Many years ago my two primary school aged sons and I witnessed a very public domestic violence incident at a local supermarket. A male and female were furiously fighting over who would take two young children home with them.
All the commotion had attracted a huge crowd of people, many who where casting a watchful eye over the children who were trapped in the middle of adults yelling and screaming. There were fists flying from both male and female stakeholders and thankfully it wasn’t too long before the police arrived.
On the way home my youngest son asked a few questions.
“Mum,” he started. “You know how it’s against the law for a man to hit a woman?”
“Yeah,” I replied slowly.
“That’s a bit unfair,” he commented bluntly.
“Why?” I asked, even though I could see where he was going.
“Well. How come a girl can hit a boy but a boy can’t hit a girl? What if the girl is bigger than the boy….and stronger? There are a lot of girls that train and they can really fight. (I guessed he was talking about boxing). What if one of those girls hit me mum? Could I hit her back?”
“Ahhh…no hitting a girl back isn’t a great idea….unless it was a formal supervised boxing competition, and I don’t even know if they have mixed gender boxing for your age. I am sure you could find another way to defend yourself besides hitting her back.”
“That’s unfair,” he defended. “What if a boy hit me? Could I hit him back?”
The testosterone was obviously overwhelming him! I could feel him living out various scenarios in his head!
“Ahhh…no. It’s never ok to hit someone with the intention to hurt them. If a boy hit you, you could defend yourself which might mean you try and block him, but I would never want you to purposefully hurt him. You are smarter than that.”
“What about a girl hitting another girl? What’s the rules then? If a girl hits another girl is the girl allowed to hit the other girl back, or is she allowed to only defend herself?”
I stopped. I am not sure I ever directly asked my mother that question as a child. I am not sure I even fathomed that a girl would actually hit a girl. I had only seen boys physically fight. Playground fights had obviously changed since I was a child.
“It’s not ok for a girl to hurt another girl in just that same way as its not ok for a boy to hit another girl. If she needed to defend herself that would be okay. If a girl hit you I hope you could find a way to defend yourself that didn’t involve you punching her,” I concluded.
Let me give you a bit of background information.
My boys had two younger female cousins who lived close by. They saw them often and in many ways they were more like siblings than cousins.
They were firmly told that they were never to hit the girls, even if they hit them first (which had happened on rare occasions). I explained that as young man they were bigger and strong (which was actually questionable because my boys were pretty small), and that being a man involved taking care of women.
When they had bravely taken on a slap without retaliating they would come running to me to sort it out, bearing their wounds as proof of their love for the girls. They would do anything in their power to avoid hurting them. That was what I had called “being a man”, and so that is what they did.
I am not sure I applied the same rules to my boy’s relationship, or at least not as strictly. From time to time my boys had a few “punch ups” and I can distinctly remember saying, “Well if you hit someone, you can expect they will hit you back. Sounds like you both need to say sorry and sort yourselves out.” I can also remember saying, “Come on you two…use some words! Let’s settled down!” But I can’t remember being horrified at the thought of them throwing a punch. I kinda accepted that it would happen.
Establishing the Rules of Play
The scene we witnessed allow me to hear my boys thoughts about aggression, and the genuine concern they had that girls could hurt them. They didn’t feel like the stronger person in the relationship. They felt weaker and more vulnerable, which wasn’t good.
That day we established the new (and fairer) rules of play in the car on the way home. We talked about both genders and acknowledged the gender bias we have in society. Here is what we came up with:
- People (including mum) would prefer that boys and girls don’t physically fight, but clearly from today’s viewing it can happen.
- No one wins once a fight becomes physical.
- Every boy and girl needs to take responsibility to manage their anger in better ways. It is never okay to hurt someone, but it is okay to defend yourself if you really needed to.
- People (including mum) might not “expect” girls to physically fight as much they expect boys to. We might assume girls are soft and gentle. We also assume that boys are rough and tough. These assumptions aren’t accurate. Girls don’t always behave this way and neither do boys. Boys can be just as hurt as a girl during a fight.
- Being a man is not about taking the punches, or allowing yourself to be hurt by a girl. It is about taking good care of yourself and others. It’s about being responsible for working problems out. If you ever feel really upset and angry you are best to walk away for a minute, and calm down. Then you can come back and solve the problem without hurting someone.
- And lastly, in the words of my boys which I never argued with. Males should not hit females, ever. It’s against the law.
It’s interesting how much our gender boxes affect the way we bring up our children. The stereotypes we hold often impact how we educate our girls and boys. What are your family’s absolute rules of play and do they apply to both your girls and boys?
Complete this sentence
When we are angry we never:
* Hit each other
* Push each other
* Yell at each other in anger
* Break things
* Slam doors
* Punch walls
* Use aggression to try and frighten each other or threaten each other
* Threaten to hurt ourselves
RECOMMENDED READING: For more content like this check out my book “Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-Doubt of Growing Up.”