Should I have let these boys fight it out and not gotten involved?

A couple of days ago I was speaking to my older kids about a problem I have with the Harry Potter series – that the adults are all ineffectual, irrelevant, incompetent, missing at times they’re needed or dead.  The kids have to work everything out by themselves, and of course the kids being the heroes is part of what makes the series so compelling.

The next day I was waiting at a bus stop as boys from a local school streamed out at dismissal, when I heard calls of “Fight, fight!” As I stood there, I watched boys trying to get others involved and very quickly there was a growing crowd with boys chanting and egging their school mates to fight.

KidsFightingI looked up and at the top of the steep hill saw two boys who looked like they were in the upper elementary grades pushing each other in a way that was clearly not friendly.  There was one other man who had crossed to see what was happening and I waited for him to do something as I saw his expression of concern, but then realized he wasn’t going to get involved.  What I wanted to do was go back to my bus bench but my conscience was telling me as the only other adult around that would be irresponsible.

I shouted up the hill to where the boys were pushing one another back and forth, “Boys, stop  and come down here right now!”  (This is so embarrassing but it’s the truth, that’s what I did.) Of course it always works really well to raise your voice to show that you have authority in a situation, right?  Ahhh…no.

I always tell parents, don’t raise your voice – get yourself up off the couch and actively get involved when there’s a situation that needs to be dealt with.  Real authority is quiet and calm.  If they hadn’t been up a hill that I didn’t think I could easily climb, I would have walked over and started speaking to them from the start instead of raising my voice, but that wasn’t the case so I made the mistake of trying to borrow power.

Some kids moved away but the main players didn’t budge.  In for a penny, in for a pound… I hiked up the steep hill, told the kids watching to go down, and spoke to the kids involved from two different schools.  After taking a few minutes to hear them out and them agreeing to let it go, I went back down the hill and all the boys who had gathered around went back to wait for their rides home.  It was over for this time, at least.

I planned to call the administration the next day to suggest this area be monitored at dismissal by someone able to facilitate a peaceful resolution since the boys told me it was a daily issue.  A teacher happened to be passing by just as I got to the bottom of the hill  so I spoke to him instead.

I shared what I had just learned with him and he told me they would deal with it the next day, that it was good I got involved – and it seemed to me they weren’t going to do anything and he was trying to politely dismiss me.  (Not that I blame him – if I was a teacher at the end of a long day wanting to get home, I wouldn’t appreciate having to deal with something like this.)

I pointed out the student in his school who could help him understand the issue the next day when (if) they looked into it, and realized by the teacher’s face that he understood the situation much better just by seeing who it was.  My goal wasn’t to get anyone into trouble and I quickly told him they’re all good kids, they just need some help in learning to talk respectfully to others.  He told me my suggestion was very hard, very, very hard (he meant impossible and unrealistic) – and he’s right.

It is impossible to teach kids to communicate respectfully, if it’s not important to you, if you believe it can’t be done, and if the adults involved don’t have the skills themselves.

I went back to the bus stop wondering if I should have just stayed out of the situation and let the kids fight each other.  It wasn’t my kids who were involved, right?  Did I accomplish anything other than breaking it up for that day?  Probably not.

As I waited for my bus I wryly thought about Harry Potter and his friends.  It’s not just in the magical world that we well-intended adults can be ineffectual and irrelevant in the lives of kids.


8 thoughts on “Should I have let these boys fight it out and not gotten involved?

  1. Were they pushing and shoving, or were they actually coming to blows and getting really angry? It makes a difference, because they may have just been playing “King of the Hill”, a classic male dominance ritual that tests bravery and strength, while letting out a lot of pent up energy.

    It looks terrible (and stupid) to women, but it’s actually very important to boys. I think it was great that you cared enough to get involved, and if you broke up an actual fight instead of a game, for that day, you made a difference to a boy.

  2. hi avivah, as always, your posts are always synchronized with something i’m going through at the same time. Just a couple of nights ago i read this story (i dont have a facebook newsfeed because it’s too overwhelming but somehow this rebbetzin’s story showed up for me and it’s so connected with yours when treading on the waters of courage and bravery). I think you did the right thing- what my generation needs and the generations below me just need to know that someone older than them cares. and it was those adults in my life growing up and even in my 20’s (i just turned 30), that gave me the encouragement and support i needed because they went out of there way to help me, even if it was something so incredibly small. The world we live in today has a whole lot of followers but not enough leaders. Here’s the story the rebbetzin posted:

    How I talked a mom out of beating the %#*•^out of her kid—
    With a scant forty five minutes to get in some exercise and much needed oxygen to my brain, I jolted down the main road near my home. I headed toward an area that has been going through many years of gentrification; I ran over wide cracks in the sidewalk and past brand new modern homes and newly renovated Victorians abutting dilapidated duplexes and rentals. My music was loud in my ear and the adrenaline was beginning to pump fast. My time alone outdoors is limited and it’s exhilarating.
    As I jogged passed a particularly dowdy apt complex I saw in my periphery a mom, a child and a white pipe-looking stick waving in the air. In the flash of second I saw with my eyes the trembling, tears, fear, and anger cross from both mom and child as she was letting it all out on her boy. In this same moment I had two thoughts in my head- “Dena, you are brave”, and a comment made by a friend on a Facebook post a few days earlier, “speak to the mom, she probably needs a listening ear and some practical help”
    Brave– Why was this word, this narrative playing in my head? Because twice in the last month I had been told by two different friends, “wow, that’s brave” about something I did. At 40 years old, you would think I have my self-perception in check and the words other people tell me will have no bearing on my behavior. The typical pattern we settle into as adults is “I am who I am”, whereas to children we focus on language that we hope will inspire them to be who we want them to be— “you’re strong, you’re brave, you’re helpful, you’re hard working” etc.
    Clearly it is not just young children who absorb external stimuli to inform their actions. As a full grown adult even I was compelled to action by positive words said to me, most recently, and in passing by enthusiastic friends. “You are so brave.”
    These words were said to me by my friends when I told them of the phone call I made to a certain person who was party to something I thought needed to be handled- it wasn’t something positive, and I did what I had to, so they called me brave.
    Passing by this mom who was hysterical, repeatedly hitting her trembling child compelled me to use those words attributed to me, once again.
    But what could I say that wouldn’t escalate the situation? I quickly remembered my friends post on fb about whether another Mom should have stepped in—encountering a similar situation in the target parking lot. Pam’s FB response was one of compassion and non-judgement. Offer the mother a hand; she is obviously having a hard day. And that is really all you can do.
    So with these two simultaneous thought in my mind I pulled out my ear buds and yelled, “Hey what’s going on?” To which the mom stopped in her tracks walked over to the gate below which I was standing on the sidewalk and waved her skinny tattooed knuckled fingers at me yelling about how I have no business telling her what to do, taunting me. After which she took a long drag of her cigarette. I responded that I wasn’t telling her what to do but as the mother of 8 children I know how hard it gets and is there anything I could do for her. Her response was a hurl of complaints about her son, how badly he has been doing at school, “he spit on a girl today”, and how the teachers are fed up and she is fed up and she “don’t ever” usually hit him but his daddy’s dead and she’s raised him alone and now she doesn’t know what else to do. I patiently told her that it’s good she doesn’t hit him and it’s not really going to change his behaviors anyway. Then her eyes calmed down a bit and her hands stopped flailing and I explained to her that as crazy as this might sound, the worse your son behaves to more he needs you close and loving- parenting this kid is exactly the opposite of what you would think! I told her that soon he will be taller than her and she won’t be able to hit him even if she felt the need to, so she might want to have a better plan. I told her that the fact that her son is crying shows her that he is compassionate and wants to do good. She replied” he’s only crying cuz it hurt” to which I said, I didn’t think so because plenty of the really mean kids take the beating smugly.
    I sensed she was calmer even, so I asked her what her sons name is and then I called to him. He had been standing knees bent, back straight with his hands out trembling crying and waiting for the abuse to continue.
    I called his name and told him he could stand straight- and she said ” you hear this lady is calling you come over here, show some manners”. I now walked up the steps to their stoop and shook her hand and his and asked him some questions about school. He said he never intended to spit on the girl but spit came out of his mouth when he spoke – so she told on him to the teacher and got in trouble. I asked him how that made him feel and told him he’s gotta stick up for himself and tell the teacher what really happened. He said he is not bullied and that he wants to be a doctor. I told him that his momma is all alone and she needs him to be following the rules at school and because there are a lot of rules to follow to become a doctor and some serious learning too. I asked him if he would hug his momma- it seemed harder for her. I told her that I would drop off my favorite parenting book and that the library has many books she might find helpful. I told her she should read every parenting book she can get her hands on because he’s getting big and it’s going to happen fast- and that he’s the most precious thing- this child of hers.
    She seemed to have softened completely she thanked me and said to please bring her the book, and we parted ways. I stuck in my earphones and ran back to my now scarce-head-clearing-moments alone- –only my head was not clear and I wondered if I made any difference besides the immediate prevention of another thwack on his tiny hands. He is 6. I ran and my sweat and tears mingled. I hope my bravery was worth it. Thank you friends. Thank you for the kind words; both spoken to me and written in a one line comment on Facebook. You might have helped me save a kid today.

  3. It’s a mitzvah to do something to create shalom, especially living on holy soil. In your book of life, you are remembered as someone and a responsible adult who did something to try to stop the fight while nobody else cared. What matters is Hashem cares!

  4. Hi Avivah,
    I am thankful that you did something. There is a reason you were there that day, in a place and at a time when you could say something. There is no way to know to what level the fight may have escalated on this one occasion, had you not taken time to be involved. But, I would assume, that even if it were only postponed for a day, there was purpose in your having spoken up and made a difference in this moment.

    1. I told you just about all the important details! The rest was just talking and checking to see what was going on and if there was something they would like my support with.

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