By Laura Wheatman Hill
“Is that your kid?” the woman said to me, and I knew the answer would be yes.
We were at a birthday party at a rock climbing gym. The birthday girl was eight and her little brother, five, and four other younger siblings were also playing in the gym along with some strangers who were there for free play. Parents milled around on the ground, spotting and occasionally climbing along with their kids.
The little kids had taken up residence on a platform at the top of a wall. The big kids decided to storm it, medieval war-style. The little kids, all boys, began “play fighting” the bigs as they invaded their battlement.
Except my kid. My kid doesn’t understand the concept of “play fighting” and not making contact. I watched as he and his compatriots backed the birthday girl and a few other kids into a corner, windmilling their arms and growling like pirates. And then I saw my kid noodle arm punch the birthday girl and another girl, who I realized was not a fellow eight-year-old party goer, but a kid there for free play who had gotten caught in the crossfire.
Having lost their territory, the little kids slid down the slide and ran to another wall, another fortress. I stopped my son and firmly but privately told him, “Do not touch anyone.” I waited for verbal confirmation that he understood me and then released him to his friends.
Minutes passed. I kept watching my son, a blonde tank of a preschooler, gleefully go absolutely wild with his friends. The energy in the room was high, overstimulating to me, an adult with a fully formed frontal cortex. I felt like we were going to topple over into screams and tears soon. Then the instructors gathered the eight-year-olds and took them to another part of the gym. I sighed, letting go of the tension I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in my chest.
Then the mother of the girl my son punched came up to me.
“I saw you talked to your son,” she said, “but he hit my daughter and left a mark. I don’t feel safe with him here.”
The daughter, who I guessed was about eight or nine and was a foot or two taller than my son, held her mother’s hand and looked at me with big eyes.
I’ve had this interaction before. I hate it. But I have honed my response.
To the girl, I said, “I’m so sorry that happened. That was unkind of him and I bet that didn’t feel good.”
To the mom I said, “He is extremely wound up and I am watching him. He’s neurodivergent and this is highly stimulating.”
Before I let her speak again, I turned back to the daughter and said, “It’s not okay that he hit you. He is littler than you. He’s only five. So if he comes near you again, you can say to him,” I held my hand up like a stop sign and said, loudly and in my chest voice, “‘Stop. I don’t like that.’” Her big eyes grew bigger and I continued, “Then you can walk away. Okay?”
She nodded and I smiled at the mother and turned away, back to the other moms from the party.
When I’ve had these interactions I’ve often wondered what exactly these parents want me to do. I’m sure they wouldn’t admit it, but what they want me to do is pull my kid out of the establishment by the ear, loudly proclaiming my distaste for their behavior. Or, they want me to call my child down and force him to publicly apologize to this child for his outlandish and criminal acts of violence against women.
You’re going to think I’m a bad mom. Maybe I am. I’m not sure I handled this perfectly. But I didn’t talk to my kid again, mainly because it doesn’t work. My five-year-old didn’t hit that girl because he’s bad. He did it because she was there. He likely didn’t remember doing it, let alone feel sorry about it. I could, as they used to say, “give him something to feel sorry about,” but in my experience and in my research, that only sends the kid on a shame spiral, believing they are bad people, wrong, delinquent and disturbed. These are the thoughts of people who later commit crimes, become addicts, hurt people. “I’m a bad guy and I do bad things.”
I do not condone hitting or violence of any kind. Anecdotally, though, when my daughter would do the exact behavior my son did today and worse, moms, even moms of the victim, wouldn’t come up to me and demand punishment. They’d praise my daughter for her “spunk” and “strength.” And it’s true, my daughter knows how to stand up for herself. So does my son.
The kids whose moms come up to me and demand punishment are parents of the kinds of kids who would never hit. Who would never yell in someone’s face. They are sweet. Gentle. Docile. Sensitive. These wonderful children need to learn the boundaries my little fighters have. To be clear, they should not go around hitting kids, but they do need to know either how to shut down a heightened, potentially violent situation or get themselves out of it. Mom won’t always be there to help you navigate conflict.
You might think I’m letting my puncher off easy. Listen, he has a therapist. So do I. He takes medication and will have an IEP when he starts kindergarten next year. He sees an occupational therapist and a speech language pathologist. I’ve read The Explosive Child, The Whole Brain Child, and other famous parenting books. Would you like to see my notes?
I do not condone violence. I do not condone hateful language. But when, inevitably, my kids do “mess up” and hurt someone, emotionally or physically, I want the culture of parenting to change so all kids involved can succeed.
When we make mistakes, we don’t need shame. We need to repair and learn.
Moments after the interaction with the other girl’s mom, my son came up to me. “I need a break really badly,” he said, his speech impediment on full display. He didn’t melt down. He didn’t lash out again. He calmly came up to me and told me he needed to cool down. The kid has been in therapy in some form or other since he was two and this, right there, is the win. I praised him for noticing in his body that he needed some quiet time and we took a water break in the party room, a quiet space.
Is that my kid? Yes.
Laura Wheatman Hill lives in Oregon with her two human children and one dog. She’s a teacher and writer who enjoys ranting about the failures of “mom culture.” Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.
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