There once was a time I told my kid to hurt another child. On purpose.
You’re probably expecting me to me to explain myself, beginning with saying something like “this wasn’t my finest parenting hour.” But in retrospect, I think it might have been one of my finer ones.
Let’s get to that explanation.
When my son started pre-K, I thought I was one of those new generations of enlightened moms. I kept saying all the right phrases like “think about what you’re feeling,” “use your words,” and “hitting is wrong.”
My son was an exemplary and good-natured, wise-old-man child. He was such a compassionate soul. I heard gushing stories from his teachers and early childhood educators about his amazing vocabulary and empathy for others. And I was so proud of him. Here was proof positive: I was a good mom. I was doing all the right things.
Years went by. My son went to a new school. Toward the end of first grade, things began to change. The first thing I noticed was the dirt. His collars came home stretched. Grass and mud stains were ground into his khakis in places that made no sense for a boy playing on his knees.
When I asked, he said that his friend was tossing him around. For a week, I was mollified that all was all right in his world. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. He came home sullen and moody. One day when he looked into my eyes, I saw the shading of a bruise on his cheek.
“What happened?!” I asked, wondering how an accident could have occurred and the school had told me nothing.
His friend happened. His “friend.” Shoving, hitting, lifting my son, and throwing him to the ground. And then it escalated into something deadly: His friend started shoving foods he knew my son was allergic to into his face.
My “good mom” status lay in ashes. How could he have not confided in me before now? What happened to all those careful indoctrinations to use one’s words, to problem solve, and to seek help from adults?
Call after call to the school did nothing. The boy wasn’t disciplined, much less expelled. I was promised that more adults would be watching. That it wouldn’t happen again. But it did, over and over again. The only thing more vigilance did was to teach this boy how to be sneakier about his behavior.
That’s when I realized my mistake. Others weren’t always going to play by our rules. Others weren’t always going to intercede. Others weren’t always even going to care. And my son, he already knew this. He said nothing because he didn’t think there was anything he could do about it.
In this age of helicopter parenting, we are promised this idea of an extended childhood for our kids. We are encouraged to protect our kids from hard realities, like money troubles and arguments and the simple fact that sometimes life is unfair.
We would never tell a girl not to fight back if someone was touching her inappropriately. This was no different just because he is a boy. All I did with my mommy-of-the-year words was shackle my kid. I prevented him from fighting back against being abused when nobody else was going to help him. I took away what he needed to protect his right to consent to how he was being physically treated. He was frustrated and helpless.
My son and I had a long conversation that night. Hitting is wrong, but sometimes you need to fight back. When no one is there to protect you, when no one is there to protect others, sometimes it is a necessary evil. I told my son I would support him if he needed to fight. But only if he needed to defend himself. And I told him about Teddy Roosevelt who once said: Speak softly, and carry a big stick; you will go far.
And the next day, he did.
This time when the boy tried to pick my son up, my son pushed him down. This bully, so surprised and hurt that my son fought back, finally heard the words my son had been trying to get him to hear: “No, I don’t want you to do this to me.”
Suddenly they’re friends again—thanks to the other boy’s newfound sense of empathy (I shouldn’t hurt others, because I know what it feels like to be hurt).
People may say a child isn’t capable of figuring out when it’s OK to use force and when not to. That’s why we’re here as their parents. They’re going to make mistakes, and that’s OK. Life is messy, and sometimes it’s unfair, and sometimes morality comes in shades of gray.
Hitting is wrong, and we should use our words whenever we can. But we shouldn’t forget to carry a big stick around.
Just in case.