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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

1,000 Monkeys: Bullying Behavior

Film critic Thelma Adams, who, like me, also does a lot of writing that has nothing to do with movies, has this great essay up on her site called “Fat Ten-Year-Old,” in which she details defending her daughter from a sullen, bullying former classmate. This piece really struck a chord with me, as I must confess to having felt that “Mama Grizzly Bear” urge myself on more than one occasion when my own little cubs have faced social challenges.

When my daughter Neve was four, she attended a small preschool for awhile. There were many things I liked about this school and its hippy-dippy, freeschool philosophy. It was the kind of place where, when my friend’s little son got frustrated that another child kept trying to touch the trains he was playing with and muttered, “Goddammit” — under his breath, but audibly — the adults present all chuckled tolerantly. The predominant fashion choices among both parents and children at the school featured all-natural fibers, vegetable dyes, and comfortable (but expensive) European shoes. Many of the families whose children attended the school were interested in things like co-housing and consensus model and cloth diaper and attachment parenting. The snacks were healthy and organic and peanut-free. It was a very Seattle sort of educational utopia, with a strong undertone of Seattle passive-aggressiveness (if you live here, or have spent much time at all here, you know exactly what I mean).

The toys were high-quality, mostly wooden — this was the kind of place where primary colored plastic toys from the shelves of Toys R Us or Target wouldn’t have dared to show their ugly, manufactured-in-China faces; where there was a dedicated art room where it didn’t matter if paint dripped on the tile floor or was smeared all over the table by a finger-painting young Picasso; where the baby dolls were not only appropriately multicultural and hand-stitched, but had realistic boy and girl gentalia, to boot; where the schedule, such as it was, revolved around what the children wanted to do, not when the adults wanted them to do it.

It was a paradise of sorts for the children of (mostly white) liberal Seattleite parents who took the idea of being the “right” kind of parent very seriously — yes, parents like me, especially around that time in my life. Many of the parents there intended to homeschool their kids, and those who didn’t were investigating the area Waldorf and democratic private schools, those little enclaves of education favored by parents who can afford to shell out $25,000 a year in grade school tuition so they can avoid exposing their natural-fiber-wearing, organic-vegetable-eating offspring to the pitfalls of public education.

In many respects, this was a great preschool. I liked the other parents. I liked the owner, a brilliantly smart, witty, large-boned Englishwoman with a jolly sense of humor and ideas around education greatly informed by A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School, only without the edict that parents should abandon their offspring at the age of six to a country boarding school, so as to remove themselves from their child’s molding and education. I did not like the owner’s older daughter, who at four was right around the same age as my own daughter.

Lizzie was a beautiful child, with creamy white skin and dark curls that made her look like a little Snow White. She was the picture of sweetness and childhood innocence. And she had it in for my daughter from the first day we walked in the door of that school. She was, at four, already the kind of controlling, bullying kid who reveled in dictating to the other kids what games they would play when, who could play with which doll or wear which dress-up, who could play with whom. She was imminently aware of the social status and relative freedom afforded her by the fact that her mother owned and ran the school. And she seemed to take a particular sort of vicious joy in making my daughter cry.

“You can’t play this game,” she would say. “This game is only for four-year-old girls.”

When my daughter pointed out that she was four, Lizzie would shift gears without hesitation. “It’s only for four-year-old girls with brown eyes.”

“But I have brown eyes.”

“Yes, but it’s only for four-year-old girls with brown eyes and DARK brown hair. Yours is light brown.”

And so it would go, day after day, week after week. Is it any wonder that I came to loathe the little minx? All the more so because her mother — the owner of the school, as you may recall, and therefore the school’s only real authority figure — staunchly refused to do anything about it. The school had conflicting policies; on the one hand, it promised to be a safe, happy, respectful environment for all children, but on the other, it had a very strict “no punishment” policy — no time outs, no threats, and really, no discipline whatsoever — that would ensure a safe, happy and respectful environment if one of the kids happened to decide that bullying behavior is what made them happy.

I must confess that I had fantasies about putting Lizzie in her place that were in direct conflict with my own firmly held beliefs around respectful interactions between adults and kids; I would lie awake some nights and dream about standing up to this four-year-old dictator in spite of the “no interference” rule and telling her, quite firmly, that her bullying behavior toward my daughter was not okay, and that she’d better knock it off, or else.

Instead, I mostly ran interference in more subtle ways, encouraging my daughter to play with other kids, or stealthily guiding her to parts of the house where Lizzie wasn’t playing. In a very real sense, I allowed myself to be bullied by the director’s laid-back charm, and by the peer pressure to conform to the educational philosophy that permeated the school, to the extent that I didn’t interfere at times when I thought I should have. A few times, we packed up and left early as soon as Lizzie would start in on Neve. Lizzie would smile smugly as I — heavily pregnant and also hauling my two-year-old son around — gathered up our things and headed to our van. I seethed inside and wanted to grab that kid and shake her — which is saying quite a lot for me, given that I am firmly opposed to physical punishment and spanking.

Eventually, Neve stopped wanting to go to the school at all, because she simply could not handle Lizzie and her bullying anymore. I had had enough of both Lizzie and her mother, and I was feeling overwhelmed as it was, dealing with three young children at that point and just wasn’t up for a battle. Besides, the school belonged to Lizzie and her mother, and if you disagreed with the school’s philosophy, well, you were free to leave, but not free to advocate for change. So we parted ways, more or less on amicable terms.

I’ve wondered, from time to time, what kind of girl Lizzie grew up to be. Probably, on the balance, she grew up just fine, and it’s entirely possible that, over time, the natural social order took its course and she learned from other children not wanting to play with her when she bullied them not to act that way, all on her own, no discipline required. My own daughter is 14 now, and I don’t think she remembers being bullied by Lizzie; if so, it certainly hasn’t scarred her permanently, and she’s moved on. She’s a well-adjusted, sweet, social girl with a pack of good friends, and she doesn’t maintain those friendships by threatening or bullying other kids to get her way. As for the school itself, it’s still there, still thriving, with a larger staff now, but the same philosophy.

And as for me? I am in many ways as much a liberal, Socialist, hippy-dippy parent as I was a decade ago. Certainly I have a very different, less authoritarian parenting style than my husband, which has been a bit of a challenge as we’ve merged our households. But one thing we agree on is that we don’t tolerate bullying behavior from our kids — not toward each other, not toward other kids. And when my kids do encounter bullying situations, I no longer let peer pressure keep me from standing up for them and making sure the situation is dealt with.

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2 Responses to “1,000 Monkeys: Bullying Behavior”

  1. Thelma Adams says:

    Oh, Kim, I’m so glad my essay inspired you to write this piece on 1000 Monkeys. That you’re still stewing a bit over this life chapter a decade later shows how much we as mothers can become the victims of our kids’ bullies because we are the ones that have to comfort and coach. My novel PLAYDATE ( with issues of bullying, gender, moving to a new town, and parental infidelity — but in a funny-emotional way. For more essays, check out I think you’ll like the one about running away from home — and it may inspire another essay from you.

  2. paula says:

    I commented on Thelma’s excellent piece and have to commend you on yours. Both of my sons experienced bullying to the extent of my removing them from the school. And, not ironically, it was BOTH times the sons of the President of the PTA. Now they attend a fairly conservative private school with more or less strict ideas about discipline. The other school had been a public one, with many strengths- but discipline was not one of them. One instance, my son got hit so hard that he had the wind knocked out of him and it was handled by “talking” about the feelings of the “hitter”- he felt my son was ignoring him. And that was it! That was how it was handled.
    I’m just grateful I could finally get them out of there.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon