I’ve never laid a hand on any of my children. I believe that hitting a child in the name of disciplining is a symptom of massive failure of our parenting skills. Hitting a child achieves nothing more than deflating our own frustration, and is a much easier reaction than trying to reason with a child. Like or not, it’s a form of bullying. And yes, trying to reason with a child is one of the hardest challenges of being a parent. Their brains aren’t fully developed, yet we project our own systems of adult logic on them, as if they know better, but are just pretending otherwise to wind us up.
All that said, a few days ago, I caught my five-year-old daughter biting our two-year-old son’s hand in a totally unprovoked act of aggression. Out of the blue as he came to give her a hug, she bit him really hard and I could see the love in his eyes turn into pain and agony and a look of betrayal of trust. He loves his sister, and her name was the first word he uttered. He’s her shadow, and even when she is the aggressor, he’s the one who apologizes to her as if it was his fault for provoking her in the first place. My kids generally get along. The typical sibling horsing around aside, they are well adjusted together.
At that instance, as she was still sinking her teeth deeper in his soft flesh, I committed the worst act in the history of my dadhood: I started pinching her on her hand hard enough for her to be distracted to stop biting her brother, but not hard enough for it to be painful that it amounts to a form of punishment. Still, that wasn’t the dumbest thing I did that afternoon. When she looked at me with the same look of betrayal I had seen in my son’s eyes, like a moron, I said, “See how it feels when someone bigger than you hurts you? This is what bullying is about, hurting someone smaller or weaker than you.”
The logic of my action seemed entirely rational. I was demonstrating live the folly of her ways, showing her the injustice of an older, bigger person inflicting harm on someone weaker than them. But herein precisely is the grand failure of that logic. By resorting to exactly the same negative behavior that I was chastising my daughter for, the only thing I proved was that it was okay to abuse your power over someone weaker than you to prove a point, while the lesson I should have been going for needed to be that it’s absolutely never a good idea to do that. Try as hard as I wanted to draw a parallel or extrapolate a more universal moral life lesson in her mind, the only thing she was processing at that point was that her father who had never laid a hand on her, was about to hurt her for no good reason.
If you’ve read any of my work, you will know that I am no pacifist by any stretch of the imagination. Revenge, retribution and preemptive attacks against your potential aggressors are a necessary aspect of survival and protection of the innocent. There can be no turning the other cheek when you are dealing with murderous terrorists, for example. But, in that instance as I quickly assessed how wrong my reaction was, I had an epiphany about this fundamental human instinct to right wrongs by perpetuating the same things we are trying to preempt in the first place. To deter murder, we practice capital punishment. To prevent wars, we start them.
How then do you reconcile our survival instincts against our humanity? As much as I hated myself for setting the wrong example for my daughter, a part of me couldn’t help thinking about the fine line of trying to prevent your children from being bullies, while trying to empower them to be able to defend themselves in the real world against being bullied, not just from physical violence, but emotional abuse as well.
Then it dawned on me. Life is complex, and few things are black and white. As a parent, you are not required to decode this multifaceted nature of our humanity to your children all at once. In this context, the only lesson I needed to highlight was that it is never okay to oppress the innocent. After the storm had weathered, I sat my daughter down and apologized for what I did in no uncertain terms. I also charted out the course of action I should have taken, which was to first disengage her jaw from his skin then sit her down and speak to her about it. I promised never to do it again, but also asked her to remember this day and that if ever her mother or I did something similar, that she was to remind us that it was never okay for an adult to try to set an example to a child by doing the same thing we are trying to stamp out.
I left it at that, knowing that there may be a time in the future when she will be at the receiving end of someone else’s bullying, and we will be having a totally different conversation.