Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Small Confrontations

Yesterday we had a bit of an, uh, issue.

My son got into a fight, sort of.

There was some name calling and stone throwing - and then my son got punched in the stomach by a much bigger neighbor kid.

I don't know the neighbors in question very well - not at all actually.  They live across the road, through the trees and I don't see them very much. Alaska is kind of funny that way, especially my neighborhood, people are kind of standoffish and keep to themselves. On one side, I have 'the crazy bastard' - literally mad as a hatter and just plain weirdly hostile (from what I understand he was a POW in Vietnam and suffers severely from PTSD. Regardless, he's an asshole). On the other side we have a young couple with three very young children.  They're quite nice, though we have little in common with them. Their children play in my yard and the adults come by once in a while for a beer and to talk in the shop. They are both former military, and both served in the combat zone, and we like them just fine though honestly we don't talk much.  I have a lot of property and a lot of space and I like the peace and quiet and so the lack of closeness with my neighbors doesn't bother me much, though sometimes I wish it were different.

Anyway back to the neighbors across the street, like I said I don't know them.  They've got six kids, three girls and three boys. The oldest girl is married and the oldest boy is in jail for drugs or something.  The youngest boy and girl are my son's age, and the middle boy is a teenager.  The middle girl I don't know anything about, and I rarely see her.  The youngest boy is a friend of my son's and they often play together here or over there. The kid is a little slow and he's one of those children with a perpetually runny nose, but he seems nice enough and my son enjoys spending time with him.  I've waved at the parents a few time as they've driven past, and they've done the same and that's about all the interaction we've had.  They're quiet and keep to themselves. Their house is beautiful and the property is very well kept. I've been told that they are either first or second generation Russian immigrants, I don't know this for certain, but it wouldn't surprise me. Alaska has a large population of Russian emigres.  I do know that they belong to some kind of religion that doesn't permit alcohol, TV, or the Internet. But they're not evangelical about it and have never shown up on my doorstep to tell me how I can get saved, so that's about as much as I know.

The problem is the middle son, the teenager.  The kid's a bully.  He pushes his little brother around and has occasionally bullied my son.  Now, bullies piss me off.  But, my opinion is that kids are going to run into to conflict and they should learn how to handle it (short of violence) at as early an age as possible.  So, I usually give my son advice on how to handle things by either leaving the situation or by talking it out. But I've had to step in a few times and I've spoken to the teenager about it, harshly upon occasion, and things get better for a while.

Yesterday, however, the situation turned violent.

My son and his friend went for a ride on their bicycles, down to the local park.  Now, where most of you are from this normally isn't a big deal - my son is twelve and smart and the park is just down the road back behind our house.  However, here in Alaska there are bears and moose and other environmental dangers that you folks in the lower 48 probably don't think much about. And so, it's a big step for me to allow my son out of my sight - even so, if I know there is wildlife about I make him carry a radio and check in every fifteen minutes.  One thing I usually don't worry about is other kids.

The teenager followed them.  Out of boredom, I'm sure - I do vaguely remember what it was like to be fifteen - and certainly not because he was actually interested in what the two younger kids were doing.  Once at the park he started acting the bully. Pushing his brother around and throwing rocks at the other kids.

Here's the thing.  I don't want my son starting anything, but on the other hand I don't want him becoming somebody else's punching bag either.  I have admonished him a number of times to stand up for himself, however, I've explained that I don't want him hitting anybody, unless it's solely to defend himself.  Apparently (yeah, try getting a straight summary of events from an upset twelve-year old) my son yelled at the older boy, more rocks were thrown, my son threw a rock in return and then decided to heed my instructions regarding such events and come home. 

At which point the teenager blocked his path - and then grabbed him by the throat and punched him very hard in the stomach.

My son managed to get away, hop on his bike and came to find me where I was working in the shop. He was crying and extremely angry, holding his stomach.

I got the story out of him, examined the marks on his throat and stomach (a large bruise just below the sternum) and my blood began to boil.  Schoolyard fights are inevitable, kids tussle all the time, it's part of growing up - and hopefully they'll grow out of it before anything drastic happens. But that teenager is twice the size of my son and this was far beyond the kind of thing I'm going to put up with in any way shape or form. My son could have been seriously injured from such a blow.

I told my son to stay home and then stomped across the street to talk to the neighbors.

I found the mother in her driveway and spoke harshly to her. I explained bluntly that her son was a bully, that I had witnessed him hitting his brother and had put a stop to it more than once, and I explained exactly what he had done to my son. The teenager came to stand sullenly beside his mother while I was talking, and then tried to interrupt - this was a tactical mistake on his part, because I then spoke very harshly to him. I explained in no uncertain terms what would happen the next time I witnessed any aggression in any form by the boy. I didn't threaten either of them physically, I explained that if any member of her family ever attempted to put their hands on my son again I'd have the person in question arrested (with the oldest son in jail I think this was a very telling threat to the both of them).  I made sure they understood exactly where I was coming from in no uncertain terms. Then I left.

The mother didn't seem particularly intimidated, but she didn't seem particularly concerned either. This irritated me to no end.

Two hours later I saw the father's truck come home.

And fifteen minutes after that he and his very, very, very, very contrite son were standing in my shop. The father introduced himself and apologized sincerely - a hard thing to do, I'm sure. He's a big guy, a construction worker, and doesn't look like anybody's pushover. But he was obviously embarrassed by his son's behavior and when he got done apologizing, he had the boy apologize - not just for hitting my son but for being disrespectful towards both my son and myself.  Respect, and not the pseudo-tough guy kind either - the man was embarrassed because his son had been disrespectful of other human beings, both in word and in deed.

That, folks, impressed me a great deal - and I have to say that I liked the guy immediately (and as a father I admit I understood exactly where he was coming from and sympathized very much).

We talked for while, and I told the teenager I was impressed that he had the courage to apologize (even though it was under duress, I'm sure, but still...), and that it often takes a bigger man to apologize than it does to hit somebody.  I gave the father an open invitation to visit the shop whenever he liked, though I got the impression he probably won't.  I had my own son apologize for yelling and throwing a rock, even if he did feel it was warranted - and after neighbors left I talked to my son about how he could have handled the initial confrontation better and maybe avoided escalation altogether.

This probably won't be the last fight I have to sort out, that just comes with parenthood. But hopefully it'll be the end of problems with the kid across the street, and at least I've finally met the neighbors.


  1. Glad it went so well! My mum tells the story of talking to the parents of three boys who were sexually harassing my sister on the bus (not sure if it was actually touching her or if it was discussing her lewdly or something like that). Things went well for two of the boys' parents, but the third started to laugh and say "boys will be boys" which incensed my mum. And she can be pretty darn intense when angry. I think she shamed the father into making his son apologize, but who knows if it was a long term fix or not.
    I also think my brother (older than my sister) ended up sitting next to her on the bus a few times after that to make it clear she was to be respected. Makes me wish I had an older brother. :)

  2. I am impressed with the way the father handled it - great display of leadership.

    I've seen too often where that sort of thing receives a belligerent response, shrugged off, they're secretly proud of their little bully boy and aren't about to apologize. I'm really glad that wasn't the case.

    I sure hope that there isn't abuse of some sort in the home that 1) elicited the immediate contrite confession, and 2) contributes to the creation of a kid with crime problems and a bully.

    Is your son ok? Still shaken up?

  3. I'm glad things turned out as well as they did. I started to get a sinking feeling while reading that things were going to end up going from bad to worse. Sounds like the dad is a decent enough guy and maybe the mother is too loose with the reigns?

    Anyway, hope your son's feeling better both physically and about what happened.

  4. Thank you for a great post Jim.

    As a father of a 4-year old I have yet to encounter a true bully incident, but I want to be sure that I can arm my little girl with every tool I have to be able to handle these situations.

  5. Glad things worked out as well as they did. I often get the "my little angel would never do that" line. The best response to that was the police chief rolling out the kid's rap sheet (back when computer paper was on tractor feed).


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