How play can teach children assertiveness and protect against bullying


I came across an article published by the American Journal of Play in 2011 which was an interview with Hara Estroff Marano (an editor for Psychology Today for over twenty years) and Lenore Skenazy (also a columnist and blogger, but most well known when she was given the mantle of ‘America’s Worst Mum’ after allowing her 10 year old son to ride the subway in New York by himself). Both women are powerful advocates for children and building resilience in them.

The article discusses the effects of fear on parenting and children’s opportunities for free play today, but of interest to me was the section that specifically discusses ‘bullying’ and ‘play’. Marano begins by talking about an article she wrote in 1996 titled ‘Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me? A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids’, that funnily enough she claims no-one was interested in bullying at the time. Move forward 15 years and the topic of fear and protection of children from danger (and bullying) is rarely out of our conversations today.

The fundamental question here is one of balance. Are our fears truly founded or have they taken on a life of their own? Have we somehow lost sight of the reality of just how we raise kids to be self-confident?

Bullying is one part of this. Marano claims that more recently the definition of bullying has changed and enlarged. She cites an example of parents understanding their child being rejected in play as bullying. But is it? Is one child saying to another child ‘no’ you can’t play with us today intended to cause harm? Probably not directly, but as adults we feel the rejected child’s pain and want to ‘make things better’. Telling a child that he or she can’t play may reflect a whole variety of totally benign situations says Marano. The kids may feel they already have enough participants in whatever they’re doing. They may be in the middle of some actions that are best not interrupted. They may be getting along so well they don’t (for the time being), want or need any extraneous members. Of course tomorrow is another day.

That’s not to say that bullying doesn’t exist. Throughout history people have used this as a workable social strategy and it will probably continue to be a problem into the future – despite our best efforts to eradicate it or ensure an ‘inclusive’ environment.

Playing freely helps kids gain social skills to act as a deterrent against true bullying. They learn how to handle disruptions. They learn how to negotiate disputes. They learn how to dispel problems. They learn how to detect and even avoid those kids who tend to create difficulties says Marano. They learn how to ask to join others already engaged in an activity and most importantly they learn how to be assertive which is the single best defense against bullying.

Learning to negotiate social situations requires a lot of observation and cognitive sophistication and the more children lack these skills the more likely they are to be preyed upon by bullies. Children being able to play which each other (free from adults) and develop social skills provides the opportunity to sharpen these skills through practice.

So should parents ever intervene? The best answer to that comes back to giving children the best tools they need for living independently. Sometimes if children are younger or lacking in assertiveness parents may need to intervene to set kids back on the right path. The opportunity for adults to explore the implications of behaviour on others with their children can only be a good thing, however the more parents step back and allow children to work through conflict themselves…the more assertiveness can grow in a child. The difficulty comes when parents don’t distinguish the difference between a minor and a major issue, understandable when they’re told that bullying is present in every negative interaction between children.

Lack of opportunities for kids to free play is problematic for learning assertiveness skills and may in turn encourage bullies, rather than dissuade them. Over-supervision or over-management of children’s lives can cause this. Parents have always been the social architects for their children choosing the neighbourhoods they live in, where they go to school and in some respects their children’s attitudes towards play, particularly free play outdoors.

In the same way Marano says that parents influence their children’s assertiveness competency. You begin to structure ways to solve little problems that kids can appropriate as their own. From such situations kids learn how to solve problems for themselves. What’s more they learn that they can solve problems she states.

The value of free play is not always immediately obvious to parents. It is not goal directed, rather it grows organically out of the needs of kids. There’s an uncertainty to it – which scares many adults, particularly into a need to structure or control. Free play is representation that allows a child the opportunity to begin to explore the world on his or her own. That is nature’s first coping system, and it’s 100% portable for a reason – to foster independence.

From the moment children are born, our adult duty is to prepare them to function well without us using that coping system. Without doubt play is the best facilitator of that system.

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