Bullies at the Pool [Life’s teachers are everywhere]

Yesterday I was bullied by kids at the public pool. Well… let me rephrase that: Yesterday my wounded inner child was triggered at the public pool.

In the Splash Zone

While hanging out at the pool in the late afternoon, helping my 6-year-old daughter feel comfortable jumping into the 5-foot “deep end” with her donut-floatie, I was splashed full-on in the face by some boys. They were probably about 10 or 11 years old, large-framed, with hard eyes and loud laughs. 

They had been playing nearby, splashing and pushing each other, gradually encroaching into the place where my daughter was trying to jump. As they jockeyed for space along the edge, she cautiously scooted over, side-eyeing them nervously. They laughed and grabbed at each other, ignoring her as she stood there patiently waiting for them to move. 

One of them cupped his hands and plunged them into the water, sending a big spray in my direction. Drenched, I yelled out in surprise, “Hey! Careful!” 

The largest one turned to me with a smirk. “What, it’s just water, ” he said. “This is a pool, where kids play!” 

I had expected an apology, and the heat rose up in me. “You splashed me right in the face,” I responded, indignantly. “Just be aware that there are other people in here.”

His smaller friend joined in, “If you don’t want water on you, why are you in the pool?” They exchanged a glance and laughed in my direction.

My guts tightened. I was red-faced. How dare they disrespect me! By this time, I had slid up and out of the pool, and so I bent down to face them. Pointer finger raised, I found my teacher voice.

“Listen. You need to cut that out. I don’t appreciate your attitude,” I said, with as much grown-up authority as I could muster.

I moved with my two children to the kiddie pool on the other side of the complex, taking a few deep breaths and feeling proud of myself for walking away. A few minutes later the same boys entered the water just a few feet from us. 

They followed me over here? I thought.

The biggest kid leaned up against the side, floating in the water and staring at me. 

I met his gaze.

“What?” he challenged. “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Just wondering why you decided to come over here and get in our space again.”

“Your space?” his friend replied with a snort. “This is a public pool!” They turned to each other and laughed again. 

“Where are your parents?” I asked, determined to take this to their supervisors. 

“We don’t have parents!” they said with maniacal glee, high-fiving each other. “Where are your parents?” they squealed back. 

Really? Classic middle-school retort.

“You boys are extremely disrespectful,” I said, stating the obvious and sounding like schoolteacher. 

“We’re only disrespectful to disrespectful fucking parents,” murmured the smaller one. 

Wait. Did he just cuss at me?? 

Red alerts went off in my mom-brain. That child is cursing at you…that child should be punished, my mind flashed.

“That’s it!” I pronounced. “I’m going to let the lifeguards know about your behavior and if you keep this up, you are going to get removed from this pool.” 

I stormed away—or rather, I slogged slowly away through knee-deep water—toward the bored-looking teenager at the far side of the pool. I had no idea if a nasty attitude was enough to get a kid booted from the pool, but I knew I had to walk away before I said (or did) something I might regret. 

Image by Nadine Doerlé from Pixabay

My visceral response was akin to the I’m going to tell your manager and get you fired! feeling I’ve had before in response to rude customer-service reps. A sense of entitlement: Someone needs to HEAR ME! Someone should side with me and invoke justice! It’s an impotent feeling, like hollering into the wind. These boys were being obnoxious, and yet there was really nothing I could do, expect solicit the support of a young, timid teenage girl in a tied-off t-shirt and a whistle. 

After explaining the situation and offering the flimsy accusation that these kids ‘had no parents,’ I watched with a sense of smugness as the blond lifeguard walked reluctantly over to rebuke the boys, who were now splashing an aggravated-looking mom and her small, crying baby.

There, I thought. I have done my duty as an upstanding citizen and representative of righteous moms. I have restored order here at the public pool.

Expect that I still felt sick to my stomach.

As I sat there stewing on a pool lounger, while the rest of the town giggled and played in the water, it occurred to me that this whole interaction was not really between insolent young people and a grown 45-year-old woman (a business owner and mother of two!)… but between some mean boys and a self-conscious, too-pale, slightly-chunky, awkward adolescent girl.

My wounded inner child (who I have been relentless working to heal for YEARS) was so quickly and unknowingly triggered, that Adult-Me became embroiled in an altercation with actual CHILDREN.

When I was younger, middle school and early high school-age, I did NOT enjoy going to the pool. My skin was too white, my leg hairs too stubbly, my tummy too obtrusive, and I was not a good swimmer. I didn’t like getting water on my face because my eyes burned from the chlorine and my asthma flared up (probably from nerves). While I could feel at home riding horses with the 4-H Club, or I could pretend to be cool in my Gothed-out leggings and black eyeliner, at the pool I was… well, UNCOMFORTABLE. Those tan girls in bikinis stretched out on towels, that was not me. Those tomboy girls doing flips off the diving board or playing chicken on boys’ shoulders… NOT ME.

As soon as that first kid sneered “What, it’s just water,” my self-conscious inner child became instantly exposed. I didn’t even realize she was still in there, shivering and susceptible. But I had heard that same snide remark before, decades ago, and all my buried self-doubts germinated, like dark seeds: I am flawed, I am broken, I am afraid. 

I’ve been doing a lot of Byron Katie’s Work lately, investigating my thoughts and turning them around. Her mantra is to love REALITY. Our pain and suffering comes from resisting the truth of what’s happening and letting the stories we tell ourselves overcharge our emotions.

As I sat on the side of the pool watching my own kids play in the water, still buzzing with adrenaline from the interaction with the rude boys, I reflected on my thoughts:

Those boys were being obnoxious. Those boys shouldn’t have spoken like that to me. Those boys should have respected me. I am hurt by their behavior.

In her book, Loving What Is, Byron Katie has us ask four questions about each of our thoughts, and then turn the thought around:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can I be absolutely certain it is true?
  3. How does this thought make me feel and react?
  4. Who would I be without this thought?
  5. Turn the statement around to some version of its opposite, and try to locate some truth in the new turnaround.
    [Source: Byron Katie, Loving What Is, 2022 rev. edition]

Hmm. I worked through each of them in my head, gently pushing aside my fretting inner child and her complaints.

Image of Loving What Is book cover | Photo by author

Those boys were being obnoxious Those boys were NOT being obnoxious. 

(Yes they were! Yes they were! my inner child screams.) Ok, ok, but also weren’t they just playing around with each other in the water? Granted they were oblivious to their impact on any of the other visitors in the pool, but who am I to judge their intent? This one is tricky—what’s obnoxious to some may not be to others. Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Those boys were being obnoxious. I was being obnoxious. 

(Well, hmph! I never!) But…maybe. If some random adult yelled at my kids for splashing them, wouldn’t I consider that obnoxious? I suppose I could have just ignored it. I was responding from a place of inner wounding after all. If the splash and the comment hadn’t been triggering to me, I probably wouldn’t have engaged any further.

Those boys shouldn’t have spoken like that to me. I shouldn’t have spoken to those boys like that. 

Eesh… there might be some truth in that one. I am starting to see this from a different angle.

Those boys should have respected me. Those boys didn’t have to respect me. 

Would I want my kids to be respectful if they accidentally splashed someone in the pool? Yes. Do all kids have to respect all adults simply because they are older? No. One great truth I learned as a teacher in inner city Chicago was this: If RESPECT is what you want, you had better earn it. Respect is not a given. No one gets to walk through life demanding respect from others. 

Those boys should have respected me. I should have respected them.

Although that’s a harder pill to swallow, I can accept that it might be equally as true as the original. If I want to be respected, I must first offer respect to others. That was hard for me to do when I was operating from a place of self-doubt. 

I am hurt by their behavior. They are hurt by MY behavior. or They are hurt by THEIR behavior. 

I’ve always told my kids that bullies only act that way because they are protecting their own soft, hurting hearts. Whatever experiences those boys have had in their short lives up to that moment, have shaped and framed the way they approach the outside world. Their bravado is protection. Their hard-eyed smirks shield the aching pain of emotions, which they have learned they must guard. I only know this because I have lived a human life for decades, wielding my own shields and swords. 

By no means do I excuse or validate the behavior of these boys. I wasn’t the only one at the pool bothered by their disregard of common courtesy and shared space. But it is never as simple as bad versus good. My heated reaction to their taunts just added more negative energy to their already-tumultuous internal environment.

They didn’t need more shame or blame from me, a random stranger waving parental authority at them—they are children, after all, and their negativity is borne from fear. The antidote to fear is love. Therefore, the only true way for me to respond is with LOVE.

I am hurt by their behavior. I am NOT hurt by their behavior. 

Their behavior has no relevance to me. Their behavior is THEIRS; and my hurt is MINE. My hurt arose from my own experiences years ago, or rather my own memories of those experiences. 

I believe that every challenging experience in life is a valuable chance to learn and grow.

This experience, however trivial it may seem from the outside, was a tremendous gift to me. It allowed me to become aware of the unhealed parts of myself that had been laying dormant.

The most interesting part of all this was perhaps the reaction of my own children—how they rallied around me after the boys had moved away, sticking close by and eager to offer their assistance. (Want me to stick my middle finger up at them, Mom? asks my eight-year-old son, always looking for a good reason to use his newly-discovered silent curse.) 

While a previous version of myself would be satisfied that my kids saw me defending my pride, this more open and vulnerable Me wants them to witness the humility of my self-reflection as well. I explained that, although I was initially angry and offended, I had paused to look deeper at the situation from other perspectives. I told them that, given a do-over, I would have responded to the boys with kindness instead. 

“Well, I’m holding up two middle fingers in my pocket right now,” my son replied. 

I smiled to myself. Because, honestly, that feels pretty good too.

©Skye Nicholson 2022

One thought on “Bullies at the Pool [Life’s teachers are everywhere]

  1. Love your son…and yes…something I tell my children to remind them and myself is that the bullying is coming from fear, hurt, hate, anger, sadness….overall lack of love…
    Thanks for sharing!


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