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Hitting Back and Holding Back: Letting Children Figure it Out for Themselves

Hitting Back and Holding Back: Letting Children Figure it Out for Themselves

Aggression is a fact of life. You may protest and say that, with the right level of understanding and communal discourse, we too could be inhabitants of a peaceable kingdom, but that (at best) is a long way off. Today, if you get up from your computer and walk outside you will be greeted by a world with equal parts harmony and hostility. People may smile, but if you take the parking space they had been spying from thirty yards back they will likely unload the brunt of their hostility on you. Children are not much different.

The main difference between us (fully realized adults willing to adhere to social norms) and children is the little fact that children, when met with hostility, often retaliate or hit back. To onlooking parents, this is horrifying. Or is it?

Ask any parent (and any child for that matter) whether hitting is ever OK, and the response will be virtually unanimous. Hitting is wrong, bad, and one should never hit. Use your words. Don’t give in to hostility and violence, etc. There I said it. But are there instances (particularly and exclusively with children) where hitting back or retaliating upon aggression might be a better option?

Often times these events occur on the playground (the weigh station between the predictability of home and the volatile nature of the outside world) where children (some more than others) find themselves in a social struggle with their peers. The majority of the time, these low-grade conflicts rarely erupt into physical violence, but sometimes there is a child (or a group of children) working through some bad juju or trying on some fantasy of their shadow self and they invariably cause some pain to others. I have seen this happen and all the parents in the area instinctively jump up to either stop the violence or impulsively reprimand with a firm, “no hitting!” We intervene because it is what we do, and we are scared to death of what may happen if we don’t.

Unquestionably, it is unacceptable to have a bunch of kids hammering one another into oblivion. No one wants that. However, what if we, as parents and guardians, hung back and allowed these things to resolve themselves? Does parent/guardian intervention stymie the natural social evolution of both children (aggressor and victim)? Would our children wind up doing the right thing anyway? And what if our child actually did hit back, unleashing an equal amount of aggression and possibly escalating the encounter, or maybe even ending it with one retaliatory advance? What would come of this? Maybe there is a valuable lesson to be learned here as well?

I would love to hear from parents, grandparents, caregivers, and children about their opinions and personal stories on the matter. Is intervention is always the best answer to aggression, or are there times (exceptional times) when fighting back may provide a valuable lesson to all?

Read more: Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

114 comments

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4:42AM PST on Mar 7, 2011

Thanks for the article.

10:53PM PST on Mar 13, 2010

When two people resort to physical force to settle a disagreement, all it decides is which one is physically stronger, NOT who is right or who should apologise.

1:28PM PST on Mar 13, 2010

Like it or not, physical violence underlies all relationships in the animal world. While we have built a civilization out of restricting that violence, we still need to teach our children that they have the right to defend themselves.

2:43PM PST on Feb 25, 2010

AVOID CHILDREN HITTING ONE ANOTHER----CAN LEAD TO ADULTS USING THE SAME ACTIVITY!

11:58AM PST on Feb 22, 2010

I don't believe in hitting (letting two children beat each other or an adult hitting another child or adult), ANYONE out of anger is acceptable under any circumstances.

7:09AM PST on Feb 22, 2010

I personally dont think letting the children beat each other to a bloody pulp will resolve anything. I think its teaching the two that they are allowed to start smacking away at each other and they wont get in trouble. When fights come up in the future, how is this going to play out? They will continue to think that they are allowed to commit random acts of violence and no one is going to care.

10:35PM PST on Feb 16, 2010

I have a son and a daughter who always quarrel - for whatever reason. I used to asked what's wrong, what happened and it turned out that my daughter (the youngest)boosted her confidence in quarreling. Now I don't interven in early part, I let them talk and resolve it themselves

5:34PM PST on Feb 16, 2010

I had a problem with 2 a boy and a girl, always bulling each other and now luckily they are grown and friends.

1:30PM PST on Feb 14, 2010

A friend of mine was brought up that way. If somebody hit him, he answered back. Nobody told him "don't hit anybody; that's wrong." Now, he's 32, and he can't find another way to calm himself down. He needs to hit somebody, and he feel fine because he can see his anger on the other person's face, and he feels happy about it. I'm afraid he never will get enough from hitting, and evertytime he needs more.

12:15PM PST on Feb 12, 2010

This hits close to home as I have 11 & 12 year old daughters who are constantly at each other’s throats. The younger one is always “poking the bear". I think that if I let my older (much bigger) daughter get at her sister, just once, there would be a lot less fighting.

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