Care and Feeding

My Otherwise Docile Kid Chose a Really Odd Way to Stand Up for His Classmate

A boy holds his fists up.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 12-year-old son, “Todd,” who is a serious, generally well-behaved kid. So I was flabbergasted to learn that he had been issued an in-school suspension for punching another boy in his class (I’ll call him Sean). When Todd got home that day, I was honestly more worried than angry since this seemed so unlike him—and then what he told me left me confused. Todd has a classmate with a disability. “Anna” uses a wheelchair and has shown no sign of developing normal musculature—her arms and legs are like pencils. Apparently, Sean had been making fun of Anna. So very calmly, very seriously—very much the way Todd does things—he got up from his desk, punched Sean in the mouth, told him to shut up, and then sat back down at his own desk.

When I asked him why he’d resorted to violence, he shrugged and gave me a grave look and said that hate speech was a form of violence, so a violent response seemed necessary. He’s not apologetic at all. He’s not particularly upset about his punishment and seems determined to take it in good grace. I’m not sure what to do. I applaud his instinct for sticking up for people who can’t do it for themselves, but I don’t want him punching people for saying things, even if they are bigoted, hateful, stupid things.

—How to Proceed

Dear HtP,

I applaud his instinct for sticking up for people too (though I don’t know why you—or he—assumes that Anna can’t stick up for herself, as one does not require “normal” musculature to do so, and you haven’t mentioned that her disability includes mutism) but you’re right: he has no business punching anyone. I’m surprised that a child you describe as calm and serious, and who seems to have given thought to the notion of hate speech as violence (I agree!) has no storehouse of calm, serious words at his disposal to smite his enemies and defend the victims of spoken violence. I am also surprised that his instinct was not to speak to Anna herself, directly, both assuring her that Sean is a jerk who isn’t worth her attention and that he is her friend. (One of the best ways to help someone who is being bullied is to be genuinely kind to them yourself.)

Physical violence is never an appropriate response except in the most extreme situations of self-defense. I strongly suggest you begin teaching your son this now, before it is too late—as well as teaching him how to use his words to disarm or even vanquish a bigot or bully. Standing up for what’s right is always the right thing to do. But there are better ways to do it than punching someone in the mouth.

I’m concerned that Todd doesn’t seem to know (or care, now that he’s been told by his school) that punching is wrong, even when it’s “for a good cause.” Make sure he does. That’s part of your job, OK?

—Michelle

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