Years ago my husband told me a story about the one fist-fight he got into on the schoolyard asphalt. There were insults and threats and while not quite pistols at dawn, an assignation by the lockers at 3–or something to that effect. My husband is a big man, in stature as well as heart, but despite his size he comes down squarely on the lover side of the lover/fighter equation.
“I hit him before he could hit me,” my husband told me. Sometimes in life, he insisted, you have to throw a punch. “And sometimes,” he said, “you have to throw the first one.”
I used to cringe every time I heard that story. Especially when I became the mother to not one, but two boys. I used to think that surely preaching–never mind teaching–violence was never going to be the answer. Surely we want our kids to grow up to be intelligent, rational, non-violent folk.
You can preach intelligent, rational, non-violent; you can teach do the right thing until the cows are blue in the face on their way home. But my husband is right. Sometimes you have to throw a punch. And sometimes you have to throw the first one.
I’ve had a number of conversations recently listening to parents tell me about their son or daughter being goaded, picked on, harassed, punched, made fun of, called names. It happens at school, on the playground, on the football pitch, in the hallways. Most of it doesn’t go too much deeper than the normal rough seas of childhood we all had to sail; some of it probably toes the line of what I would consider bullying, not a word I bandy about without thought.
They, like most of us, give their kids the same advice.
Don’t let it get to you.
Tell an adult.
Be the bigger person.
Do the right thing.
It’s the first line of defense: find a teacher, find a grown-up, walk away. Sometimes it’s enough. But sometimes, it’s not. Because in real life, the perp, also known as ‘the little shit’, often gets away with his or her actions without any real consequence.
There’s a good chance what I’m about to write will be taken the wrong way. I stand by it nonetheless.
I hereby call bullshit on our approach of teaching kids to always turn the other cheek. Sometimes turning the other cheek isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to throw a punch. Hopefully it’s a metaphorical punch, but, well, sometimes it may be a real one.
Why would we encourage a young girl to shoulder the burden of being made fun of by telling her to ignore it or pretend it’s not happening or find a way to convince herself that it doesn’t matter? Why do we perpetuate that kind of bullshit with our kids? Because of course it matters–it matters a tremendous amount, especially to a young girl.
It took me most of my life to build up a skin thick enough to let that sort of thing roll off my back. Part of that thickening process was learning how to say “fuck off.” A verbal punch. A young girl probably won’t be able to let insults about the way she looks just roll of her back, especially not when society throws images of what a girl should look like at her all the time and then backtracks and contradicts telling her ‘no, no, everyone is beautiful in their own way”.
Every time we tell that little girl to ignore it or walk away, she’s internalizing that insult. Every time we tell her to find an adult to tell, we are trusting that the adult will handle it in the correct way. We’re assuming the perp will be dealt with. But most damaging, we’re failing to give her all the tools she needs for dealing with it herself.
Why should a boy who is getting punched on a semi-regular basis have to bear the physical pain of being pummeled? Why should he have to bear the burden of responsibility for someone else acting like an asshole? Not only must he bear the brunt of being hit, but the playground consequences of running and finding a teacher and the backlash that ensues. And that’s assuming the adult, who probably didn’t see how everything happened, is even going to mete out a consequence.
I wish life worked the way we want it to. I wish that being the bigger person and walking away was always, always the right thing to do. And it is sometimes. But not always. That’s not how life works. That’s not how childhood works or the playground or the hallways of middle or high school. Hell, it’s not even how the workplace works.
I’m not suggesting we teach our kids to push and shove and punch their peers, to use violence as a means of negotiation. Not at all. I am suggesting we find a way to teach our kids how to deliver a metaphorical punch when needed. As Helen Mirren so eloquently put it, if she had any advice to give to her younger self, it would be to use the words “fuck off” much more frequently.
We all strive to give our kids the tools to get through life, but sometimes we leave a few important bits out. Kids need a slightly watered-down version of “fuck off” in their arsenal.
I’ve stopped short of telling my kids to call someone a four-letter word. We’ve taught them that no one has the right to hurt them or to touch them in ways that make them feel uncomfortable. We’ve taught them if they feel threatened or need to defend themselves, they should do what they need to do and we will always get their backs. But we’ve also told them that sometimes you need to push back, hard enough to let the other person know you’re not going to be pushed around.
If I happen to hear they’ve called someone who was regularly giving them a hard time an asshole? If I find out someone threw a punch at them and they punched back?
I’ll be the one turning the other cheek.