“Stop hitting me!” It was Eli’s voice.
Generally those words don’t really whip up much emotion in me. I hear them 28 or 29 times a day from Eli. It’s almost a Gregorian chant thing at our house. Eli is a bit . . . dramatic. Each incident is investigated and most of the time the accusation turns out to be largely exaggerated.
This was different. The tone was different and we weren’t at home. We were in a local McDonalds restaurant play area and both boys were in the top level of the large play set. I couldn’t see them clearly behind the nets and plastic constructs.
Eli yelped in pain and Charlie yelled “Stop!”. What? I stood up and moved to the side to get a better view. “Stop hitting him!” That was Charlie. I could see a third child bent over what was a presumably struggling Eli.
Oh. Hell. No. I started for the entrance while wondering what the maximum weight load was on the play set. Before I could move I heard a grunt and squeal of surprise and discomfort from the other child. I looked up. “Get off my brother!” Charlie yelled. He physically grabbed the boy and tossed him to the side. The other boy lunged at Charlie and started punching him.
“Charlie!” I said loudly. “Just get away from him and come here.” Charlie was easily holding off the other child, who I could see now was smaller than him. Charlie shrugged the boy off. There were some glares and words exchanged and Charlie started down. Eli was already standing by our table holding his belly and sobbing.
My wife was beside herself. She held Eli close and told Charlie loudly to leave the mean boy who was obviously raised by inappropriate and rude people alone and come to her. She was scanning the adults trying to determine who the parents were. The boy’s father stared into his Shamrock Shake and acted oblivious.
Neither of our boys could say exactly why the fight started. I was suspicious. I love my kids, but these things don’t usually happen for no reason. While we were talking there was another yelp from the play set as the other little boy was involved in another altercation. OK, sometimes these things do just happen. After the second altercation, Shamrock Shake took his little pugilist by the arm and left.
Charlie was very upset. He looked into his lap as he apologized for fighting. “He was hitting Elijah and he wouldn’t stop,” Charlie explained. He lifted his impossibly brown eyes to mine. “So I stopped him.”
The world has changed since I was Charlie’s age. It was simpler then. I would have been not just expected, but required to physically intervene on my brother’s behalf. Back then however, a scrap between two young boys wouldn’t have really raised eyebrows. I mean it wouldn’t have made people particularly happy, but it wasn’t the issue that it is today.
Let me stop here for minute and clarify something. I am not saying it’s ok for kids, or adults for that matter, to fight. But I wonder what kind of message we are sending our kids. My message to Charlie was “Don’t Fight”, “Don’t Settle Issues Physically”. Now he was standing in front of me scared and confused. He was scared because he had broken a rule and figured there would be a consequence. He was confused because he had helped his little brother the only way he could at the time and wasn’t sure how and why that could be wrong.
Charlie has received a lot of mixed messages. He was in Tae Kwan Do lessons off and on for about 2 years. He learned to punch and kick effectively. He was very good at it. His instructors took their duties very seriously and they preached self control and never to use what they learned to hurt people. However, he was still being taught to kick people in the head. At 15 or 16 the message is clear, at 7 or 8, maybe not so much. I have also taught him some of the Muay Thai techniques I learned back in the day when I was stationed in Japan. I also told him that he shouldn’t use the techniques except in an “emergency”.
Messages come from all over. I think the Bible talks about turning the other cheek. However. in that same Bible there is plenty of smiting going on. In school and in society in general anti-bullying campaigns and initiatives, very appropriately I might add, urgently discourage children from physical confrontation.
Again, I want to stress, that I am not saying that any of the above activities are wrong . . . I am saying that my 8-year-old was confronted by a situation that required him to physically assert himself and the instructions he received from his experiences in life conflicted. Should he go get an adult? Should he use what he was taught to defend his brother? He made his choice.
Now that I think about it, I guess that my approach was that if I just kept telling Charlie to never use force to settle an issue and that fighting was inappropriate that he wouldn’t resort to it unless the situation was dire enough to warrant it; that he wouldn’t resort to physicality until the severity of the situation forced him to disobey me. Additionally, in preparation for that moment I offered him instruction in the use of physical force.
Using that approach, when the day comes that he finally has to use physical force I can tell him that I didn’t really mean he should never fight. At that point I can tell him that I gave him a rule that I expected him to break when the time came. I can then watch him as he wonders to himself if I really expect him to follow any of the guidelines and rules that I laid down for him. I can watch as my credibility takes a huge hit.
The day of physical force had come and Charlie sat next to me tearfully apologizing for getting into a fight. That was especially heartbreaking because he is such a sweet kid. There isn’t a mean bone in his body, which is a very good thing. Charlie is not yet 9 but he is rapidly approaching 5 feet in height. If I give him seconds at dinner tonight he’ll be well over 100 pounds. When he was barely 7 he carried a full size microwave up a flight of stairs. He isn’t mean. After he pulled the boy off Elijah, he held him at arms length. That clock was all set to be cleaned, but he didn’t do it. He is physically equipped to intimidate other kids, but wouldn’t hurt a fly . . . unless, apparently, that fly bit his brother.
“I was wrong, buddy,” I admitted. He blinked and looked at me.
“You are going to be in situations where your only option might be to defend yourself or somebody else,” I told him. “But you have to be ready to accept the consequences of your actions.”
He looked a little confused. “Just because you don’t think you have a choice doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences,” I said. I explained that fighting in school, regardless the circumstances usually meant a suspension,. He nodded.
“Sometimes,” I continued, “the consequences might be attached to the decisions you made that put you in the situation.” I put my arm around him. “You have to think about what the decisions you make right now could mean later.”
He nodded again. “Don’t let anybody hurt you or Eli,” I said. That was a guideline I thought we could both live with. It was specific, but could still bring consequences if his choices weren’t solid. I stopped worrying a little. He’s made pretty good decisions so far.
Thanks for reading and we’ll talk again soon on This Side of the Diaper.