It was at a summer birthday party that I did the unthinkable.
Although I’ve spoken out against violence time and again, and although I have taught and sought to model patience, compassion, and grace to my daughter since her birth, today I instructed her to counter aggression with aggression. Yes, I told my daughter to hit someone.
Let me explain.
We set out for the event on a beautiful July day, armed with bathing suits and sunscreen and prepared to relax and enjoy ourselves for a few hours. Our host had setup games and invited a magician. My daughter, River, decided to go swimming, so I prepped her with a life vest and praise for her formidable water safety skills (she’s still skittish about these things). She joined a lively group of kids in the pool and I watched (snapping the odd photo) from a distance great enough to vitiate the label of “helicopter parent.”
Presently, a slightly older boy approached with a squirt gun and shot her in the face. She was not pleased.
I went right to the reaction to encourage civility and asked River to say, “Please don’t do that. I don’t like it.” She turned to the boy and did just that. He shot her in the face again. “Tell him very clearly ‘no,’” I suggested. Again she tried, again he shot her.
It was time to address the boy’s behavior directly. I had observed on arrival that he came with his mother, who was nowhere to be found. It was up to me to admonish him. “My daughter has asked you twice now not to shoot her with the squirt gun. Don’t do it again,” I stated with gentle but firm reproach. It was too late. River was distressed enough that she exited the pool and came back to me for a comforting embrace.
As a parent, I trust my instinct about other people. I remember being in a grocery store and feeling very uncomfortable about a male employee looking at my daughter. River, also reacting to her intuition, said, “Daddy I feel kind of creepy around that man.” Concerned that he may have heard, I told her not to say such things. But as we neared his vendor stand, he announced: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find your daughter extremely attractive.” I was stunned and furious. My daughter’s intuition had been spot on. I reported the employee to the manager immediately, and sheepishly apologized to River. “I was wrong,” I told her. “Trust your instinct. If you ever feel that way around a stranger, listen to your body and feelings. It’s okay to get away from a person if they make you feel creepy.”
Back to the party: the time arrived for a magic show and piñata contest. I used the opportunity to observe the aggressive boy and, more importantly, his mother. He was about seven but used the word “sh-t” with surprising ease and frequency. A crew-style haircut lent him a militaristic, jock-ish appearance. His mother spoke loudly of her drinking escapades and how she “had a glass of wine now and then” even though she was pregnant. During the piñata contest, she encouraged him to be entitled and aggressive toward the other children: “When you want something, you have to take it. Don’t be nice, get up there and take what you want,” she said.
Now, I don’t know this mother’s story, and it’s not my place to speculate on her story. For me, there’s no context; how can I possibly judge her without it? In an alternate history, maybe I could have approached her and began a constructive dialogue about privilege, acknowledging the different assumptions that the world would make about our children’s presumed genders. Maybe we could have talked about male aggression and how we could change the culture of patriarchy. But the opportunity didn’t arise, and I can only respond to the tiny slice of behavior that impacted my child. (As I say, a parent needs to listen to their gut, and there are red flags that shouldn’t be ignored. The boy was a child without clear boundaries and, thus, a serious risk to other kids.)
In teaching her boy to take, to disregard other people’s feelings, to use aggression as means of attaining what he wants, the mother was providing the rudiments of male privilege. The boy felt entitled to ignore River’s repeated requests to stop. To some degree, failing to comply with an adult’s directions is normal childhood behavior; but there was clearly more at work in this situation. The mother was encouraging her boy to disregard his peers, to shirk civility and fairness, in order to get what he wanted. A parent who fails to teach their child the value of sharing is negligent; a parent who teaches a boy not to listen to ‘no’ could be complicit in creating a criminal.
And so it happened that after the magician had departed and piñata cracked open, when River had returned to the pool, I told her it was okay to fight back. The boy sidled up to her again, brandishing his big red gun and an I-dare-you smirk, and shot her right between the eyes. I knew it was time to tell her that, when you’ve tried please and thank you, when you gave you unequivocal “no” and the boy kept pushing, you knock that gun right out of his goddamn hand.
“If he does that one more time, you may hit the gun to knock it away,” I told her.
She was stunned. Confused. I felt like I had introduced a notion completely foreign to her five-year-old mind. I felt all at once like I’d made the right decision and the wrong one. It felt wrong to have to introduce a concept that directly contravened everything I’d taught her before, to be forced to allow nuance into a mind that functions in absolutes.
I want my daughter to be a paragon of loving-kindness, the kind of human who grows organic vegetables and occupies Wall Street and votes for Green Party candidates. I want her life to be ever full of simple moral choices and uncomplicated questions. But I’d be wronging her if I, like many parents, taught her to defer, to be passive, or surrender. We teach boys to be forceful, it’s true, but we also teach girls to be meek. To erase the scourge of male privilege, we need to address both wrongs. My daughter needs me to tell her, in age-appropriate ways, about the dangers the world will put in front of her. She needs to know about male privilege and why boys feel entitled to “take” things they have no right claiming. She needs to be prepared when polite “no thank you”s are ignored.
I will continue to advocate and model non-violence as a solution to problems. I hope that, in most cases, she uses intelligence and creativity to solve problems, and sees the value of these qualities over brute force. More than all else, I pray that River never needs to hit another human being at all, or be cornered to the degree that she has no other options.
But if she does, if faced with the unthinkable, I hope she remembers: “You can hit that boy.”