My friend asked what seemed to be a reasonable question, one that dads have asked forever: When do you step in and break up two little kids fighting on the playground?
Dads turn to me for this kind of advice all the time.
I told my friend that the tough dad lets kids work out a disagreement over who gets to use a toy themselves – a little crying, a little defending himself. The sandbox, he argues, is the smithy where souls are forged.
The sensitive father interferes, gentling pulling his child away, either making him apologize, if he’s the aggressor or, if he was the aggressee, soothing him. If the dad is really sensitive he might ask his kid how he feels and if he was frustrated. The argument here is that the young, who are unequipped with Ivy League vocabularies and have taken not a single conflict-resolution course yet, need help navigating the rules of society.
It seems like there are two opposed ethical philosophies.
There are not.
There are no ethical considerations here at all. Because this is not a complicated parenting decision.
Here’s what you do when you see two kids fighting: Exactly what you do if you see two people of any age fighting. You stop them. It’s not like there are special rules for kids that are different than adults. You see two kids grabbing merchandise out of a store, you stop them. You see two kids about to sacrifice a chicken, you stop them. You see two kids conspiring to fix the LIBOR rate, you stop them.
Yes, kids naturally fight. They also naturally throw their poop. We fix that. My son was hesitant about going to his old nursery school, which I assumed was because being away from home is scary. But now he’s in a school that’s much calmer and he doesn’t mind going at all. Now I understand: Even though teachers would break up fights at his old school, they couldn’t get to every one.
If I had a job – even a good one, with great benefits and snack time – but I knew there was a fair chance that one of my coworkers might come in my office and grab the papers I was working on, or maybe when I was walking to the water cooler Bill from sales would rush ahead of me and push me to the ground, or that there was a decent change Jan in accounting might bite me really hard – I probably wouldn’t stick with that job.
A big part of parenting is teaching children the rules society has agreed upon. A basic rule is that violence is unacceptable. Sure, after the playground fight your kid can argue that this was a case of self-defense, and you can explain your personal stance on when violence is appropriate, but all of that takes place after you break the fight up. That’s the order jurisprudence works outside of Dirty Harry movies.
As a parent, you are three times as big as toddlers. Therefore, you are the bouncer of the playground. If two accountants got in a bar fight and Shaquille O’Neal just watched, saying, “Accountants have to work these things out themselves,” TMZ would not look kindly upon Shaq. If you stand there while your kid gets beaten up or is doing the beating up, the kids will wonder if you are betting playground fights like some kind of kid-hating Michael Vick.
Plus, it feels great to break up a fight. And I’m not big enough to stop most accountants.
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