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.
17 Comments Add yours
I think you’re right on with this approach,and that we can’t always rely on “the teacher” or whoever the authority is to deal with a bully effectively. In fact, more often than not, in my experience, the “authorities” are completely worthless when dealing with bullies. I’d stop short of suggesting to my kids that they get physical (our son was so small until his senior year, he would have had no effect at all; our oldest is so uncoordinated she would just fall over if she tried to strike out; but our middle could knock a giant flat with one blow – she’s tough!). But screaming bloody murder when they’re being bullied, or whatever the child equivalent of “fuck off” is, is definitely a worthy lesson.
I do think that a good verbal punch is probably as, if not more, effective. Essentially it’s just giving kids the confidence to face it down. Obviously there are sometimes when this is not going to work, when it could be downright dangerous (aside: how sad is it that as soon as I hit publish on this post I had to think about amending it to add that in the US now you need to be wary of getting shot??) But if you think about it, when we tell kids to ignore it, I know we are trying to teach them not to give too much credence to what others think, but at the same time, we’re kind of belittling their experience too. As adults we get it–mostly–but for kids, to say ignore what that kid is saying? They probably hear instead, you’re not worthy of interference and it then becomes their problem, not the kid who is doing the goading.
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I think sometimes those kids secretly need to get punched; it’s kind of like releasing some pixie-fuck spirit in them. I was one of those kids once, and deserved it. Good post.
It’s good to hear a voice from the other side of the fence ;-). I just wonder what we’re doing to the psyche of these kids (and especially the girls) when we put the burden on them. Especially when it’s so much easier to tell the one who is being teased to ignore it than it is to try and figure out the psychology of the pre pixie-fuck spirit who’s doing the teasing. You know? You know.
I know. I’m from the school of hard knocks.
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Amen sister! This is why millennials are turning out to be a bunch of pussies. Not my kids…and apparently not yours either.
It’s hard b/c I think as mothers (as women!) your first instinct is “oh, let’s all just get along”. But that’s not real life. So we need to give our kids the right tools to make it through real life. Even if that’s a hearty fuck off at times. Because not everyone gets along–and there are some mean, mean people out there.
No, when I hear that someone was nasty to my kid I want to rip that person into little bits and stuff them in the sewer line, and I don’t care who they are. Now, I’m not saying I’d actually do this…well maybe but…let’s just say my child is well armed with insulting remarks.
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I now have a much higher opinion of Helen Mirren .
Right? I will do my best to attempt to right her wrongs by saying it more.
I have told my children regularly, that I haven’t raised them to be anyone’s punch bag – physically, emotionally or any other way. If you feel you’re being victimized, don’t be the victim! I agree, not a popular mindset, but they need to learn to stand up for themselves & know they have our backing to do it. We have also discussed bullying in great detail so they know the difference.
It’s hard. From every direction they get, don’t hit, don’t snatch, don’t push–tell a grown-up. But what if the grown-up doesn’t or won’t help? Kids need to learn that’s it’s ok to stand up for themselves and for a lot of kids, it’s not a natural process. They need to learn it, just like learning to ride a bike or multiplication. But I think the thing we can all do is make sure they know that no matter what kind of trouble they get into for defending themselves (because somehow it’s always the one who is fighting back that ends up in trouble), that you’ve got their backs. Sometimes what is ‘right’ isn’t necessarily the thing they’ve been taught is ‘right’, you know?
I agree that it doesn’t come naturally to some of them – mine ‘eye roll’ when I tell them to fight back because it just isn’t done – thankfully, they seem to have acquired a Phd level of sarcasm which works well (although, I sometimes think I’d rather take a slap!). Good topic to chat about over dinner, though!
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My daughter got pushed around (in a serious way) by a known schoolyard bully when she was about 11. Ended up at the school nurse because she didn’t fight back. As a girl who was never afraid to throw a punch (and never got bullied as a result) I was appalled. We immediately had a lesson in where to punch or kick guys to make them BACK OFF. If not when they are kids, then when? Girls and women should never be afraid to get physical if they have to.
I told my son the same thing. Also a lover, not a fighter, but blessed with some size, and the one fight he ever got into, he won 🙂
If your son is anything like my husband, it’s the only time he’s had to throw a punch. I think once the other kids realized he wouldn’t let himself get pushed around, they didn’t even bother. I do think it’s even more important for girls—the teasing and bullying that girls are on the receiving end of seems to be so much more psychological and harder to see, and therefore harder to catch someone ‘in the act’. There was so much more I wanted to write about this, but it was turning into a novella rather than a blog post, but there’s so much that goes into the way girls treat other girls (and sometimes boys), and the way boys treat girls and how they internalize that. I almost think it would be better if everyone just threw a physical punch every now and again.
Absolutely right! Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, children need to know it is okay to do this. Both boys and girls need to know it is okay. My sons (step) were taught by their mother not to fight, not even to fight back. Then I taught them differently, I taught them to fight back. She and I worked through it, she ended up agreeing with me when the youngest got terribly bullied in school and his oldest brother stepped in to defend him against more than one.
I don’t think anyone wants to get into a physical confrontation, I know I don’t. But it IS important to know that no one deserves to be treated like a pile of dog shit and that you can fight back against it to let the person doing it know it’s not okay. Even if it’s just standing there and being able to say confidently, “That is NOT ok.” And then mutter “asshole” under your breath while you’re walking away.