A 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?