Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Are We Too Quick To Make Them Use Their Words?

My six-year-old son came home from school the other day saying that he had been in trouble for fighting in yard and had been put on the steps. I asked him why he had been fighting, and he said ‘because I love it!’

Now, the other kid may not have loved it, and of course the school were right to take the action that was in line with their rules and principles. I do not dispute that. But, it did make me wonder, have we taken too much of the rough-and-tumble out of our children’s lives?

These days, if children begin an altercation – over a toy, a game, some name-calling, whatever – every available adult in the vicinity seems to immediately rush forward and diffuse the situation, urging them to ‘use your words.’ Equally, if a child complains that another child has done something mean – and children can do very mean things to each other – there is a good chance the complaining child will be encouraged to look at the situation from their aggressor’s point of view and consider whether that child might have had a bad day or be upset about something. They may even be asked ‘but what did you do to him? (Or her)’

Now, this might mean that we are raising a bunch of highly empathetic, soul-searching, ‘Indigo’ kids who will view all sides of a situation and merrily walk a mile in each other’s shoes. (And of course it might not – children can be notoriously perverse about efforts to mould them).

But, we may also be weeding out the natural urge to push back, to grab back the toy that was taken, or say ‘so are you!’ to the kid who calls them an idiot.

We may be teaching them to be afraid of their own aggression – so busy forcing them to empathise with others, that they are losing sight of their own entirely natural responses.

Of course the spectacle of small children attacking or insulting each other is not an edifying one, and as a society we have done tremendous work in taking violence out of the playground, and encouraging our children to find other ways of expressing dissatisfaction and upset. This is a good thing. But, I wonder, have we perhaps gone a little too far? Is there a place for aggression that we are not acknowledging? Are we now too quick to make them use their words, rather than react physically?

When adults attend self-defence courses, the very first thing they are taught is to respond with aggression to an attack. To yell – loudly! – and do something; hit, shove, throw. Often, it takes a while to get this response out of them, because by adulthood, we have all spent so many years suppressing those reactions, squashing down the instinct to greet like-with-like because ‘its rude to shout,’ or ‘ we don’t hit,’ that they are deeply buried and cannot be activated without a struggle. When the world takes a toy away from us, or pushes us, instead of demanding it back or shouting 'stop!', we tie ourselves in verbal knots, telling the world how that makes us feel and trying to second-guess why the world would want to do such a thing to us.

This might be a mistake. Life is a long and difficult business, that needs to be treated delicately, sympathetically and empathetically at times. And at other times given a good shove and told to back off!

Now, I am not suggesting that we raise our children to be monstrous Wall Street trader types, who think they are Masters of the Universe and that the world is a jungle they must fight their way through. Of course I’m not. Those are the people who destroyed financial stability for millions through their greed and arrogance. And they are generally not known for their subtlety of mind or sense of humour, either.

But, I do think the ability to swing a punch where absolutely necessary, or at the very least to know that we could if we had to, is vital.

And I believe this for girls too, who are even more likely than boys to be discouraged from giving physical expression to their feelings of anger, hurt and humiliation. Boys aren’t allowed to hit girls (despite the fact that we are ostensibly an equal-opportunities society, and little girls are often just as strong as little boys) and girls aren’t allowed to hit each other. Which means no hitting at all for girls.

I grew up, second eldest of six, cheerfully fighting my brothers and sisters. I fought the boys in my class, when that seemed necessary, up until the age of 11 or 12. I don’t mean King of the Travellers-style bare-knuckle boxing in a ring of whooping spectators, just the odd thump or kick. There were never any hard feelings, in fact those exchanges were usually perfectly good-natured and swiftly concluded. So it is difficult for me to feel properly outraged when I hear that my son has been fighting. There is a part of me that thinks, ‘well so what?’ And a part of me that, when my daughter cries and says ‘he took my dolly,’ thinks, ‘well take it back!’ even as I rush forward busily to say ‘now children, no taking people’s things, that’s not nice. You made your sister feel sad. How would you like it if someone took your things…?’

Mumsnet Blog of the Day 7/03/2014


  1. I can understand where you're coming from but I truly believe that children do need to be told constantly to use words rather than fists. This helps them develop the communication skills to resolve conflict in the future. This doesn't mean that children shouldn't be allowed to engage in harmless rough and tumble and doesn't mean that they shouldn't engage in combative sports where they will learn to attack in a controlled manner. There's a big difference in snatching back a toy from a sibling and hitting a sibling to get the toy back.
    In my experience children and adults instinctively know how to hit, punch and kick so there is little likelihood of these "skills' being lost.

    1. thanks for your comment! Truly, I'm just puzzling it out. Or trying to! I think kids fighting - really fighting, not just wrestling – is a horrible sight, but then I see so many adults afraid of confrontation and worried about standing up for themselves, and I wonder is it because we stop the instinct to do so when they are young? But I think your point about combative sports is a very good one. Do you think football counts?

  2. You've raised some really good points, what a fine line it is between wanting them to stand up for themselves and not wanting them to rely on aggression/intimidation to get what they want! I'll be interested to see how both me and my 14 month old son react to situations which provoke a physical reaction, especially as he is a big lad!

    1. Thanks for the comment. It is indeed a fine line, and with boys more so, I have found. Girls seem more naturally inclined to work out solutions together - certainly my daughter is - whereas my sons ... well, 'punch first, ask questions later' more sums up their attitude, until the age of 5 or 6 anyway. Best of luck!