I’ve never taught my sons the age-old lesson, “Never hit a girl.”
That may be shocking, since I’m a pretty staunch feminist mom, but I’ve always wanted more for them.
First and foremost, I want them to learn that not all abuse involves hitting or physical violence. Second, I didn’t want my sons to enter the schoolyard with the idea that boys were always the ones doing the hurting and girls were always the victims. Even in my own childhood, I’d witnessed how truly brutal some little girls could be toward boys, and I wanted my sons to know that they never deserved to be hurt, regardless of who was doing the hurting.
That doesn’t mean that the “never hit a girl” command is useless. It’s born from a history where women and girls were their father’s or husband’s property, and where abuse was tolerated and even encouraged. Teaching boys they should never hit a girl was a way of sending a strong message that abuse of women was not okay. This lesson is still crucial, as every single day three women are killed by their partners. Three women per day, just in the United States.
But women aren’t the only victims of intimate partner violence, and boys are not the only ones doing the bullying.
When Delia’s* son, Christopher, was in fifth grade, he was tormented by a girl in his class.
She called him names and even physically attacked him. No matter what Christopher did, the bullying continued, with no help from the teacher even after Delia stepped in. It wasn’t until Delia started photographing Christopher’s bruises to show the principal that anyone took action that stopped the attacks.
Watching her son suffer was gut-wrenching, but what was hardest on Delia was knowing that her son’s pain was being dismissed because he was a boy and his bully was a girl. It was scary that her son felt he couldn’t defend himself, too.
So what do you do if your son is being hurt by a girl? First, never say that the bullying is happening because she has a crush on him, which is a dangerous precedent to set for any child.
Second, arm your child with the skills he needs to handle any bully, regardless of gender. He can try walking away to disengage, sticking with his own trusted friends, or disarming his bully with humor. If it continues, he should tell a teacher or trusted adult. Help your son find words he can say to defend himself and set boundaries, like “Don’t touch me!” or “You’re hurting me, please stop!” Practice with him how to say them loudly and firmly.
If all else fails, and both you and your son have tried to get help from the teacher and/or authorities, teach your son that he can do what he needs to keep his body safe, be it grabbing the bully’s hands or pushing them away — but only after he has been physically hurt by the bully. Your son needs to understand that he may never initiate violence with another child, no matter how badly his feelings may be hurt, nor may he use violence that is stronger than what is being used against him. If he can run away to a grownup for help, he should always choose that first.
Document all communication with the teacher and administrators before telling your son to defend himself, take photos like Delia did, and let the teacher know your plan.
Most importantly, let your son know that he does not deserve to be hurt by anybody.
It’s also important to realize that telling boys to never hit a girl is woefully lacking as abuse prevention. Not all abuse is physical, and abusive relationships rarely start out physically dangerous. Because of that, we need to teach our boys that healthy relationships require a lot more than just not hitting your partner.
Our older sons also need to understand that sometimes boys and men are abused by their girlfriends. They, too, need to watch for signs of control, emotional and psychological abuse, and stalking. This is also true if your son is in a relationship with a male partner, of course.
Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent, has seen a number of teen boys (and even grown men) in his practice who have been abused by their female partners. He explains that, “On the whole, these boys were embarrassed to admit the abuse had been taking place and reluctant to leave the relationship nonetheless.”
The boys’ explanations for why they stay were similar to what girls and women say, telling Dr. Duffy, “She promised she would change,” or “She said it would never happen again.”
Dr. Duffy explains that the refrain of “never hit a girl” compounds the situation. “In none of the situations I’m describing did the male reciprocate the violence, but he did find his masculinity challenged, especially if there were scars, cuts, or other physical manifestations of the violence. The young men I worked with felt defenseless, and as if the situation may be turned on them, such that they would be accused of being abusive.”
As a clinician, Dr. Duffy believes that male victims of intimate partner violence are common enough that all of our children should be educated and empowered to recognize abuse, regardless of who is perpetrating it. And of course, he recommends that anyone being abused terminate the relationship, report the behavior when possible, and seek therapy as needed.
If you’ve taught your sons to never hit a girl, understand that it’s not a bad lesson. Just remember that there’s a lot more you need to be saying in order to help keep them (and their future partners) safe from abuse. The world is changing, but the more we open ourselves, as parents, to communicating with our kids without shame, the better it will become.
*Name has been changed for anonymityMore On