How to Teach Your Child to Punch Kids in the Face

I didn’t see it happen. One of my son’s friends – playing with the other kindergarten boys racing around like crazypants after school on the front lawn – got hit on the ear with a sword. Which was a stick.

His mom saw. And she set into those boys pretty quick. “No more sticks!”  Her arms waving like an emphatic umpire. The kids’ eyes wide. She ushered her boy into the car, telling the one mom who got to her before she drove away that now everyone will probably “think she’s a bitch.”

I didn’t think that. For one thing, at this stage, I think bitch is kind of a good thing. For another, I understand. We all do. We’re all nice people until you hurt my child and then…whammo…mama bear.

It took a good week for Stick-Mama and her son to rejoin the afterschool game. In the meantime, I started watching the game more closely. And I wasn’t one hundred percent relaxed about what I saw.

The game is called Kingdom. It involves kings and princes, robbers, putting a robber in prison, letting him go, then racing down to the other end of the grass and catching another prisoner. There is a core group as well as a revolving cast of add-ons who either understand the rules instantly or just do what the person next to them does. (The same way I get through any group fitness class.)

And now that I’m paying attention, this is what I see:  two children take my son to prison, each one holding an arm, while he smiles and laughs. Then they all, my son included, race to the end of the grass and take the next prisoner. Who is my son. He goes to prison, again smiling. A third time: he’s back in prison. Smiling. He’s the happiest incarcerated felon I’ve ever seen. (I’ve never seen an incarcerated felon.)

I am now watching full time. Back in the group of moms, one says her son got a cavity and she feels ashamed. I can imagine how she feels, but I don’t think she should feel bad. Plus, if we’re being this honest, I can barely concentrate on what she’s saying because I’m so worried that my son is going to get dragged across the lawn again.

But when I look up, he’s not being carted off to prison. He’s now lying on the grass with five kids on top of him. Two are holding his arms and one his leg. I hurry toward him. All he has is a free leg to defend himself. Except he doesn’t look like he wants to defend himself. He’s still smiling. I tell the moms, all breezy and casual (and hiding that at this moment I find their children to be feral) that I’m going to save my son, ha ha. They nod and laugh. If they notice their kids are sitting on my son it is indetectable.

I am alarmed. Time slows down. This seems like one of those moments that everything hinges on. After this nothing will be the same, this is the bellwether, the moment. I hate myself for letting this moment happen, clearly the way my son is allowing himself to be treated in this game is the culmination of everything I’ve done wrong these past six years.  I started him in preschool too early, too late. The sleep training made him have low self-esteem. I should still be breastfeeding. All those kids who breastfed for five years, they never doubt that people should stop their lives and disrobe because they are hungry. That’s confidence.

I go down the sidewalk to my son and the kids disperse. Perhaps they recall Stick-Mama. I calmly ask my child how he feels about this game. He says he likes it. He’s still smiling. He’s been smiling the whole time. I say that I see people sitting on him and pulling on him. He says he likes it. I remember every helicopter-parent warning I’ve ever read and instantly and silently dismiss them all as crap! I say that I don’t like it, as if I’m the only one who matters. Thereby undoing his faith in himself to choose friends and appropriate activities. Thereby setting him up to one day hide friends and activities from me so I won’t judge them. Judge him. Setting up my feelings as something to trump his. The “fixers” – I just read two nights ago in New York Magazine – the fixers actually erode their children’s self-esteem, even as they seek to save their children from any negative feeling or experience.

Couldn’t I just save one more teeny tiny time and start the non-erosion tomorrow?

Where is the line between protecting your child – your sole job when you boil it down, keeping them alive – and equipping them for the long haul? I mean, I’m his mom, I’m supposed to have his back. Maybe the answer is so obvious. Maybe I was supposed to whisk him away from the scene, and the fact that I didn’t means I’m cold and callous.

Would this be easier if my child were the imprison-er and not the imprison-ee? If I spent my afternoons saying things like:

“One more body slam at school and I’m taking away your light saber.”
“Now honey, kicking isn’t nice, even when they deserve it.”
“For the last time, stop hurling footballs at the neighbor kid!”

Doesn’t part of me secretly, soooo secretly wish ONE TIME my son would be the rough one. I’d go home and tell my husband that he punched another kid in the face and we’d talk to him sternly. But secretly, sooooo secretly, we’d be relieved he was on top of the pile, not under it. If you have to choose, which for some dumb reason it feels like you do.

It is utterly ridiculous that I have the son I’ve always wanted–I respect him. Admire him. Love him. Like him. He could not be any better than he is. And here I am with the nerve to wish he was different. To be something that could not be farther from who he is at his core. To be a little bit of a meanie.

In the car going home I tell him I have some concerns about the Kingdom game. That some parts look a little rough. He says, “Mom, please don’t make me stop playing with my friends.”

Yes but honey, mommy could find you some new friends. They’re somewhere, right now, planting an apple orchard and knitting their own pants by the fire.

I can also find you a college, a wife, and an employer. Mommy would do that for you, honey. Uh, honey?

Do I make him stop playing this stupid game? Will it hurt his psyche to be constantly imprisoned? Or is he so comfortable with himself that he honestly and truly thinks it’s fun and funny – like he says. Do I tail him throughout his game, his life, and squelch all the trouble he doesn’t see coming, even the trouble I have to imagine?

Suggestions welcome.

And I truly apologize if your child really is a meanie and you’re wishing your child just once could be nice, sweet, cute and fun.

In the meantime: sigh.