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Bad Question: Should We Teach Our Kids to Fight Back?

Is it ever OK for your child to hit back if they are being bullied?

I was watching a piece about bullying on TV called “Good Question: Should we teach our kids to fight back?”  What struck me was how few people, if anyone, would commit to an answer that indicated that it was OK for children to fight back in certain circumstances.  

One guy even said “you’re trying to get me to commit” (to saying it was OK to fight back) “and that’s something I’m not going to do.”  He then went on to say “you can’t commit to it (fighting back), because in any given situation, you need to respond differently.”

I felt like I was watching a bunch of politicians being asked about their stand on a particular issue and didn’t want to commit one way or the other for fear of losing a section of the vote.  In my opinion, that’s the problem with politics today - politicians are more concerned with winning than with living by a set of principals that drive their lives and decisions.

But to be fair, the problem with that interview was that the question was wrong.  It’s not, IF your child should “fight back” -  it’s WHEN should your child  should “fight back.”

There, I did it - I committed.  I took a stand, and while it might not be overly popular, it’s the way it has to be.  We must give our children permission to fight back. But understand that “fighting back” looks different under different conditions.  The alternative is to tell our children that no matter how much someone is hurting you, that you don’t have the right to defend yourself.  For a child, that message quickly gets translated into “I’m not worth defending” or “I must deserve this treatment for some reason.”

I hope you agree that this approach doesn’t make any sense at all.

This approach does not, of course, give them carte blanche to hit people just because they feel like it, or because they get got called a name, or someone made some sort of derogatory remark about their families, or even because they got shoved.  It means that when they can’t get away, when they’ve taken all the appropriate steps to avoid it, when they have no other choice, when they are being hurt, that of course they can “fight back.”

There are some out there who believe “It’s never permissible to strike another person.” This is what most people think of as the “pacifist” approach to life. That’s not pacifism, it’s unrealistic fanaticism.  I submit that anyone who feels that they live by this belief system has never had to stand by and watch while their children or other family members were being harmed, maimed, or worse.

It’s the age old problem of “speaking in absolutes.”  When we were young or when our children were young, and brother and sister hit each other or bit each other, we were told “don’t hit,” “it’s not nice to hit,” “nice people don’t hit,” or something similar.  Many of you heard those messages and have carried them with you into your adult lives.  And so you hold on to an ideal that’s never been tested, and pass it down to your children.  

That’s how this this myth got created that it’s never OK to hit someone - and that’s just not true.  Sometimes it’s very OK to hit back.  Sometimes it's necessary to hit back.  We live in a world of shades of gray; there are no absolutes.

What we need to do is teach our children when its OK to hit someone, when its OK to fight back.  Teach them that it’s not OK to hit out of anger or out of revenge, or out of spite or for most of the reasons that we see people fighting each other on movies and so called “reality shows.”  We need to teach our child that those aren’t real life - they are "entertainment."

One final thought: during that interview I heard someone say that “the bullying will just continue until you fight back.”  That piece of "wisdom" has also been passed down as long as I can remember, and it’s simply not true.  That thought removes the parents and the school system from the loop and leaves the children to fend for themselves.  We can’t allow this to be the case either.  A child shouldn’t have to “fight their way out of situations."  Their parents, the school system and the authorities should be there to protect them and provide a safe, healthy environment.

Barbara May 12, 2011 at 01:56 PM
Wonderful article. Thanks for explaining this!
Wilfred Ruck April 25, 2012 at 03:35 PM
I agree. The belief “It’s never permissible to strike another person.” is what enables bullies to succeed in the first place. Not only is it permissible, it's sometimes better to strike first, if an strike by them would be fatal. Besides, bulling is external behavioral control. If Pavlov's dog had bit him when he rang the bell without putting food in the bowl....how likely is it that he would have continued the experiment? Painful feedback works.

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