Apr 9, 2011

"Well my mom told me if anyone hits me, I should hit them back!"

What do I say to this kid, in trouble for hitting another kid—usually because the other kid messed with him in some minor way? What I usually say is, “Well, there may be times when you feel you need to defend yourself, but you need to understand that our school is never going to have a policy that you can fight with another student if provoked and not receive any consequences. If you feel you have no other choice but to fight, you need to also understand and accept in advance the consequences that will come with that decision. If you’re man (or woman) enough to fight, you’re man enough to accept the consequences of fighting”

What I want to say is this:

Well, your mom is wrong. If mom is teaching you to lay out anyone who lays a hand on you, she's simply teaching you how to live a life where problems go unsolved and trouble dogs you at every step. No one needs to “teach” his or her child that if “anyone lays a hand on you, you hit them back.” Just about everyone, including kids, are smart enough to know when they are in real danger and will fight back in self-defense. A few years ago, a good friend of ours literally had to fight for her life for hours against an assailant, who she remarkably was able to fight off. Ordinarily she is one of the most gentle, unaggressive people I know. I’m reasonably certain her parents never taught her “hit back if any one lays a hand on you.” They didn’t need to. The instinct to protect one ’self is inborn. “Fight or flight” is the technical term, I believe.

We’re fortunate that in our school fights are rare occurrences, but often times the “mom/dad told me I should always defend myself” argument comes up during lower level disciplinary events, and when a schoolyard scuffle does break out, invariably this argument makes an appearance.

Okay sure, there may be times when a kid needs to stand up to a bully. But I find when parents take it upon themselves to teach their children to “hit back” the result is often hyper-aggressive, hyper-sensitive children who fly off the handle in “self-defense” at the slightest provocation and who are often bullies themselves. These are the kids scowling in the principal’s office yet again, because “Johnny pushed me” or “Jane got in my face” or “Jason was calling me names.” These are the kids shouting down the hall at other kids to “say it again and see what happens.” These are kids that are as likely to throw the first punch as put up fists to defend themselves. Children often times aren’t mature enough to discern when to apply their parents’ advice to “handle their business.” Dad might be thinking this is to be applied if his son gets jumped by some thugs on the street, while “Junior” assumes this means to lash out if another student bumps him.

If parents seriously believe their children are under constant threat of physical harm then the least they can do is provide their child with proper self-defense training, whether martial arts, or even basic fighting skills. But to send a child off with little else but a supposedly street-savvy admonition to hit back can only lead to trouble.

I understand the impulse, though, as a parent. No one wants to see or imagine their child hurt by someone else, picked on, or bullied. On occasion my two year old son will report that one of his little playmates at the daycare hit him. I have to admit telling him “Well, if he hits you, you just him back” sounds a lot tougher and more effective than the wimpy-sounding “Well, if he hits you, you just tell Miss Rose.” But when I put my ego aside, I realize that except in the most extreme circumstances (like my friend’s experience above), “telling Miss Rose” is exactly the appropriate response in civilized society. For us adults, “Miss Rose” is better known as the police. We deal with aggressive situations while still following the law. In the real world, the law generally frowns upon the kind vigilante justice some of us expect our kids to mete out. So for now, I’ll keep telling my son to take his concerns to the proper authorities. My boy, like most toddlers—and most of us for that matter--is willing enough to hit if angered. There is no need for me to encourage or teach it.


yolland said...

When I was in second grade, I went after an older bully who was doing 'Indian rope burn' on my friend to make her fall from a tree on the playground (she was several feet up and hanging upside down). I beat him over the head with a rock until his scalp bled and also used a few expletives. I was then placed in detention because "you used some very bad language, young lady." When my father came to pick me up, he accosted the principal: "Let me get this straight--you fault a child for cursing in a situation where most adults would curse too, but you DON'T care if one child beats another over the head with a rock?" He then marched me over to the kid's house and made me apologize in person for hitting him. The parents were rednecks and just slouched around smirking at our lunacy. After we left, my father said, "Did you see how his parents don't even care? That's probably why he's a bully."

I did have a bit of a reputation as a kid for reacting five thousand percent to the most minor physical slights. I think this was mostly because my next oldest brother physically bullied me a lot (when our parents weren't around, naturally) which I found humiliating, and I concluded that while I couldn't stop him, I'd be darned if I'd let anyone else even try it. I was afraid of looking weak. I wonder if that, too, is something certain parents who tell their kids to hit back are concerned about--that if the kid doesn't stand up for him/herself, s/he'll be branded a sucker and pursued mercilessly. Or that it seems their kid is a "sucker," then maybe it means they are too.

Sean said...

I think there's a lot of truth to the reason why some of my students are taught this by their parents--that they don't want their kid to appear weak and get picked on as a result. Particularly those that come from a certain environment where you have to project a certain tough "don't mess with me" image just to stay safe. Of course this mentality won't help anyone get out of that environment.

And in truth I can't be certain that only the kids that are taught to "hit back" are the ones that get in trouble more. It could be that there are students who stay out of trouble who are taught the same thing, but just find less cause to put it into practice. Correlation is not causation after all. Your own story indicates that motives for kids lashing out can be more complex then I've indicated.

But I guess my theory is that most of us don't need to be "taught" to defend ourselves and when parents do emphasize this it results in a kid that overapplies going off at the slightest offense to his or her pride.

I confess I can't imagine the yolland I know (as much as one can know someone on a internet forum :) ) bashing some kid on the head with a rock!