Last week, Mike did a post about the slightly controversial “Don’t Say Gay” video, in which one kid slaps another kid for using the word “gay” as a pejorative. You’ll get no complaint from me about the wrongness of “gay” as an insult; some of my best friends (indeed, my kids’ “godmommies”) are gay, and I just don’t do it. To me, it’s on par with the “n-word”. And the hitting thing? I’m not sure slapping another kid in the face for making a derogatory comment is called for. Then again, there’s one kid who’ll probably think twice about calling something — or someone — “gay”.
Here’s a story. Our friends belong to a local country club, our boys are close, and we’re often invited to hang out with them. A couple of years ago, we were spending a summer day with them at their pool. The pool was busy; there are two pools at the club, and this one was reserved for the kids — just a couple of feet deep with a bored teenage lifeguard endlessly twirling her whistle around on its string. We bought a cheap inflatable air mattress for Lucas, and he was loving it — it was his pirate ship, then it was his surfboard, then it was his spaceship. Lucas and his air mattress attracted the attention of another boy, a stranger. The kid was Lucas’ age, perhaps a bit older. He was brandishing a Super Soaker. At first, he just started spraying Lucas with water. Then he’d spray Lucas with water and take the air mattress from him. Lucas asked him to please stop. The kid grabbed it and took it, and of course Lucas protested and took it back, but the kid didn’t stop. After watching this a few times, I asked the kid to please stop taking Lucas’ air mattress.
Then it escalated.
The kid continued to follow Lucas around and kept grabbing the air mattress. Now the kid was adding something into the mix — he began hitting Lucas on the head with the Super Soaker. “Knock it off!” Lucas yelled. I walked over to the kid and told him to stop with the hitting, looking for the kid’s parents. I figured that they must be around, maybe they saw what was going on, and maybe they’d say something. I then told Lucas to just stay away from the kid: “If he follows you, just go to another part of the pool.”
Lucas tried, but the kid wouldn’t leave him alone. Again with the hitting, again with taking the air mattress, and he laughed at Lucas whenever he told the kid to quit it. This went on for a half hour, maybe longer. Lucas would tell the kid to please stop, I told the kid AGAIN to please stop, Lucas would go to the other side of the pool, trying to get away from his tormentor, and that kid just kept at it, pushing Lucas off the air mattress and taking it, hitting Lucas with that goddamned Super Soaker. My blood was up. I had a flashback: me in 6th grade, the new and very dorky kid in school, the gang of bullies — there were six of them — who made it a point to tell me every day that today was the day they were going to beat me up after school. I remember running home every afternoon in terror. I remember feeling completely powerless. Years later, that memory was front and center when I signed Lucas up for karate class.
Lucas took another shot to the head and looked at me helplessly. I looked Lucas in the eye, made a fist, punched the air, and nodded at him.
Lucas balled up his hand and punched the kid right in the mouth. It was a textbook middle punch. His instructor would’ve been proud.
The story didn’t have a Hollywood ending. The other boy ran off crying, Lucas ran to me, also crying — “I hurt him! I hurt that boy!” — his good nature shadowed by this singular (and, to date, only) act of physical violence against another kid. We talked about it into the evening; he later admitted to me that he’d pulled his punch at the last second, just like he was told to do in karate class (which I’m sure saved me from having to pay a dental bill). And I told him what we all tell our kids — when you’re being bullied, you find an adult to help. And then I told him a hard truth: Hitting is wrong, fighting is wrong, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to keep yourself from getting hurt. “Well”, he said, “I bet that kid doesn’t bother me anymore.” And he was right about that.
Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know. Neither of us felt good about what had happened, but Lucas was being bullied, the kid would not stop, and so, Lucas stopped him. And maybe that’s the ultimate lesson here: We can talk all we want about how we shouldn’t encourage our kids to hit other kids, but sometimes, when facing humiliation or worse, they’re left with little choice in the matter.