My mother-in-law tells the story about some boys bullying her when she was a preschooler. Her father was a manufacturer of orthopedic devices. His solution was to create a set of steel toe-inserts for her shoes. The next time the boys bullied her she was to kick them in the shins. Family legend has it that she broke at least one bone. And thus, the bullying was handled.
Growing up, this was the prevailing message, especially to us boys. Our books were full of stories of weaker kids learning to fight or otherwise taking pointed, lesson-dispensing revenge on their tormenters. Even Sheriff Andy Taylor, one of the top TV dads at the time, advised little Opie to fight for his milk money, otherwise the bully would never stop. And he was the law. This message was everywhere.
Sheriff Teacher Tom
There’s a kind of obvious operatic justice in this approach, and while we would all be scandalized to learn that our child’s classmate had come to school equipped with steel toe-inserts, it’s hard not to sympathize with the idea that one’s child can give as good as he gets.
But let’s be honest, it’s a kind of frontier justice that simply doesn’t play in the modern world. I mean seriously, just think of what would happen if a four-year-old was discovered with steel toe-inserts?
We don’t live in the land of legend, and I doubt we ever did. Those who let their fists do the talking have always been in the minority. Real talking, honestly and responsibly, has always been the only practical solution.
One of my proudest moments as a teacher came a couple years ago. Esme held a bucket of water and Malcolm stood temptingly beside her. She wasn’t the first child to give into that temptation and dump water on her friend, but what happened next blew me away. Malcolm turned to her and shouted, “You dumped water on me! That makes me mad! Now I have to go change clothes!”
I’d been rushing to intervene, but these words stopped me in my tracks. As he marched off to find the dry clothes in his cubby, Esme threw herself onto the ground, face between her hands.
Holy cow. This was as powerful as any kick to the shin and it was done with an honest and responsible use of words.
If Woodland park uses a steel toe-insert, it’s the forceful use of the word, Stop!
“If someone is hurting you,” I ask at Circle Time, “What do you say?”
And all together the children show their palms forcefully and say, “Stop!”
“If someone is scaring you, what do you say?”
“If someone is taking something from you, what do you say?”
"And if someone says "stop" to you, what do you do?"
There are nuances to the rule and practice is necessary, but I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this technique through kindergarten; it even works on strangers at a playground. My daughter Josephine, who had mastered the technique in preschool, informed me that it stops working in 1st Grade, but the principle of using words lives on.
I think that our Circle Time question holds true throughout our lives: “If someone is hurting you or scaring you, what do you say?”
“You’re just trying to hurt my feelings!”
“I’m going to walk away from this!”
“I don’t like the way you’re treating me!”
“I won’t be bullied!”
Standing and fighting is an irrelevant response to conflict. Being clever, sarcastic or insulting has nothing to do with anything. Inflicting wounds in response to being wounded only makes sense in the mythological world where the “bad guy” learns a lesson through the forceful application of a shiner.
In the real world, a violent response, a hurtful response, nearly always just escalates matters.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate . . . Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.--Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ultimately our steel toe-insert legends appeal to us because they bespeak bravery. But speaking honestly and responsibly takes far more courage than an irrational, emotional resort to violence.
And raising brave children is really what that mythology is all about. We can do it without the violence.
(Reposed, with revisions, from 7/7/09)