Is it Okay for Kids to Hit Back?

G riding D on chill-out bedA few days ago my wife told me that she’s given our oldest son a green light to retaliate with force when his little brother smacks him. That’s right, she gave him the go-ahead to hit his brother. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

Let me be clear. Our kids are 7 and 3, and it’s the 3-year-old who sometimes lashes out at his brother who never, never strikes back.

The boys seem to adore each other, and seldom argue, never tease, and mostly get along great. They do, however, love to wrestle (although a session of wrestling inevitably and always involves minor injury and tears), and at times the little one will go too far and give his big brother a whack. At which point our oldest son cries and comes to us to rat the little bastard out. Of course we’ve told the 3-year-old innumerable times that “in this family we don’t hit each other,” and that violence is never appropriate, (although roughhousing in general is totally fine), but it just doesn’t seem to sink in.

Growing up, my 3 older brothers were pretty generous when it came to inflicting minor violence, which included such time-honored techniques as noogies, Indian rug burns, snake strikes, monkey bites, wedgies, wet Willies, rat tailing, and my all-time least favorite, the nipple cripple.

To the best of my knowledge, our eldest has never so much as pinched his little brother, forget about giving him an atomic wedgie, and that’s just fine with me. But he allows himself to be bullied by a kid less than half his size, and I find that somewhat worrying.

To say that our oldest is not assertive would be like saying Gandhi didn’t have a violent temper. A recent example perfectly illustrates his diffidence. We’re at a birthday party, and there’s a pinata. When the candy comes crashing down, all of the kids dive in, jostling and pushing and grabbing what they can. All but one. My son stands to one side, refusing to join in the scrum, and so he gets no candy.

It’s hard not to see a metaphor for life here. As unfortunate as it is, sometimes you have to push and shove to get what you want. To be honest, I see something honorable in my son’s refusal to join in the fray, but I also see a kid who gets no candy and, far worse, is potentially an easy mark for bullies.

At his previous school he participated for two years in a program called Bullyproof, which taught kids verbal and physical self-defense in a fun and entertaining way, and he loved the class. But while he may (perhaps) be better-armed when it comes to standing up to bullies in the schoolyard, he seems unable or unwilling to stand up to his three-year-old brother.

And so, following an incident in which little brother smacked big brother, my wife told our oldest that the next time his brother hits him, that he should hit him back. I’m not entirely comfortable with this. Teaching a kid that it’s ever okay to hit seems like a pretty bad idea; there are obviously far better ways to settle conflicts. In a school situation I would certainly want my son to go to a teacher or other adult if he were being bullied. But…is it really never okay to fight back?

There’s a part of me that, were my son being physically threatened, would like him to stand up for himself. There’s a part of me, skulking around in the shadows of middle school past, that would cheer at seeing my son drop a bully with a fist to the nose. We’ve never had this conversation about what to do if he is confronted with physical violence, simply because it’s never come up. Of course, if it does come up, chances are it will be after the fact and thus too late to do much good.

But the ‘problem’ with my sons is that we’re not dealing with real fighting here. There’s no anger, no real aggression, no escalating argument that leads to physical confrontation. It’s just a little brother giving his big brother a wallop because he knows he can get away with it.

So I guess at the end of the day I’m generally more or less kind of all right with my wife’s decision. Our youngest has been apprised of the situation – he knows that his big brother now has full parental permission to retaliate if he’s hit, and I’m pretty sure it would only take one jab in the stomach or one cuff on the head to get the message through to him and make him realize that there are very real consequences for his actions. Somehow, though, it just feels not quite right.

What do YOU think? Is it ever okay for kids to hit? 

One of their more tender moments

One of their more tender moments

21 thoughts on “Is it Okay for Kids to Hit Back?

  1. Heck of a conundrum. The world at large says violence=bad, but what do you want your kids to do when stuff hits the fan? Like when a terrorist comes charging down the aisle on a train in France: http://www.denverpost.com/editorials/ci_28699696/harrop-french-train-another-story-american-heroism. I hope my kids have the wherewithal and built-in “green light” to put that sucker down. Unfortunately, you don’t just learn to fight back when faced with a terrorist. You learn it as a kid – in little “terrorist” scenarios – with bullies, butthead big brothers, and even wrestling with buddies. Kids (and not just boys) need to learn how to defend themselves (and others) in conjunction with lessons about right and wrong. Just teaching them to punch is a bad idea. But teaching them to punch when a punch is called for – that is priceless.

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  2. We have had similar discussions here. Our older boys are 2 years apart in age, but the older boy has always been significantly larger (taller and heavier – at the moment, at 15, he is 6’3″ and 75kg, with the younger boy being just under 5′ and 38kgs soaking wet). At 4 and 6, there was about 20kgs and 20cm between them. The difference there was that the older boy had very little control over his strength or his temper, where the younger one, for all his size differential, has always been quite controlled. So rough housing would generally go: son #1 starts and uses all his strength and size. Things get rough really quickly. Son #2 does not hold back – he has to play as hard as he can to be in with a chance. Son #1 ends up in tears. Son #2 walks away. By 8 and 6, son #1 had learnt some control so actually tried not to hurt. Son #2 still has to use all his strength and go as hard as he can to make any difference. Son #1 walks away crying. By 10 and 8, son #1 has wised up and they don’t really rough house any more. What has this taught our older sons? Son #1 has learnt it’s never about size and strength, it’s about attitude. Son #2 has learnt that he can take on anyone. This has proved to be useful in every sport he’s ever played where he’s always the smallest in his team (normally in the game) – his nickname at waterpolo is Mighty Mouse – because although he’s learned to use his speed and agility to good effect, he’s never afraid of a bigger player doesn’t let age or size hold him back at all. This is all good!

    Son #1 was bullied at school a little. We sent him to karate, which helped him with self-discipline, and we worked really hard on “walk away, walk away, walk away”. BUT we also said that after you have done that, sought help from an adult and so on, as a last resort, sometimes it is necessary to retaliate. He never did, because son #2 stepped in. The bully was ragging on son #1, and son #2 had been watching. He saw son #1 was about to lose the plot, so raced up to the bully, poked him in the stomach, said “you’re too slow to catch me” and hooned off. The bully followed him, son #2 led him a merry dance and then the bell rang. I was a bit proud and a lot horrified because this bully was a really big boy. Son #2 said “I knew he couldn’t catch me and anyway, I was leading him back to the staff room so he’d get in trouble, but I didn’t want my brother to get in trouble for hitting back and I knew the bully would get in MUCH more trouble for trying to hit me, especially where a teacher could see.” Son #1 wised up and the next time the bully had a go at him, son #1 made sure there was a teacher nearby. The bully was suspended. When he came back to school, he started to try and bully my daughter by calling her fat. She retorted with “at least I’m not an archaeopteryx like you” (it was the longest word she could think of at the time). the bully was apparently stopped in his tracks and never bothered her again.

    This has got very long, but I guess what I wanted to say was you have to do what works for your family. Different kids will come up with different strategies. Maybe, if your younger son loves to play with your older son, you work with the older boy on a strategy that he removes himself as a playmate any time he is hit. This both works with his more passive nature, and gives a natural consequence to the younger boy – “if you hit, you will lose your playmate”. If it consistently happens, cause and effect, the younger boy will learn.

    Having said that, with my twins, the only thing that worked was hitting back. And that only had to happen a couple of times before the message sank in.

    Oh the other thing we have done with our more challenging twin is a “catch Zach being good” star chart. He wants to go and stay with his grandparents for a few days, and in order to do that he has to get 50 “being good” stars over a month long period. These can be for kindness, helping someone, an especially good day or report from school, doing unusual chores without being asked, that sort of thing. This has made a huge difference because the reward is something he really wants, is not just a toy, and hopefully long enough to make a behaviour change.

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    • I love that his little brother bailed son #1 out. Gorgeous!
      Absolutely agree that each situation, each family, is different and has to find their own strategies. Our oldest hasn’t actually whacked his brother, but I think the fact that that card is on the table makes the little one rethink his actions.
      Generally speaking, I really like the idea of rewards. Up to a point – some folks seem to go overboard and reward behaviour that should really just be expected. Sounds like you’re doing it right, though.
      To be honest, both of our kids are really well-behaved, and our issues small, so we haven’t had to delve into the parents’ bag of tricks much. But I don’t look forward to adolescence, which our oldest, at 7, seems in some ways to be rapidly approaching. Argh.
      Thanks so much for sharing, FMNZ – as always, it’s greatly appreciated!

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  3. Matt,

    You have opened a whole “can of worms”………….As your mother, I do not have an adequate answer!!! You know how I feel about “violence”!!! No!!! However, knowing your oldest son, maybe he needs to exert exert himself……….Perhaps it is the parent’s responsibility to control the issue. Welcome to parenthood…………………..Mom

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    • Well, in the end I think the simple threat of retaliation – “If you hit me I’m going to hit you back twice as hard” – would work, and yes, D needs to assert himself a bit more. And if the threat doesn’t work? It only took one whack from James to know when I’d gone too far, and although the learning curve was a short, sharp (painful) shock, it was a lesson learned immediately.

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  4. Oh, wow. It’s like you are living at my house right now. We have two daughters, a 6 year old and a 2 year old. The 2 year old is a bulldog. She hits, pinches, kicks, bites, pulls hair, etc, and I’ve tried everything to get her to stop. The 6 year old is a complete pacifist who gets bullied constantly by her little sister. From what you say about your older son, they have similar personalities. Quiet, a bit standoffish, and a little too passive.

    Last night, after the younger one left the older one in tears for the umpteenth time, my husband gave our older one permission to hit her sister back. It seems he was never allowed to fight back as a child and carries a lot of resentment for it.

    Now I’m worried that I live in a free-for-all. I don’t like violence. Has he upped the ante and escalated things by allowing G to hit back? Or will G standing up for herself finally convince K that it’s not okay to attack her passive sister? I don’t know. It hurts my heart to see the younger one acting so mean to the older one.

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    • Yup, he’s upped the ante. And you now what? I think that ultimately the hand’s been tipped in your oldest’s favor (if that is an appropriate continuation of the metaphor. I don’t know much about gambling.) I don’t like violence either. (Actually, you can read more thoughts on the topic in https://fieldnotesfromfatherhood.com/2013/05/07/pacifism-101/)
      But to defend yourself when under attack? That’s a very gray area for me.
      In your case, it may be that things spiral out of control, and then it will be time to reevaluate your strategy. But what I’m guessing is that it will only take a couple of retaliatory smacks from you oldest (well out of parental sight, I’m sure), to set the balance of power straight.
      What I think you should avoid is rushing in to smooth things over or sort things out, and let them work it out on their own. If G retaliates, then perhaps (and I’m in no real position to offer advice here but I’m going to share my thoughts anyway) the best thing to do will be to simply ask K, “Well, what did you expect when you hit your sister?” and leave it at that. Or maybe later pull G aside and go over the whole thing with her, but while saying that violence is never the answer, you lay no blame at her feet (or in her fists).
      Anyway, thanks for stopping by and sharing your experiences. It’s always great to hear from other parents in similar situations. Best of luck!

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  5. I can’t give you a wrong or right answer. We experience something similar on a daily basis, its just the other way around. Iliana (almost 4) teases Yiannis (6), Yiannis hits her. EVERY DAY. I tell him the same thing day in, day out. If you don’t like something your sister does, use your words, NOT violence. It doesn’t seem to work. She started biting him in return (her idea) but it just made things worse. So, unfortunately I don’t have a great answer for you. I just think that hitting models hitting. Nothing else.

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    • Hmmm. Perhaps you should arm them both with pepper spray, make yourself a cocktail, and hope for the best. 😉
      I’m totally against hitting, for any reason, really. And it sounds like the root of the problem lies in the teasing, not the hitting.
      For what it’s worth (and despite all evidence from my abhorrently heavy-handed blog I am really uncomfortable offering parenting advice), I’d look at the underlying problems that lead to the hitting and biting. Why does Iliana tease her brother? What’s her motivation? If she knows it leads to unpleasant consequences, then why does she do it? Is there teasing in the other direction that doesn’t get noticed?
      You might also (Oh, God, Tatu, I’m getting patronizing here, forgive me), think about just staying out of it. I have a friend who gets really upset about her kids’ ‘bad’ behavior, when what I see is just kids being kids. She stresses out about it and intervenes when I would back off and let things play out. If you’re always jumping in to play referee, then maybe they’re not getting the chance to learn how to deal with these situations on their own. It’s bad for you, and probably ultimately bad for them. From time to time the boys come to me with their petty squabbles and I tell them that they need to work it out on their own. Then I pour myself a glass of excellent Spanish wine and stop worrying about it. In the end, they settle the issue by themselves, and everyone’s a winner.
      I don’t know if this helps at all, but right now it seems that you have enough on your plate without getting involved every disagreement your kids have. If they occasionally resort to minor violence to even the score, then maybe you should just let them. They are a lot smarter, and a lot more independently-minded, than you might think. It will all turn out okay in the end, and your kids will adore each other when the time comes, especially if their mom isn’t all stressed out about them.
      Cheers, M’lady.

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      • Oh Matt, don’t you worry. I always value YOUR advice.
        The problem is that Yiannis has always been immensely jealous of his sister. You see, Yiannis is the quiet type. The shy, the introvert. He needs his time whenever we go to new places and he usually feels uncomfortable whenever we find ourselves in large crowds. Iliana on the other hand, is the absolute sunshine girl. Happy, smiley, outgoing, full of joy. A blond girl with blue eyes (Yiannis has brown hair/brown eyes) who always manages to thrill everyone around her. She is still at home with me, whereas Yiannis has been going to school for the last 3 years (he is very attached to me). All of this does not help ease the jealousy he has towards her. So he gets frustrated with her which will lead to his aggressive behavior. She loves him to pieces and hugs him and kisses him, whereas he just usually pushes her away.
        You are definitely right about the not interfering thing (I even wrote a post about it a while ago: http://wonderlandbytatu.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/trying-hard-not-to-be-the-referee/) its just that when he gets violent he really hurts her and (unfortunately) no matter who caused it I am furious with him. You know what I mean? It seems like a vicious circle…

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  6. Sometimes a little well-thought retaliation can be a good thing. When my daughter was 2.5 she was getting bit a lot in her preschool class. Note after note would come home for about 3 weeks. Then one day a note came home that my daughter had bitten someone. And she was never bit again 🙂

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  7. When we were very little kids, my older brother had a genius response to this. He was bigger and stronger, and we knew that. He would remind us, “If you hit me, I will hit you back twice as hard. If you bite me, I will bite you back twice as hard.” I’m not sure if he ever had to prove it, but as soon as he said that, the consequences scared us enough to cease and desist immediately. Not sure if he was coached to say it, but it sure worked!

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  8. I’m like you, I don’t agree with hitting back. But given the situation, it feels okay for him to do that. We had a similar situation like this. A little girl (younger than my 3-year-old daughter) bit a little boy (she’s known to be a biter) at nursery. When my husband heard about this, he told my daughter that if she does that to you, you stomp on her foot with your new DMS (she wore her first ever Doc Marten’s boots that day). I told him off. A friend (who was the mother of the little boy whom the little girl bit) said “Actually, if one of the kids just retaliate once. She’ll stop biting!” Anyway, just a few weeks ago. We were at birthday party and the little biter was there and this time, she bit my daughter. My daughter didn’t stomp the biter’s foot, she cried and I don’t know whether to be pleased that she didn’t retaliate or not.

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  9. There’s quite a big age gap between your boys. I have to admit I am a little surprised that you would suggest your seven year old hits your three year old (regardless of provocation). I wouldn’t expect my seven year old to be able to retaliate without seriously hurting a toddler. But, then, nor would I expect my three year old to know the difference between ‘rough housing’ and ‘hitting’. We have a zero tolerance policy on hitting in this house with our three boys. We don’t do ‘rough housing’ at all.
    That said, there’s more than enough guilt in parenting already. Honestly, you’re thinking about the best thing to do and that’s important. I’m sure it will all work out.

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  10. Reblogged this on Daddies Do Too and commented:
    I understand your concern and to be honest I don’t agree or condone violence. However I have to agree with your wifes idea on the basis of growing up with brothers and obviously now having kids myself.
    As I say I have never condoned my child hitting another, or their siblings however I have always taught them to end a fight that is started. So if someone hits them then where necessary hit back, and to be honest I would rather discipline my children for maybe lashing out too much, in defense than nurse them back to health for not defending themselves.
    I have to also agree with previous comments, with the age difference your eldest will/should have no problems in setting up boundaries with the youngest. As the youngest I always pushed my luck with my older brother, and we genuinely knocked ten bells out of each other on several occasions. However while I say on several occasions we are talking over 25+ years and so not that much at all.
    I put this down to the fact that as a young’un I knew that if I got to mouthy, or abusive etc I knew I would get a good hiding from my brother. It wasn’t until I got older and bigger that the tables turned and the boundaries shifted. The point is however that knowing that he was bigger, stronger, faster etc until I got older meant that it rarely got physical.
    At the moment you’re youngest is taking advantage of the fact that he is the “baby” and in trying to avoid sounding harsh, needs to learn his place (whether this be the top dog or not). My brother currently has a very similar issue with his two where by the youngest terrorises the eldest, and they are bringing in a similar mentality to you (which you’ll be pleased to know is working). Don’t get me wrong there were quite a few scraps to begin with, but this is now levelling out as the youngest is learning.
    My other concern from your point is that of bullies at school. Some kids just aren’t aggressive at all, and that isn’t a bad thing at all! But I would be investing in getting him involved in sports and groups etc, to raise his confidence and get him to be more social. That will allow him to avoid the potential of bullies and have a good group of mates should anything start.
    Please do not get me wrong, I wouldn’t want you to try to encourage violence, but letting you’re kids know that defending themselves is not only OK but needed in life is something all kids need to know. It is a harsh world out there. Personally my little girl will be joining kick boxing class soon, as I want her to be able to protect herself as much as possible physically, should the need arise. However if I found out she was bullying anyone! I would come down hard on her, as that is NEVER acceptable. It’s a tight line we walk but, I think your wife and you are on the right track.
    All the best mate, keep us updated.

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  11. Hmmm…tough one for sure. My boys are 10 & 7, and my hubby grew up with daily beatings being the youngest of three very physical boys. We have a “no crying…or tattling in horseplay” policy in our house. It seems to help them self-regulate…a skill they need to learn as they become adults. But hitting outright–in my house that usually happens out of frustration. For instance, big brother is bigger and stronger in a wrestling match and younger brother gets a hand loose and pops big bro in the nose because it’s the easiest way to turn the tables. Or sister has used her words eighteen times and brothers’ ears aren’t working. Then there’s the time my oldest got jumped on the playground during a squabble over a ball and he didn’t fight back because that’s what I taught him. “Don’t hit, walk away, tell an adult.” I remember him coming home saying he was ashamed for not defending himself–that he felt weak. So this is what I tell him now. “Defend yourself.” Defending yourself means the least amount of force it takes to get away and send a message that your are not to be messed with. (It’s the second part of that last sentence that is really more retribution and harder for me to swallow with my pacifist tendencies.) My boys practice this on each other daily (without realizing it), and they are finding their way. They also attend martial arts classes which gives them the physical outlet they need, teaches them the value of using words first, and gives them the opportunity to practice tempering their physical force so they have some control if they ever do have to defend themselves.

    There are still occasional tears in my house regardless of our policy and we still have open conversations about how to handle conflict and how to know when you’ve pushed too far. I really don’t know if we are doing the right thing. I hope so.

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    • Well, you’ve clearly thought this issue through, which often goes pretty far toward doing the right thing.
      I think martial arts classes are great, and want to get our oldest into one soon. As I mentioned in the article, he really loved ‘Bullyproof.’
      As for getting jumped on the playground, I think you’ve done the right thing – defend yourself (even if it means you’re going to get into trouble as well), but use restraint. I got through elementary (and to a certain degree middle school) as a scrawny, wiry kid by using sheer intimidation – if I was getting pushed around I’d go beserk, getting in the other boy’s face and screaming at him. You’d be surprised at how often much bigger boys would back away – you don’t poke a lunatic with a stick – and it never led to actual physical confrontation. In all of my school years I was involved in exactly one fistfight, which entailed me throwing one punch.
      I also think it’s wise to let the kids handle it on their own without a lot of parental intervention – as you say, they find their way.
      Thanks for your input Kamala – appreciated as always!

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  12. I agree with Lady completely, but I also believe that it may only need to be used a couple of times before it does sync in. An establishing of boundaries or limits if you will. “We can roughhouse, but you will not hit me for no reason, or I’m gonna hit you back.”

    Hope all works out, and will be reading to see what develops!

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    • Agreed, PBB. I think it’s reasonable to have it understood that “if you hit me I WILL hit you back.” Hopefully, simply the knowledge of this fact will be enough of a deterrent. I’ll let you know of any knew developments!

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  13. It’s like you said, “They love each other.” If they get physical, which boys often do, you’re gonna know when things get out of hand. And that is when you intervene. Don’t think too much about this, and let brothers be brothers. Maybe one day the oldest will strike back and teach the younger some kind of lesson. Maybe he won’t. But either way, big brother is teaching little brother something. And if there is love between them, it will all work out;)

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    • To be honest, I’m not staying up nights sweating this thing, but when my wife said that she had told our son to hit back, it made me want to examine the issue in a bit more depth.
      I do my best to stay out of their squabbles – my standard line is “You guys work it out on your own.” Better for them, and a heck of a lot easier for me. 😉
      Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts!

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