My son Malcolm was a bit of a bully in his younger days. He has been known as the kid who would push your kid in the stomach, sending them flailing backwards down the slide. Sometimes he was known as the kid who would bite your kid in the face, leaving a nasty looking welt and a lasting memory of an attempted mauling. Occasionally, he was the boy who would grab a plastic dinosaur and, if your child got too close to his “kitties,” hit your child over the head with it. Yes, we have a long history in this house of physical transgressions against other children, (and that’s not even counting my abuse of the kids we have locked in the basement making my sweaters. Those kids have it really rough!)

After many years of electroshock therapy counseling Malcolm that physical violence is not the solution to all his problems, he is much better. Our zero tolerance policy made life difficult at times, having to leave play dates early and running away from strangers at the park who wondered why their kid was missing a few teeth. In the end though, he came back from the dark side. He appears to be fully over the biting thing (a HUGE relief) and most of the physical skirmishes appear to be relatively minor. In essence, our kid has graduated from “angry badger” to “family dog” on the aggressiveness scale. (There is a reason people have dogs and not badgers as pets, and it’s not because badgers won’t fetch the newspaper!) The most significant aspect of this development is that I no longer have to keep an eye on him at all times when other kids are around. This freedom means more time for me at the park to hang out with parent-friends and play games on my phone. What can I say, I love progress!

Recently, however I have noticed violence creeping back into Malcolm’s bag of tricks. This isn’t the same kind of violence as before, though. This violence is responsive. When at the park the other day, he met some older kids and began playing with them, a bigger kid tackled him and sat on his chest while taunting him. After trying to wriggle free unsuccessfully for a few moments, Malcolm reached up and grabbed the older kid’s face like he was pulling off some cotton candy. It worked, the kid started crying and ran away. This wasn’t an isolated incident, as there have been a handful of other incidents recently where Malcolm has responded to acts of aggression with a haymaker or two of his own. The question is, do you treat this kind of violence the same as others?

On the one hand, I don’t want Malcolm to learn that it’s ok for other kids to walk all over him. I know it’s early, but I have seen how that game ends, and it involves his underwear stretching to unnatural lengths. So, we are trying to allow him to develop a positive self-identity now. If someone is messing with you, screw Judge Wapner, take the law into your own hands! On the other hand, you want them to explore non-violent solutions to their problems as well. Sure, it’s easier to bite the hand that beats you, but wouldn’t it be nicer to either talk your way out of a mess, or contact the relevant authorities?  Even so, the child who constantly tattles is no bargain either, rating somewhere between “Grating” and “You Make Me Want To Drink” on the childhood annoyance scale.
I know from my experience that fighting can be a hit or miss experience. Having finished my pugilistic career at a lackluster 1-1, I can honestly say that I never gained much through physical altercations. Instead, I avoided dicy situations by either bursting into tears or pretending I was late to soccer practice (which worked unless the kid who wanted to pummel me was, in fact, on my soccer team. Considering how little I passed the ball, this happened quite often.) As it turns out, the older I got, the more I got along with other kids, which essentially means I tried never to irritate the tough kids at school.
I am sure the answer to the complex dilemma is, “It depends,” but that’s not really something we can teach Malcolm until much later in life. I guess we’ll go on telling him that hitting other kids is bad, and suggest alternative ways of getting out of messes. If a kid pounces on him and pins him to the ground, we’ll tell Malcolm that he might extricate himself by pointing on the true wisdom of the teachings of Muhatma Gandhi. He can then look for a nearby parent to help him out of the mess. Of course, if this fails, he may attempt to separate the kid’s head from his torso, but at least it will be out of necessity and not merely the thrill of the hunt. We’ll leave the thrilling stuff for the kids in the basement.