An exasperated dad once told me how he instructed his son to handle a playground conflict if it were to happen again: “If that kid throws the basketball at your head again, punch him, and just be willing to take the teacher’s punishment.” I’ll explain here why that’s not the best advice to give a kid. But let’s be honest. Most of us have thought the same thing when we’ve seen our kids get grief from one of their “friends.” Every parent has thought, perhaps even said, that a punch in the nose would keep a bully from coming back again. No parent wants his son to be a punching bag; but if we’re not careful, we’ll inadvertently teach our children not to defend themselves, but, rather, to seek revenge. Retaliation is an act of immaturity, and the mature people in a child’s life should be helping them rise above that.
Telling a kid to punch a bully can be problematic for a few reasons. (1) If the oppressor is bigger or stronger, your child could be in for a walloping. (2) If your child is bigger and stronger than the other kid, he could cause far more physical harm to the bully than you every imagined. (3) Telling your children to hit another person who has offended them is equivalent to telling them to unleash, rather than control, their anger – and that can have serious repercussions. (4) Your child needs opportunities to learn controlled self-defense rather than unhinged, angry vengeance. I’ve illustrated with physical conflicts, but the principle also applies to verbal and other forms of social mistreatment.
Should our children be a punching bag? No. Is it possible to defend one’s self while behaving in a Christian manner? Absolutely. Do you remember what Jesus Christ told His disciples to do if one of them did not own a sword? “Let him sell his garment, and buy one” (Luke 22:36). The disciples would be travelling from town to town, and they needed to protect themselves from thieves. Why then, did Jesus tell Peter to put away his sword in Gethsemane? The reason lies in the purpose and the people arresting Christ. Christians must be prepared to suffer persecution for Christ’s sake at the hands of evil authorities. However, it’s lawful to physically defend yourself when an individual is oppressing you unlawfully. So rather than telling your kid to punch someone, here’s my advice.
First, teach the difference between self-defense and revenge. Using physical force to stop a physical assault is self-defense. Tell your child to shove them, tackle them, or do something to keep from being harmed; the objective is to protect oneself, not to hurt the aggressor in retaliation. Tripping someone because they tripped you, or gossiping about someone because they gossiped about you, or punching someone because they threw a basketball at your head is revenge.
Second, teach kids to boldly speak the truth. Some bullies never quit because they have never been confronted with a bold, emphatic “Stop it!” Without using insulting language and four letter words, kids may need to tell someone, “You’re acting like a jerk, and no one wants to be around you when you act like this!” The truth can hurt, but sometimes it needs to.
Third, teach kids when they can resolve a problem themselves and when they should enlist an adult. The emphasis of my advice in this article has been on how to teach kids to handle themselves when they might encounter an occasional conflict. But children also need to learn to report incidents to authorities and not handle major incidents alone. If an incident involves someone being physically harmed, bullied (consistently targeted by an aggressor), or socially maligned, authorities need to be informed. Some childhood conflicts will only be resolved with the assistance of an adult.
In everyday life, adults must do their best to properly react to conflicts that they did not invite upon themselves. The best way to become a wise responder as an adult is to learn proper responses through childhood conflicts.