Why I Teach my Children that Violence is Sometimes Unavoidable

Louisa Leontiades Complicated Roots, Feminist Mamma, Parenting-General

When I was younger, we read stories from the annotated children’s bible. The old testament was scary, it was full of vengeance, murder and an angry God. The new testament told stories of a gentler man who could perform miracles. His death was a sacrifice. These stories superseded those in the old testament and my Mum said this was the way to better deal with my enemies.

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

~ Gospel of Matthew

There are various interpretations to this. Firstly that turning the other cheek, might give the enemy a second chance to repair what they did. Or that vengeance was the incorrect way to respond, and non-violence was the mightier and better way. Yet as a child, the instruction wasn’t open to advanced interpretation. The message that came through was this ‘Let someone abuse you and don’t fight back. Better still, let them do it again.’

I’m an adult now. If I look at the bible as a fictional work, I see that there is an evolution in thinking throughout moving from violence and vengeance, to non-violence and peace keeping. It’s the same evolution of our consciousness from childhood to adulthood. But I’ve forgotten how my brain worked as a child, and how much complexity it could handle. I no longer believe in a Christian God, but in the beginning I taught my daughter from an adult perspective in much the same manner ‘hitting is wrong, don’t do it no matter how much you might be provoked.’

‘What should I do then?’ she asked.
‘You tell a teacher,’ I said.

But one day she came back from kindergarten with a bloody bite mark on her cheek, I was aghast.

‘What happened?’
‘He bit me.’
‘Did you push him away?’
‘No, because you told me hitting was wrong.’

She let him bite her, crying as he did so. She told a teacher, but it didn’t stop happening a second and a third time. And I was horrified. Because the non-violent lessons I have taught her meant that I neglected the most important one. The one about respecting your own boundaries and protecting your own body. Instead I apparently encouraged my daughter to be a good cog in the kindergarten system, to report it to an adult and in doing so taught her to go against her instincts and passively accept violence on her body. She became a victim, because I taught her it was the right thing to do. 

No matter what we think about the best way to handle violence as adults, teaching children who have few connections in their rational neo-cortex is very difficult. They are governed primarily by impulse response and reptilian reaction. So I no longer teach my daughter that violence is unacceptable. I teach her that using force, even violent force can be a necessary thing in self-defense. It’s a controversial school of thought, especially here in Sweden. It was especially provoking when I discussed it with the teachers at school.

‘Well we tell them always to come to a teacher,’ said the teacher, shocked.
‘Yes, but you cannot have eyes everywhere,’ I said. ‘I teach my child to defend herself even if it means using force. I teach her to use her own resources – not just to externalize responsibility for her own boundaries after the fact to you.’

What if a grown woman was being bitten by a grown man? Would I think she was justified in using force to protect herself? Of course. Why should it be any different for my child? Yet I understand and sympathize with the teacher who has an unruly group of pre-schoolers to govern and I truly don’t know if this is the answer. But the thought of my daughter accepting violence without the right to defend herself is too difficult for me to accept.

What can I teach her if she is being hit by their classmates who are too young to listen to reason? What if her attacker is stronger than her? I hope she will not always need to use force to protect herself because the system we try to maintain of ‘law and order’ will protect her. But the harsh reality is that it just isn’t so. The lesson should not be that non-violence equals passive submission and giving up your right to protect yourself. It’s about setting boundaries. And that starts now.

When my daughter confided in me, I realized I had forgotten how it is to be a child. That she lives in a battleground where you are fighting for attention, fighting for your space, fighting to be yourself. It’s often a violent space no matter how vigilant the supervising adults are and if it’s about protecting yourself, violence is sometimes unavoidable.