Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Way of the Toddler Fist

Seven months after my daughter’s second birthday, she snapped. Not the regular toddler tantrum that had become a regular occurrence in our home. Nor was it the ‘I’m going to run myself into a shelf, yank all of the boxes of cereal to the ground—and then dance on them’ whirlwind. It wasn’t even the ‘I’m going to thrash my arms and legs about on the floor, just like I’m at a Bad Brains show, and then I’m going to wail and force everyone in the grocery store to look at YOU’ type of snapping. Baby-girl elevated her game to the next-level. She snapped in that way that forces you to reexamine your parenting style and ability.

We were at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, in Berkeley when it all went bad. The park is kind of like a prison yard, especially during the Farmer’s Market: little pockets of the homeless in one section, families in another; skaters, folks who believe that Burning Man should never end, and people attempting to get you to sign something all dot the landscape. Tucked away, next to a fountain that has seen more piss than water, is a raggedy little park-ish play area that my daughter adores.

The centerpiece of this spot is a little saddleback climbing structure—the primary reason that my kid chooses this place over others. It was here where my wife and I discovered that our daughter is not afraid of heights, or jumping from them. It was here that she realized that she could climb up and over something—she didn’t have to go back the way she came. Revelatory. And it was here where she had her very first violent encounter.

It was a busy day, and the line to climb was longer than usual. I was completely impressed that the baby-monster was as patient as she was. I praised her repeatedly. In return, she gave me her smile—the one that she now uses to try and manipulate, but was fully genuine back in the day. Makes me fall in love every time she unleashes those perfect teeth and high cheekbones. In the middle of our little love-fest, it was her turn. Abruptly she mountain-goated up the wall in about two steps. Just as she was about to summit, some five or six-year-old boy grabs her hood, and yanks her backwards off the wall. When she slammed into the ground, I heard her breath forcefully escape—but she wasn’t moving. Not once, have I ever felt so fucking helpless. I froze: trauma-induced ossification. ‘She hit her head. She hit her head,’ was all I should think. Would she have a head injury? As a survivor of one, I knew how dangerous they were. Oh, God. What did I just let happen? (I always blame myself when my kid gets hurt).

She stood up, unsteady, but standing on her own. This made me feel like the ultimate in crap fathers because I had no part in helping her get to her feet. She looked around, and she seemed okay—I felt the lower part of my body begin to defrost and I slowly made my way over to her. Before I could ask how she was, she jumped on the boy. She must have been twenty-four, twenty-five pounds at the time, but she marshaled all of it to knock this kid to the ground. She then started punching him in the face. Not little kid punches, but very well executed pistons: Left, right. Left, right. Raining down hurt on this boy. And she wouldn’t stop.

Watching my little wisp of a daughter handle herself against this big kid made me proud. When I find out that we were having a daughter, I made it my life’s mission to ensure that she would never be a victim of violence—at the time, not acknowledging that participating in a violent act, is being a victim to violence—but I knew too many women who have had their bodies and spirits violated, and this would not happen to my baby-girl. So to see her, without fear, standing up to and retaliating against a bully, made me feel as if I was setting her on the right track.

But something just felt wrong. I am no stranger to violence, nor am I opposed to it as vehemently as some of my more politically progressive friends are. I grew up violently, and have achieved a relative level of comfort with the act and all of the attendant spiritual mess that comes with it. I’ve been shot, stabbed; have a permanent scar in the back of my head from fighting racist skinheads—but this is my story, not my daughter’s. She (hopefully) will never have to live through one percent of the evil that I did.

I rushed to her, lifted her off the boy, and held her. I was surprised at just how strong she was. Then she said one of the clearest sentences of her life. Eyes wild, body continuing to thrash, at the top of her lungs: I want my justice! What the hell? What kind of concept of justice have we been teaching her? Not even bothering to check and see if the boy was okay, I broke wide and ran over to my wife who was dozing in the grass. She lazily looked up at me, saw that I was shell-shocked; looked at our daughter, saw that she was going crazy, screaming about wanting her justice. The look she launched my way was purely: what the hell just happened? I cannot even take a rest without you two getting into some kind of trouble.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the little boy, and whom I assumed were his parents, coming over to us. They were too close for us to make an escape that did not look obvious, so I braced myself for the eventual conversation. My default setting was “crisis, with a side of aggressive response” and this has me on edge, ready for confrontation. Always. Needless to say, it is a tiring way to live. I have been on a personal project to purge violence from my life—physical, emotional, verbal, all of it. Violence has no place for me, as a partner, or as a parent. This isn’t to say that I won’t protect my family, or myself but it is nowhere near the top 10 responses to confrontation—it used to be my first three choices.

I figured the best course of action was to meet them halfway, adopt a neutral stance, and let them speak first. See, I told you I’ve been working on it. What happened shook me. They were nice. They were more than nice; they were apologetic. They gave me the history of their son’s behavior and how his comeuppance was long overdue. That it was delivered by a tiny little thing made it all the more poetic. While we laughed and made small talk, I couldn’t stop thinking that our laughter and easy conversation was an endorsement of violent behavior. I mentioned this, and it kind of killed the mood. They awkwardly disengaged themselves, and my wife and I were left with how to redefine and appropriately teach what justice was. Like that would be easy.

We had to figure out a uniform way to discuss a concept that we didn’t even agree on. For so long, I confused justice with retaliation and revenge. But in my new social and psychic evolutionary state, I had absolutely no clue what to tell my daughter as my concept of justice was in flux. My wife comes from a profoundly religious background, but she was moving towards a more holistic spirituality, so her ideas around what is just were also changing. Why in the hell did we have to explain heavy-duty concepts so early in the game? As neither my wife, nor myself have parents, we’ve already had to explain death to our daughter after she asked about her grandmother and grandfather—her mother told her about heaven, and I told her about dirt and worms—can we get a break?

Despite all of this; all of this trying to be a socially and politically responsible parent; trying to get the more negative and destructive aspects of my upbringing to scab over and sink beneath the surface, lessening their influence on my present—there was still a sliver of pride at watching my daughter handle herself in that way. She was assured, confident, and fearless, traits that girls are very rarely allowed to cultivate, without great cost. Me and her mother’s ongoing project is to somehow extract the violence as a first resort, without affecting her confidence, fearlessness, and self-assuredness. We’ve been working diligently on this, but we may have pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction.

About a month after the park incident, we went to a birthday party. She was having a ball, until it was piñata time. We played zombies and dragons at home, so she’s used to all types of crazy stuff. But this particular piñata had an advocate that day, in the form of my daughter. The kids all took turns whacking this multi-colored fish. Whap! The last hit exploded the fish, and snacks and money spilled from the fish’s guts. My little baby-girl burst into tears. For about ten minutes she was inconsolable. When she finally calmed down, we asked her what was wrong. Through the remnants of her tears, she said: “Is the fishy okay? Kids shouldn’t hit the fish with sticks. Now all of his insides are on the ground.”

My wife and I had two completely different reactions: My wife was so proud that our daughter could show that type of compassion, even for something inanimate. I reacted to it as if her piscine concern was a form of weakness. I felt that all her blubbering was a sign of weakness, a loss of her fighting spirit. Needless to say, this is something else I’m working on. More later.


Daddy by Default said...

Ths is a crazy story man. I too have a daughter and am very concerned at how she will handle these types of things. I am also a believer in standing up to bullies, but I'm not really sure how to instill that same feeling in my daughter yet. I don't want to just wait until it becomes an issue, but I don't want to teach her something she might not necessarily need to experience just yet either. Tough call.
Funny she kicked his butt though.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating story. My toddler is gentle and relatively small and I do worry about him being bullied. Haven't figured this one out yet...

In defense of your daughter's reaction, consider that the aggression against the piñata fish was unprovoked (what did the fish do?), unfairly matched (many vs one), armed (sticks), cruelly festive (a party?), and fatal (the fish was literally disemboweled by the beating). Yes, the fish is inanimate, but neither are fictional characters. Sympathy is good. It's a form of perception, of intelligence.

If she can feel for a piñata and also fight off a bully, I'd say that's a pretty great balance!

Adam @ Hanging with Dad said...

Your daughter definitely sounds like someone who can hold her own, which is quite impressive. The thought of having to teach a concept like justice to a 2 year old, however, does not sound like a whole lot of fun.

I think I would have congratulated her on standing up for herself but told her that continuing to pummel someone after they are clearly beat is not something that is to be admired.

As for the pinata episode, I don't know what to say about that.

Pete said...

Wow! Interesting can of worms. I think I agree with anonymous on the piñata business. Sympathy / Empathy even for an inanimate object is a quality to be proud of. Justice... Good luck with that one. Look forward to reading how that works out. said...


Dude, you sound scary like how I came up in Brooklyn, I was most likely less violent. I was never shot or stabbed. I was good at bailing ass when shit went down.

You daughter will do what you are doing with her feelings about aggression and violence, she will evolve them. In small ways in the days of her life, and in large ways in the stages of her life. Even now you can't control it, you can just hope to effect it. I've spent my life as a parent trying to convince my kids that they don't have to try any kind of violence or drugs, I can tell them anything they would want to know. I thing I got a lot of milage out of pointing out how expensive drugs are, and how little bang you get for your buck.

As a practical matter I dealt with violence, aggression and self defense by enrolling my daughters in a good Shotokan Karate dojo . I imagine any good Martial Arts Academy would do. Instead of trying to invent a Philosophy and method about violence I adopted one ready made. It has all the rules, boundaries and skills built in.

The Pinata is a new one one me. I imagine I'd just yammer on and on over explaining it and annoying everyone, but that's just me.

Josh Wilson said...

As a pop of a 17-month-old girl, I appreciate your post very much. I have a different background as you -- never was the type to wind up in actual fights, but my dad made me take martial arts as a child, so I had this experience of needing to "fight" in the sense of practice, but am not familiar with situations where my top three choices are a violent response.

The reason why I say this is because you describe trying to purge your life of violence, but it could be that one's life experience ingrains expectations of violence, and logical-within-the-paradigm reactions to violence -- such as taking an aggressive stance when meeting potentially hostile parents in a playground. These things are very, very subtle, and a kid doesn't need much to model behavior on -- a comment made by you about a scene in a movie, for example. Many small, subtle cues could add up to her focused, sustained, angry reaction against the boy.

Now, she also showed empathy for a symbolic representation of a living animal, and as another commenter noted, this is a very, very good thing.

Empathy and sympathy are key, it seems, for raising a child with a humane appreciation of the world.

Similarly -- we do live in a violent world and a violent society. One can purge onesself of violence, but should one be unprepared when it comes along?

So I agree with Anonymous's comments -- It sounds like your child has an excellent balance between self defense and basic humane sympathy for living creatures.