Are We Being Fair To Our Boys?

This morning I got a call from my son’s homeroom teacher. She told me she had a bit of bad news to share. My thoughts immediately went to the worst possible scenario. Was my son dead??? And how did it happen?!? Why else would she be calling me at 8:20am, when I had just dropped him off at school at 7:40am?

“Stone hit another student with a tennis racket,” she said flatly.

“WHAT?” I gasped loudly, overcome with genuine shock. Why was my boy impersonating Genghis Khan meets John McEnroe before the first bell had even been rung?

The cliffs note version of the story is that each boy wanted the same piece of sports equipment, one got to it first, there was a verbal altercation, my son walked away to put some distance between him and the other classmate, the boy followed, kept up the heat, hit my son, and Stone hit him like a neon Wilson ball at the opening of the Grand Slam. Nevertheless, the teacher acknowledged, he was remorseful.

“Of course we will talk to him,” I assured the teacher. We both acknowledged that the boys are at a difficult age, fraught with new experiences and hormones. As this was a first offense for both boys, there would be a written warning followed by suspension if it happened again.

“I don’t know about you, but in my day the kids would fight off campus to avoid getting principals involved.”

She laughed wryly, as though recalling her own memories. “Yeah. But these kids don’t have sense enough for that these days, I’m afraid.”

We promised to support each other in the discipline and guidance this particular child, all but pinky swearing across WhatsApp. Then I told my husband what happened. He grunted when I relayed the series of events. I expected him to explode in exasperation but instead he grunted, almost scoffing.

“You know what? When Stone gets home I’m going to give him a high 5.”
“Yup. I’m gonna tell him, ‘Good job son!’ You know why? (He didn’t wait for me to answer why) Because he did everything right. He and his friend had an argument > He walked away > The boy put his hands on him > He put his hands back.”

In that light, of course my husband was right. It’s the ‘polite street’ way of handling things: Don’t start nothin’ won’t be nothin’, as the ancient text says. However, the rules of our new society dictate that no matter what the provocation, the victim should not retaliate with similar or equal force…especially if they are male. It’s on that score that I am not sure that these rules are fair.

I want to be sensitive here, because we are in the month of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. It is my hope that no one will read this post and interpret it as me excusing or encouraging violent behavior from boys/men. I am actually begging for a nuanced and balanced discussion, something that will be difficult to achieve in the 1500 words or less that I intend to spend on the topic.

After speaking to my husband I decided to go to the school and talk to my son. They are in the middle of exams, and I know that he is his mother’s child. He would ruminate on what happened, self-flagellate for the rest of the day and that would affect his concentration during his finals. I needed him to know in the immediate term that his father and I were not angry were him, so I bought him a token of good luck from our local stationary store, waited for him in the parking lot between his next exam and said:

“You cannot tell ANYONE this, but your father and I are very happy with the way you handled things. Your school has to log a reprimand in your file, but Marshall and Malaka Grant say you’re ok. Now go do your best on your test!”

The perfect memento for the moment.

He got out of the car all smiles, but as I said, I am my son’s mother. I began to ruminate about what might have happened if some of the variables had been different. For instance, what if the student who followed and hit Stone had been a girl? Would the phone call I received from the school have been as measured and rational? I highly doubt it.

Apart from his gender, my son is a big boy. He’s a foot taller than all of his classmates and twice as heavy. He’s been doing karate for a year, so his baby chub has been steadily melting into muscle. He takes great pride in his strength and has begun to care more about his physical appearance. If a boy like that had hit a girl, regardless of if she had struck him first, all hell would’ve broken loose and it would’ve been an uphill battle to get a fair trial. These are the lessons we teach boys early, a possible over-correction for the sins of men past. I’ll get to that in a moment. I want to tell a story to illustrate my beliefs on the matter.

My nephew is slight, 11-year-old boy with a squeaky voice. My sister put him in karate to learn self-defense at age 5 because he’s always been small. The best way to describe him is a ‘canon ball with an extremely long fuse.’ When he explodes, it’s devastating. He’s a bear better left off not poking.

My nephew goes to visit his cousins out west every summer, forging important bonds. He has a new step-cousin, a girl a year older than him whose mother dresses her up in pretty clothes, keeps her hair ‘did’ and – incidentally- is a conniving, viscous little snake. For whatever reason, for sport or for spite, she decided to start hitting my nephew. Over the weeks she would smack him, punch him…in one instance I believe she bit him. He never retaliated, because like my son, he was taught to walk away. I can only suppose this girl couldn’t stand to be ignored, because why else would she respond to his nonviolence by

What kind of beast does something like that?

Dear Reader, I am pleased to report my nephew slapped the shit out of this girl, (an action I later applauded him for) and she peeled off in a heap of tears to report the assault.

In the immediate aftermath however, HE was the villain. The poor boy was subjected to a barrage of “never hit girls”, was threatened with a whopping himself and told repeatedly how disappointing his behavior was. It took a long while before anyone asked for his side of the story and then the discovery that the step-cousin was the instigator and aggressor. This is a Black family from the South, so the natural conclusion is that she would get a whuppin’, preferably from her father figure. Her biological mother balked at the notion.

“No man” was going to put his hands on her daughter she declared. Her daughter didn’t deserve any sort of punishment for lying, injuring and making false accusations against my nephew. Now, what kind of lesson was this for the girl? And what did that signal to my nephew and the other cousins witnessing the events?

We are striving for a more equitable society, and we’ve made decent gains in some social and professional areas. It’s easier to talk about the marginalization women face in professional spaces than it is to talk about women as perpetrators of domestic violence and the muted, non-confrontational we expect boys/men to react to that abuse. I do believe that because men are generally imbued with greater physical strength – say nothing of the assumption of their authority – their first course of action should be to try to de-escalate a potentially volatile situation. This is what we expect from the police, for example, though they fail woefully at it (particularly when Black people are concerned). But at the same time, believe we ought to teach everyone to keep their hands to themselves. You don’t have the right to provoke someone for sport and then cry foul when they retaliate.

I hate that I have to say this, but in the event that the meninists get a hold of this article and try to use it for their sad agenda, provocation does not include:

A woman not going to the gym to keep up your preferred appearance.
Not warming up your soup because you asked
Enjoying access to nice things
Or any other of the pathetic excuses you lot conjure to justify your meanness or ego-driven tirades.

I want to hear from parents who are raising boys. Are we being fair to boys in this age? Are we sending a clear signal about what it means to be responsible and gallant, or have we muddled the messaging? Let’s expand the conversation!