“Hit Them Back”: Playground nonviolence

Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.
(Mahatma Gandhi)

I hate making kids cry.

I realize it’s just part of the job description when you work with kids, but I still hate it.

And yesterday, when I sent a first grader to time out, I felt that pang of sorrow and heard that little voice that says Fold! Let her off the hook! when her tiny little 7-year-old body shook with tears — and this even though I’d caught her in the act of hitting another student.

It’s the worst.

So I sat down with her on the bench, patted her back, and breathed with her until she stopped sobbing. And when I asked her why she’d been hitting, she said it:

“My mom tells me when someone hits me to hit them back.”

I hear that one all the time. And really, what can you say to that kind of logic? Moms are wise and powerful (as they should be), and the ethics they pass on to their kids are a lot more enduring than the ethics enforced by school staff on the playground.

So I said, “It sounds like your mom cares about you a lot and wants you to be safe.” And she nodded her weepy little head.

When I talk about the line with other adults — “If another kid hits you, hit back!” — they tell me their parents told them the same thing when they were little and being picked on. Nobody wants their precious baby to be hurt, even if it means hurting other people’s precious babies.

And the toughest part is: it works. It’s good advice. When you hit another kid, eventually they get the message and find someone weaker to pick on.

So what do you do? So you teach different forms of conflict resolution. You teach kids to use “I feel” statements and seek support from adults and walk away when they get too angry. And you know, somewhere, that it matters to offer another message.

I, too, care about these precious babies and want them to be safe.

It’s an uphill battle, and some days it feels like it goes against natural instinct. But part of me is aware that if we’re going to build communities that know, truly and deeply, practices of nonviolence and forgiveness, our children will have to bravely learn them first.

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