Teaching kids to solve conflicts by talking it out is great, but what happens when words don’t work? Carter Gaddis hopes for the best.
This kid in my class chased me across the playground with hate in his eyes. He was bigger than me, at least a head taller, and maybe 20 pounds heavier. Most kids in my fourth-grade class were heavier than me. I compensated with a precociously well-honed sense of the absurd, an abnormally caustic wit for a 10-year-old, and decent foot speed.
In other words, I was a real smartass. But a real fast smartass.
My mouth got me into more than a few scrapes when I was young. This time, with this kid, I have no memory of what triggered the anger.
I remember that he chased me off the playground, into the school building, down the hall, and into the boys’ restroom. He was one of the few classmates who could match me step for step in an all-out sprint, so adrenaline and desperation compelled me to hide in a stall.
It was too late. My angry classmate burst through the restroom doorway and came right at me, left fist raised to strike. I braced myself against the porcelain sink and raised my pencil-thin arms in meager defense.
Then I thought of Peanuts.
I thought of the Sunday strip that begins with Charlie Brown desperately running away from Violet.
“It’s no use running,” she yells at the back of Charlie Brown’s huge bald head.
“I’ll get you,” she warns, as Charlie Brown tries to hide behind a tree.
“I’ll get you, Charlie Brown!” she says, waving her fist as they run across an open stretch of lawn. “I’ll get you!”
“I’ll knock your block off!” she threatens as they round the corner of a house. “I’ll …”
Charlie Brown stops running, faces Violet, and raises his hands.
“Wait a minute!” he says. “Hold everything!”
Charlie Brown holds forth.
“We can’t carry on like this! We have no right to act this way …
“The world is filled with problems … people hurting other people … people not understanding other people …
“Now, if we, as children, can’t solve what are relatively minor problems, how can we ever expect to …”
Violet pops Charlie Brown with a swift left jab, sending him spinning head over heels and leaving him in a disoriented heap. As she walks away, she tells another girl:
“I had to hit him quick. He was beginning to make sense!”
When my much larger, very angry fourth-grade classmate came at me with his left fist raised in that restroom, I thought of that 1963 Peanuts strip. Like Charlie Brown, there was no escape for me. Like Charlie Brown, I probably had provoked the attack by saying the wrong thing to the wrong kid. Unlike Charlie Brown, I wasn’t going to end up lying flat on my back in a disoriented heap.
I had talked my way into this, and I was going to talk my way out of it. So what if it hadn’t worked for Charlie Brown? He was Charlie Brown. Nothing ever worked for him. This was real life. This would be different.
I raised my hands and said, “Wait!”
He lowered his fist.
I began to hold forth.
I told him there were too many problems in the world for us to be fighting at school. What about the hostages in Iran? What about Three Mile Island? People were suffering all over the world. We, as children, had to make peace now, or …
He jabbed me lightly in the stomach – right in the breadbasket. I crumpled in a disoriented heap on the cold, ceramic floor and tried to catch my breath. My assailant left me there, wheezing and clutching my midsection. I wasn’t sure which was worse – the anguish of being unable to defend myself against the punch, or the frustration of knowing that my words had fallen on deaf ears.
As was often the case after such childhood confrontations, I was friends with that kid again by the end of the day. He wasn’t a bad kid, and the violence – while never excusable – was not as destructive as it could have been.
I remember he came up to me and quietly said: “I’m sorry I hit you. But what were you saying in the bathroom? About the hostages and kids or something?”
I thought he was making fun of me, so I told him it was nothing. He shrugged it off and moved on.
Maybe, though, just maybe, my desperate, Charlie Brown-inspired speech broke through his tough, fourth-grade shell and left an impression. I do know that he and I never fought again, and even became good friends until I moved across town to another school.
Our sons are in elementary school, a few years shy of fourth grade. As sweet and kind-hearted and well-liked as they are by their classmates, they are bound to find themselves in tight situations, just as I did, just as everyone does eventually.
How will they handle it? We’ve given them a set of guidelines to follow for conflict resolution, and we’ve had talks with them about how to handle a bully – and how not to become one. Yet, when the adrenaline begins to flow and the threats begin to fly, what will they do?
If the circumstance doesn’t allow them to give their adversary a mysterious smile, turn around, and just walk away, I hope they talk. I hope they, unlike fourth-grade me or Charlie Brown, are able to find the words to defuse the situation. I hope the adversary listens. I hope they don’t end up in a disoriented heap on the ground, hurt and humiliated, wheezing and scared. I hope that with all my heart.
I also hope, still, that it might be possible to curb violence with words, and that our sons will become masters of that art.
What if they don’t? It’s a tough question. I don’t know if I want to even consider it. It’s part of my job as a father to know the answer, though. And to help our sons figure it out, too.
So … what? Martial arts training? Conflict resolution lessons? What? Expensive track shoes for better traction during the getaway sprint? Sure. Maybe all of the above.
There might come a time when a confrontation is simply unavoidable. If that happens, I hope they try to talk it out. And I hope that for them, talking works. If it doesn’t? Well, I hope they keep right on trying to make it work.
This article first appeared on DadScribe
Image: Flickr/ idleformat