When I was a little girl, my grandma used to tell me stories about my dad and his three brothers when they were boys. My favorite one was about how when they were about 8 and 9 years old, Uncle Dave and Uncle Don would be walking home from school and sometimes they would see the neighborhood bully. This kid was bigger than both of them, but about the same age, and a couple of times, he decided to beat Dave up while Don watched, and then when he was done with Dave, he’d beat Don up while Dave watched. They would come home crying, bruised and battered.
Rather than call the kid’s parents, the police, the school, the school board, Dr.Phil, the therapist, the neighborhood watch and DCFS, my grandparents told their sons to grow a pair and fight back. Grandma urged them to fight the bully together, simultaneously instead of watching each other get slaughtered. They took her advice, and the next time they saw the bully, they fought him together and that kid never bugged them again.
When I was a kid, I liked the story for all of its danger, drama and revenge. But now as a mother, I love the story for what it taught all the kids involved. They weren’t powerless. They didn’t have to be victims. There are consequences for your actions. They could deal with their problems without any adults getting involved. That had to have felt good.
You could totally do that in in 1958. (You could also smoke the healthy brand of cigarettes most recommended by doctors, but that is a conversation for another day).
I’ve got a seven year old who is dealing with his own bully. They play touch football at recess and my son, S., complains that this other kid, B., pushes him down, body checks him, kicks him out of the game and says mean things to him. Just like a terrible 80′s ABC after school special with Corey Feldman in it.
At first when he came home with these stories, I was alarmed. I felt bad for my son. I thought of this other kid as a monster ruining my son’s self-esteem and I wanted to get my hands on him. Maybe if I call the school, or the principal or the kid’s parents – maybe I could fix this for S. But then I think Oprah’s Next Chapter was starting so my attention was scattered, and I didn’t call anybody. I just thought about.
When I cooled down, I came to the conclusion that this is S.’s life. His journey. And this is his problem. And I’m going to support him as he tries to solve it, but I’m not going to try to solve it for him. I wouldn’t be doing him any favors by calling this other kid’s parents, or getting the school involved. I’d only be teaching him that I don’t trust that he can handle this himself. I’d be taking away from him the chance to empower himself to resolve the issue on his own.
That said, I still wanted this other kid to get a dose of his own medicine.
I channeled my grandma circa 1958 and decided that I’m going to encourage my son to take on the bully and fight back. I told S. if the kid gets too rough or talks smack again, he needs to grow a pair and either remove himself from the situation or defend himself (but I think it was clear which I wanted him to choose).
“But Mom! I’ll get in trouble if I push him!” Really? Does he get in trouble when he pushes you? No? I didn’t think so. Make some trouble for him and I bet he’ll decide that picking on you isn’t as fun as it used to be when you’d just take it.
“But Mom! What if a teacher sees me and I get in trouble?” Look kid, if you’re defending yourself, I’ve got your back. If I hear you’re the first one to push or hit, then I’ll kick your ass. But if you are provoked, then make a decision. Walk away knowing you let him treat you like that and be okay with that or confront the kid and make him wish he never provoked you.
“But he is bigger.” So? How many times did you make me read you that damn chapter about David and Goliath when you were five? Nobody wants to bully a kid that will fight him back. Just fight back. It’s not whether he pushes harder or you do — it’s that you have the balls to challenge him. Your fortune is about to change, son.
“Mom…I didn’t know you would want me to do this. You always say not to hit my brother.” Well, that is different. When you hit your brother, he cries and then I get really stressed out and annoyed and its just a lot of extra work for me that I don’t want to deal with. When you hit this kid I won’t even be there, but it will probably be the proudest moment of my life. He looked at me as if he didn’t recognize me. Oh yes, his non-violent, socialist, liberal mother who takes him through loving-kindness meditations before bed every night just told him to defend himself even if it involves physical force. I have a ways to go before anybody compares me to Ghandi, but there is a time for all things and if somebody is taking cheap shots, its time to return the favor.
So now is the part where I’m supposed to say it all ended like the after school special. You know, where B./Corey Feldman pushes S. down again, but then miraculously all the kids start telling Corey Feldman not to be mean and they all rally around my son and chastise Corey Feldman for his bad behavior and then Corey Feldman realizes the error of his ways and he gives my kid a high five and then the shot freezes and my son and Corey Feldman have happy smiles. And they live happily ever after.
I’m not sure there is an ending yet. So far, I haven’t had a call home that says my son is running around punching, swearing or kicking anybody, so apparently he is not channeling his inner Naomi Campbell just yet. When I ask S. about recess he backs away slowly and tells me he decided to keep playing football with this kid and things are fine. So everyday he gets to make his own decision about how to deal with his bully. And no matter what choices he is making, he is empowered for having the choice.
Do I worry that maybe I gave him the wrong advice? If that kid knocks his teeth out – yeah. And let me tell you, if he told me B. had a shiv or something, my advice would be different. But I think this is a case of boys being boys and figuring out the whole pecking order. I’m grateful that I don’t worry that he’ll grow up having no idea how to deal with assholes his way. I think that is exactly what the playground is there to teach kids when they’re young. And then we have junior high to make damn sure they don’t forget it. Ever. And just in case my son somehow doesn’t learn the lesson in school, there is always reality TV.
And when S. goes home to visit his mother and the cameras are on? I’m going to tell everybody how much I like the way things got done in 1958. Let the kids duke it out, people. They’ll figure it out.
How would you handle the situation if S. was your son?