Adults myopically view all groups of children at play as something sweet and innocent. They do wish to see that cruelty, spitefulness and bullying tendencies can be fully formed even in a half-grown child.
I made the same mistake myself while working my stand at the market. It was a quiet period for me, as most punters were milling around the dog show circle. I was passing the time by people and dog watching, the queues for the toilets alone providing enough entertainment for an entire season’s worth of TV shows.
I had registered the group of four young boys playing intently in a circle directly in front of me, but only in a ‘aww, look, isn’t it great to be young’ sort of way. I had seen them all separately at various times during the day with their parents: two brothers, each with a mop of bouncy curls crowning their heads and matching their personalities; a quieter cousin with straight, mousey-brown fly-away hair; and the outsider, an only child with a sleek helmet of thick black hair. All were the same general size, except for the younger brother who was an inch or two shorter.
All had been given light bouncy balls, which were tethered to the end of a string, allowing the owner to kick it without the ball flying off away from them. The boisterous brothers had tested the strings to the max by kicking the balls as hard as they could, and inevitably the strings quickly broke and the balls were lost. (One was in fact just wisely unclaimed after it hit a very tall and muscly man on the back of his shaven head.)
The boys were put together by their parents, who had glimpsed an opportunity for a ten-minute escape to the world of adults. Only a piercing wail could shatter that illusion. And as the boys seemed to gel well together initially, the parents relaxed into their alternative universe.
But something went sour in the group. I only became aware of the discord myself when I heard the older brother exclaim bitchily to his sibling: “Yeah, he’s really annoying!’ They were still sitting on the grass beside each other, but at that point the circle broke up. The two brothers gathered to one side, not saying anything to each other but glowering at the outsider. He blithely began playing with his carefully preserved ball-on-a-string. The cousin seemed a bit bewildered at this turn of events, and stood back a little, continuing to suck on his ice lolly while he waited to see what would be the next development.
Then the brothers pounced. Their target was the outsider’s ball. It was just too infuriating that their new enemy should still have his prize when they had lost theirs. They kicked at it, trying to get it away from him. He tried to shelter it with his body, but no matter which way he turned, one of the brothers was always there. They kicked between his legs, under his arms, across him, against him. The outsider was saying petulantly: ‘Don’t! Don’t! Stop it!’
The cousin reluctantly decided that blood is thicker than water, and also joined in the attack. His kicks were half-hearted, but still made the outsider feel as if he had been run to ground. His assailants had grouped so tightly around him he could no longer even twist and turn. His petulant tones became shrill, panicky. His pleas stayed the same, ‘Don’t! Stop it!’, but had gained in urgency. He sank to the ground and tried sitting on the ball to protect it. The brothers’ kicks just became more frenzied. The spitefulness that had spurred their attack had now morphed into glee, as they sensed their combined power over their victim. They were gorging on the sweet taste of revenge.
I watched fascinated from behind my trestle table. The suffering in the outsider’s voice was horrifying to listen to. Perhaps I too had initially considered him a bit pompous, and thought a little rough ‘n’ tumble might do him some good, but as the teasing turned into outright bullying, witnessing the scene became very uncomfortable.
Yet I did nothing. I was an adult, at least twice their height, and in full possession of a grown-up’s authority. But I did not step in. I considered it – as the tones of rising panic continued to fail in alerting any of their parents that something was wrong, I did feel it was my place to intervene. But the litigation bubble that protects modern children from being disciplined by their stressed-out teachers and minders also stops people from intervening in times of crisis. No-one wants to deal with the indignant parent of a bully, or to find out just where the child learnt that behaviour in the first place. So now, all intervention is left to those that won’t get sued.
I’m not sure how the assault finally ended. It certainly wasn’t stopped by any of the parents. Perhaps the brothers became sated with their revenge, or perhaps it was the start of another round of the dog show that distracted them. Either way, it came to an end. The victorious brothers bounced away, proud of having asserted their superiority. The cousin drifted after them, still contemplatively sucking on his lolly. The outsider picked up his ball and his wounded pride and went in search of the protection of his parents.
I was relieved that the situation had been resolved without my intervention. Whether or not there had been a need for my intervention was something I would find myself thinking about again and again in the following days and weeks.