A lesson in breaking the rules

More than once I’ve walked into our TV room at home to find my husband trying to get our son to do the New Zealand rugby haka with him (the traditional Maori war cry, challenge or dance). The sight always warms my heart as it conjures up memories of my own father doing the same with me. Our son, pretty much like me at the time, never seemed to show much interest.

Zim is four and I’m forever amazed at and proud of how gentle, thoughtful and considerate he is.  One of the things my husband and I like to focus on in our parenting is getting our children to articulate their emotions instead of acting them out.

I can happily say it’s working with our boy. He is quite brilliant at articulating himself, which is why, I suspect, he never resorts to violence when he gets frustrated. He just breaks it down to you in words or bursts into tears when words fail him. I can take tears over violence any day.

This past summer, we were at a friend’s house for a braai, which doubled up as a play date.  My friend has two amazing girls (aged three and six) who get along very well with my son, which is why I brought him to the braai, along with my one-year-old daughter. 

The day started off fantastically, with the kids running around screeching with laughter while we adults hung out on the veranda.

We were watching them and happily conversing among ourselves, waiting to nibble on the braaied meat that would accompany our G&Ts.

Soon, another little boy and his mother joined the party. They are great friends of the family we were visiting, which is why it was strange that, shortly after their arrival, the entire mood changed. 

You see, as a mother I love nothing more than the sound of happy children (especially my own) and when the sound turns into a distressed cry, the feeling completely switches and I become anxious. 

Within an hour of the little boy’s arrival we were no longer chatting and laughing, but constantly keeping one eye on the playground while trying to have a decent conversation with other grown-ups.

The young man (two-and-a-half years-old) had provoked, terrorised or violently pushed one of the older kids. The three-year-old was his target for reasons known only to him.  There had been tears and loud protests from the other kids but no real consequences coming the boy’s way.

He was, after all, the baby in the group.  The tension, however, was building and it was clear the three older kids were no longer having fun. They were constantly looking over their shoulders and trying to stay out of the newcomer’s way.

He had pushed and hit the others out of frustration because: a) he could barely talk, so saying what he needed was a frustrating chore, and; b) he didn’t grasp the concept of sharing, so whenever he saw someone holding a toy he went at them with great vigour. The result was one of us mothers rushing over to see who was crying and what had happened. The culprit never changed.

My son took exception to this little boy who was bullying his three-year-old friend, who happens to be a girl. He is very clear on the fact that hitting is not done at our house. Hitting someone smaller than you is worse and hitting a girl is totally unacceptable. 

Those are the rules. My son watched as his little friend suffered the relentless bullying.  When he could no longer take it, he decided to do something about it. He followed the little boy around, asking: “Why did you hit my friend?” 

He would tap the bully on his shoulder from behind to repeat this question, but the boy clearly did not comprehend. 

Soon after that, it was my son’s turn to be crying. 

It turned out the bully had changed tack and switched his focus to the only other boy in his space — my son. My son is older and could see that the boy was smaller than him. He couldn’t exactly shove him back. He was not allowed to. 

If you know four-year-olds, you will know about their obsession with rules. Which is why after the second time the little boy was violent with my son and made him cry, I decided it was time I took him aside for a little talk on how we would alter the rules slightly that day, because, as much as I love the gentle nature of my son, I was not raising a punk.

No parent likes to see their child misbehaving, which is why I felt some sympathy for the mother, who was clearly embarrassed and overwhelmed by her son’s behaviour. My only problem was that she wasn’t doing anything effective to stop him. I had to look out for my own son and take action.

I took Zim aside and, in between wiping his tears and giving him comforting hugs, I sternly whispered into his ear: “The next time this boy kicks, shoves or hits you, you need to kick, shove or hit him right back. Do you hear me? I know what I’ve said before but this is too much.”  He nodded, but I didn’t buy it. I just didn’t think he had it in him, the sweet, gentle soul that he is. 

I went back to my peers with a heavy heart, knowing it was just a matter of time before I had to get up to comfort Zim again.

Some time went by and we all went back to chatting and laughing freely. That is, until the boy decided to harass my one-year-old daughter.

He aggressively tried to take the Lego bricks my daughter was playing with in her corner on the grass. My son spotted this and I saw him march over to them to stand defiantly in front of his sister and scream: “No! Leave my sister alone!”

The boy didn’t take kindly to my son screaming at him in that tone and he swiftly shoved him backwards into a miniature rose bush. I watched Zim stumble until his little body fell backwards.

By then, I was livid. My son got up with tears welling up in his eyes. I could see he was trying to look for me. Eventually, our eyes met and I instinctively jumped out of my chair and shouted “Push him back, Zim! Hard!” 

I was filled with shame as soon as the words left my mouth. Zim heard my words and didn’t hesitate to get into his haka stance and, roaring his war cry, he lunged into the boy with a neat tackle that sent him tumbling on to his back with my son on top of him. 

It all happened quickly. Within seconds, the boy’s mother and I had our children in our arms, hugging them for comfort as they bawled. Both boys were clearly shaken.

Suddenly, I felt a warm sense of pride come over me. Pride mixed with guilt, of course, but if I’m going to be honest, more pride than guilt. 

My sensitive boy had it in him, after all. He was not going to be a doormat. He was not going to let his smaller friends or his female friends get bullied by anyone and, importantly, he drew the line when it came to his baby sister.

When I told my husband about the incident later that night, he was full of pride. I dare say he had zero shame as his philosophy from day one has been: “If a boy hits you, my boy, hit him right back. Don’t tell the teacher. That’s called snitching.” To which I would add jokingly: “And nobody likes a snitch.”

I look back on that day and think to myself: my four-year-old son had his first fight and I encouraged it. It sounds terrible, I know, but what would you have done?

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday