and your family all the best."

"I think your husband did fine.  He defended your daughter (who won’t remember this almost certainly so it’s more an issue forestablishing patterns over time, and more relevant for you and your spouse than her), he saw that he was being bullied by adults the same way your daughter was assaulted by an older child (still very young mind you but older) and he said his peace, wouldn’t back down and when it started escalating he wisely left the scene.  This is still NYC / a large city and people still need to be careful - there are crazy people including crazy parents, and who needed that to escalate into violence from adults against the parent of the assaulted child. (which is where it probably was headed)  - would have been a much worse day if they hadn’t left it where they all did.  Your husband did nothing wrong.  Chalk it up to “takes all kinds”. You seem like people raising your child with good boundaries.  I worry about the child who spit into a toddler’s hair though, with no repercussions.  He just got a fantastic lesson into “no consequences”.  I wouldn’t want him to share a classroom with my child when he is older unless he is somehow getting better boundaries elsewhere and this was an isolated instance of poor role modeling from the adults around him.  And what happens if he pulls similar behavior at a job?  He will probably not get the same tolerance and will learn via hard knocks when it might be too late for him to change. It is just poor patterning for that child.  Sometimes parents really can create a monster, and I hope he's not going to become a lost child.  He's really very young, goodness 5 or 6, terrible behavior but that doesn't mean he should be written off.  I’m not worried about your daughter.  I’m really worried about her aggressor. Sorry you had to deal with this."

"Your husband was not in the wrong here. There is a problem at Harmony Playground after school and in the summer when older children are out of school. I have had a few near misses there with my 15-month-old grandson. Many of the “older” children are not well supervise and they don’t recognize the danger they pose to a toddler. Nor, do they understand that a toddler doesn’t know the difference between what’s yours and what’s mine. I have to say that I have not seen a child act the way you describe and I would have been really stunned at that behavior and can’t say how I would have responded. That kind of aggressiveness doesn’t come out of the blue. The boy must have been exposed to some rough behavior at home. I will not be taking my grandson to Harmony until school resumes. The 3rd street playground has a much younger group of children. It seems to me to be a lot safer for a toddler."

"I'd love to have responses posted to group - we go to Harmony with our two littles (3.5 and 19m), and I am routinely horrified by the way some kids treat those around them. Ditto for the splash pad, where I've had a boy well over the posted age limits knock over my toddler because he was roughhousing with his friends (cue 19mo sobbing with a scraped knee, and complete disinterest from the teen) AND had a 5-6yo with a squirt gun walk up to my toddler and deliberately squirt him in the eyes/face. In both instances, I have let loose with a "HEY. THAT IS NOT OKAY." and I have zero regrets about doing so. I'm with your husband, and I absolutely think parents should handle it when their kid displays that kind of aggressive or inconsiderate behavior. I don't think we need to helicopter or micromanage every little interaction and I do find value in letting kids work stuff out on their own, but I'm talking about sharing or losing their turn on the swings NOT getting spat upon or shoved or squirt-gunned in the face. I think it's our job as parents to make sure our kids know that behavior isn't acceptable.No actual advice on how to handle, as I'm more just in your husband's boat. At least he'll know he's not alone?"

"I do think the original poster can tell her husband to have faith in Karma. The son has obviously picked up on his dad’s either denial about or disinterest in his bad behavior (the smirking). he thinks it’s working for him now but this kid is going to have a hard time as he grows older. If you go through life believing your behavior is never your fault, you’re going to also have a lot of resentment toward the long line of people who believe otherwise and are constantly “coming down on you,” otherwise known as holding you accountable for your actions. It’s not a recipe for build self-confidence or resilience. So in a way you can feel sorry for the bully…except for the fact that we will all have to live with him and his dad and people like them."

"It is so interesting how you start your story: my husband took our daughter to the playground so I could take a nap.
Not so they could spend some time together or because they enjoy that activity or because he wanted to play with her. Consciously or un- this says something about how you view him as a parent and how he views himself.
This is a good chance for you to reflect on that. When he was faced with a situation where he has no authority and no way of convincing others that he was "right" his tool box was suddenly empty.
Why was it more important for him to prove the offense happened and get the spitter disciplined than it was for him to clean your daughter's hair and comfort her and help her understand/cope with unpredictable interactions?
It seems this could be a real opportunity for personal growth for your husband. To realize not every situation can be controlled or fixed, not every transgressor will be brought to justice and sometimes your opinion - "right" or "wrong"- will be unpopular.
Sometimes all we can do is give a hug and move on."

"When I think of these situations, I think about what a great teacher would do. My oldest son is 12, and I have seen some great teachers who really know how to discipline without emotion, but yet all stern and stuff, that perfect teacher  After all, teachers see every kind of kid and have to discipline the little ones constantly, older ones too. So, I would think that kind of teacher would discipline the child in that stern way, without yelling, that really works. Then because spitting was involved, I do think that is something that warrants telling of the parents/caregiver (usually spiting and hitting are the 2 things that require a call from a school) that he did, if he didn't spit, I don't think it would be necessary to talk to the parent/caregiver.  I think it would be best just to tell the caregiver what hapenned without passing judgment on their parenting.  And then walk away without engaging in anymore conversation, unless the caregiver was very polite and accommodating.  If the caregiver seemed the opposite, I would walk away fast after I told the facts and try my hardest not to engage in anymore conversation. I am not all perfect like that, so, I would probably say something to the child, but would not to the parent/caregiver."

"I had two reactions to this. The first is that your husband did the only thing he could have--stand up for his daughter--and also didn't do anything he would have had more cause to regret later, like getting into a physical altercation with another dad in a playground (that's nobody's best day). I understand his frustration completely,though. I had a similar situation in the same playground a year or so ago, when my daughter was "working out" in the workout area and a younger boy (6?) started unloading a bunch of hostile sexist garbage on her. I told him in clear, easily understandable terms where he could take it and what he could do with it, but when I looked around for his parents, I saw that he was with a group of about 20 people a short distance away who didn't appear to be in a receptive mood for a lecture about respect from some random dad. Maybe Gregory Peck would have taken on the larger situation, but I settled for making it a teachable moment with her about there being a lot of people in the world who just haven't been brought up the way we'd hope, and you can't let their ignorance and hateful attitudes affect the way you see yourself. But it was pretty unsatisfying, and I fantasized richly later about having taken the Gregory Peck route after all, maybe with a little of that playground brawl action mixed in as a bonus.My other reaction was to think of a song that's been on my mind since seeing Lucinda Williams in the park last week--or rather, the poem by her father that she set to music. It's something I've been trying to keep in mind, and could be useful for kids as much as parents, in the playground and anywhere else.

Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don't want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
--Miller Williams

Now, having compassion isn't the same as letting things go orgiving people a pass on unacceptable behavior. But a little extra perspective never hurts, and might help us get through our days together in this crowded, chaotic city without beating each other up, or beating ourselves up either."

"Your poor husband. As a mom of a 2.5 yo girl I would have removed the phlegm out of my child's hair and rubbed it on the boy's face. Sorry - we can analyze this situation all day long but it is just plain wrong."

"I feel for your husband - have a nice glass of wine and try to shrug it off - until my daughter is old / big enough to stand up for herself against a much bigger bully, am happy to play mama bear all day long"

"That must have been really upsetting and scary for your husband and daughter, and of course he needed to protect her. That said, as the parent of a kid who can be impulsive and inappropriate, because of the way his brain is wired, I cringe at questioning how another parent is raising his/her child, and suggesting that the child needs to be "disciplined." I think we really need to assume that everyone is doing the best job that s/he can -- there may well be circumstances that aren't clear to someone who doesn't know the child or family. Not saying that the dad responded appropriately -- but who knows what his day was like and what is going on with them."

"I'd love to have responses posted to group - we go to Harmony with our two littles (3.5 and 19m), and I am routinely horrified by the way some kids treat those around them. Ditto for the splash pad, where I've had a boy well over the posted age limits knock over my toddler because he was roughhousing with his friends (cue 19mo sobbing with a scraped knee, and complete disinterest from the teen) ANDhad a 5-6yo with a squirt gun walk up to my toddler and deliberately squirt him in the eyes/face. In both instances, I have let loose with a "HEY. THAT IS NOT OKAY." and I have zero regrets about doing so. I'm with your husband, and I absolutely think parents should handle it when their kid displays that kind of aggressive or inconsiderate behavior. I don't think we need to helicopter or micromanage every little interaction and I do find value in letting kids work stuff out on their own, but I'm talking about sharing or losing their turn on the swings NOT getting spat upon or shoved or squirt-gunned in the face. I think it's our job as parents to make sure our kids know that behavior isn't acceptable.No actual advice on how to handle, as I'm more just in your husband's boat. At least he'll know he's not alone?"