Betty Duffy

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Case Study in Controlled Violence

I have no idea how to make children behave, and when I read theories and hear stories of children forever changed into angels by a sharp word here, or a meaningful hug there, I instantly bristle. It defies thousands of years of lived experience for a child to be made perfect by a smart parent. It’s only happened once that I know of, and both the child and his parent were God.

But something worked for me once, and only once, that made me think maybe I held the key to keeping the peace between my boys, who like any boys who share a limited piece of turf, most of their clothes and friends, and have barely a year between them in age, fight, a lot.

It began on a beautiful afternoon in our backyard, when after a lifetime of imperfect aim with the wiffle bat, the soccer ball, the golf club, or with whatever he had in his hands, my oldest son accidentally threw an ace and hit his little brother square in the head with a blunt object. I’m sure it surprised the offending brother as much as it surprised everyone else: he shot to kill, and it actually almost worked.

And I, sitting on the swing with the baby on my lap, not quite carelessly, dumped the baby, and took off running after the offender. I wasn’t sure what I would do if I caught him, but my instinct said, “Get the kid who hurt my kid.” And I chased the little turd for a number of yards before I started to feel really stupid.

There is no dignity in a thirty-something-year-old woman chasing a nine-year-old boy around five acres of yard. And it could only have ended badly: a running chase must end in a tackle, and in that I would have had an unfair advantage.

So I came to a halt and ordered the child keep on running to his room until I knew what I was going to do with him. Only then did I see that little brother, who was blessed by God with the body of a tortoise and the soul to boot, was standing there, not crying, just observing the drama of his mom sprinting after his big brother, all the while blood poured out the back of his head and down his shirt. He had no idea he was so badly injured.

For me, the sight of blood suddenly put the whole incident into a frenzy of heightened seriousness. I’d always wondered if the house caught on fire while I was in the shower, would I remember to put my clothes on before I evacuated?

If this were anyone else’s kid, I would have thought to stop the bleeding first. Apply pressure, put on a dressing, assess the possibility of head trauma, and if all systems are go, change out of the bloody shirt before heading to urgent care.

But my brain could only register LOTS OF BLOOD: MUST…GET…TO…EMERGENY ROOM!

Never mind that he had no signs of concussion, no dizziness, no vomiting. He was completely alert and sober, and if anything, proud of himself for producing so much blood. I grabbed a shirt that someone had deposited in the yard, held it to the wound, and began putting all the kids in the car. Offending child, who had just made it to his room, had to return to see the damage inflicted on his brother’s noggin, and I believe he felt, for the first time this incident, a true remorse.

Stitches were administered, and we returned home, really no worse for wear, except that we’d all been spooked, especially me. It was our first taste of real blood in combat, and I feared they’d be eager for more. It occurred to me that as their strength increased and their conflicts grew in seriousness, their blows could one day end very badly.

And so I micromanaged their conflicts, which, naturally, didn’t end with the sight of blood. “Time out! Give that back! Who had it first? I told you to say you’re sorry!” It wasn’t long before I was as angry and immersed in their battles as they were, and I didn’t like the way I behaved. I felt stuck: I had to stay in the game or they might kill each other, but the longer I stayed, the more likely it seemed that I might become the perpetrator.

One miserable morning after a long, conflict-riddled drive to and from the doctor’s office, I got a bee in my bonnet and kept on driving all the way to Church. I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I got there, but I had the idea in mind that I could confess my recurrent anger while at the same time pointing to its source, “See these kids, Father? See how naughty they are? It’s no wonder I’m naughty too.”

I knocked on the Rectory door, which you’d have thought would be enough to edify my kids. But they behaved according to my plan, i.e. badly. The pieces were all in place for Father to absolve me, to console me with the words, “You’re right. There’s nothing you can do. If I were you, I’d book a trip to Paris.”

But Father asked, “What happens if you don’t get involved, just let them fight?”

“Well they might kill each other, Father.”

“They’re not going to kill each other because they count on you to interfere.”

“But how are they going to learn peaceful resolution skills?”

“Well they’re not going to learn them from you if you keep fighting with them.”

It suddenly became clear why I felt so stupid chasing my nine-year-old around the yard, and why it does no good to let the pitch of my voice match theirs when they argue. Their naughty WAS making me naughty, which is not how things are supposed to work. I’m supposed to have peace that rubs off on them. I’m the grown-up, and the occurrence of the occasional childhood crime of passion doesn’t change that, stitches or no.

In the car, not a week later, someone stole someone else’s little plastic army guy (see masthead for an example). I know little plastic army guys are very important, and also very rare, so I was not a bit surprised when their conflict quickly came to blows.

“Mom, He hit me! He stole my army guy! Give it back! Mom, make him give it back!” It was their siren song. They were trying to lure me in.

“I think I’m going to let you guys work this out on your own,” I said.

“How? He’s not going to give it back.”

“Well then I guess you guys can just keep hitting each other until you figure out who gets it.” Was this right? Was it wrong? Was it Christian? I don’t really know. All I know is that it allowed me to be the bystander, to keep at a remove so that I could insert, “Uh, no weapons, and no teeth, by the way, only fists… below the neck,” and then watch from the rearview for them to work up all the sweat while I remained in an amused state of calm. Maybe I could see the sport in this.

A funny thing happened then: They were apprehensive. They’d been given leave to fight all they wanted within certain parameters, and yet they’d suddenly each become timid. They were willing to endure the vicious crimes of passion, but to fight fair for justice, with a level head and a steady hand? Somebody might get hurt.

One of them threw the first wimpy punch, dropped down from overhead like a mallet. A girly swat back. A smack. A kick. A double punch, a squeal. “He hurt me!”

“Yeah, you’re fighting,” I said. “Are you ready to be done?”

“He hasn’t given back the army guy.”

“Are you ready to give it back?”


“Well, then I guess you’re not done.”

The cycle repeated. Swat, kick, punch, “Mom!” It repeated again.

Soon we were home, and they were sweaty, though neither of them had even a bruise from all their punches, and I asked them if they were done fighting or if they wanted me to work it out for them.

Unanimously they said, “You work it out!”

“Ok,” I said, “Give me the army guy.” They handed it over. “Now give each other a hug.” They gave each other hug. I pocketed the army guy, and said, “Wasn’t that a waste of time?” and walked away.

I’m not saying that this is the way I now handle fights at our house, or that this story has value as anything other than a case study in controlled violence vs. uncontrolled violence. I like the “Wise Padre” element, and the old school values of playground justice and disengaged adults with a level head. But beyond all that, I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a fight feeling so darn cool.


mrsdarwin said...

At least you weren't too darn hot!

Maybe the priest could give wise advice because he wasn't involved either.

Hope said...

Lordy this brings back memories. I sucked at this part of parenting. When the boys got bigger and started fighting I used to tell them to go stand outside and beat the shit out of each other and not come back in until they were finished. The looks they gave me for that advice, cause I gave it more than one time, said I was the most unoriginal, batshit crazy mother ever. But they never laid a hand on each other at those times. They saved it for when I really was batshit crazy and interfering like mad. Sigh. As adults they live together now. In relative peace. Somehow that does not seem fair. :)

wifemotherexpletive said...

i think i want to cry, but am too angry and too busy reaching back to separate the boys while driving to do it...
hallelujah for this post, today, maybe i'll be the coolest mom for a minute or two... and the boys will start their own self-control life. . .

bearing said...

Heh. I am also the "let them fight it out" sort of mama. You do have to keep an ear out for maliciousness or one kid taking very unfair advantage of the other, but that's much more efficient than micromanaging fights.

Tari said...

I love the mental picture of you walking away with the army guy (and i don't even know what you look like). I only have 2, and they get along better than most, but I spend a lot of time telling them "I am not involved in this. Go away and figure it out." I don't know if it helps them fight less, but it makes me less angry, and I could always use that.

eaucoin said...

Sharing their limited turf, clothes, and friends forces your children to learn how to make their way in the world; how to get along, and that it's not all about them. In just a few short years, their advanced skills will enable them to co-operate to hide stuff from you. You know your weak spots and you say your prayers. I think you're well on your way to staying one step ahead of them most of the time.

Peter and Nancy said...

My mother-in-law has always been a very gentle, kind woman and mother, but would occasionally lose it with her 7 kids. They always kept a statue of Mary on the landing of the second floor, and one exasperated day, she stopped before the statue and shouted, "YOU . . . with your ONE!"

I just heard this story for the first time yesterday -- laughed my head off.


Anne said...

"Work it out" is something I say at least 5 times a day...

Loved the post.

karyn said...

Like nearly all moms, I have the same problem with mine. And I have definitely wanted to use the fight it out stance - but how do you do that when the ages are further apart (in my case, 7, 4, and 2). It's not fair for the two year old to try to fight it out, but boy, do I get sick and tired of playing judge in every screaming match.

Sally Thomas said...

Oh, boy. I go through the same thing. Mine are farther apart, too, so there's that size differential that worries me, but I do spend a huge amount of time trying to be deaf to their fighting, and failing. And while my youngest two, a boy and a girl 16 months apart, fight a lot, too (I generally just respond to raised voices by sending them to their rooms, so that I don't have to hear them any more), it's the boy-on-boy fighting that makes me feel the most useless. Maybe because I'm not also a boy?

meg said...

Overheard in the back of my van recently: "No, YOU twisted my nose FIRST and THEN I bit you."

BettyDuffy said...

The method worked for my boys because they are so close in age, and my younger is actually taller and heavier than his older brother. What he lacks in cunning, he makes up for in size, and I've always thought that if he just socked his older brother, just once, really hard, maybe his older brother would lay off and let him keep his stuff.

I don't know what you do if the kids are not evenly matched physically. I don't know what you do if they are. Like I said, this only worked once. Though the other day, I asked them, "Do you want to go outside and fight about it?" and the older one said, "No, I don't want to fight." He just wanted to get his way without fighting via manipulation and other tactics. What works one day might not the next.

Hope, I stink at this too.

Eucoin, your comment, about them hiding stuff from me, reminded me of my husband who started chewing tobacco way too young when he and his friends rode around town on their bikes. His mother followed him everywhere he went (in her car) for an entire summer.

Hope said...

Your comment reminded me of my husband. He was not a fighter by nature and had a younger brother who was. Anyway. DH was bullied all through school. On his very last day, he was about 16, the bully did it one time too many. DH up and plowed him in the face. In hindsight he wished he'd done it years earlier.

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog. Your son told me about it the other day,you are a very talented writer!

Oh Vey!!!! is all I got to say.
Life is easier with one around here, but not that exciting..... I don't think I could handle it.

I hope that my son hasn't prompted any of these battles.

BettyDuffy said...

Uh Oh, hope I haven't scared you out of letting him come play with us! He's always perfect, and only the four-year-old hits him when he's here.

Marie said...

Great post, again.
I've got girls, and you've completely inspired me. They've been fighting like crazy lately, and I'm going to give them a new rule -- no words. They can hit each other all they want, with your rules, below the neck, no weapons. I'm totally serious, I'm really looking forward to this, I can't wait to see their faces when I tell them.

(The only thing that has ever truly stopped my girls from fighting with each other when they are in those moods is when I do something that makes them both hate me more than each other.)