Right Hook

February 19, 2010

My toddler punched me in the face today outside of Barnes and Noble. She wanted a book and I said no. I was squatting down to explain that since she had just received a book the day before that she couldn’t have another one so soon, until she’d read the first one. In fact, I was looking behind her to our SUV where my seven year-old was sitting with our dog, his face pressed against the window, when she landed the punch that nearly knocked me out.

Right on the temple. That’s where she hit me. Three-year olds have more strength than you would imagine and she connected in what I can only imagine was the perfect combination of force and speed.

Most shocking was how quickly I balled up a fist to strike her back. I did not, but I had to stop myself. In that split-second of soft knuckle on skull, she was not my flesh and blood, but an imp, the spawn of rough, oafish people who did not raise her properly.

My daughter the brawler, the punch-first-ask-questions-second playground terror who I’d warn my children to stay clear of.

I didn’t hit her. I grabbed her by the shoulders and scared the living hell out of her, which broke the rage spell she’d fallen under. I put her back in the SUV and when we got home she spent the rest of the day in her room, crying and sleeping.

At dinner she did not say much, nor eat hardly any of her mac and cheese. (Dinner was nothing special, yet I did not force her to eat her broccoli.)

And yet I wonder if I did us both a disservice by not swinging back, by not landing a blow of measured force on the side of her head. I wouldn’t have hurt her-I’m still her mother-but maybe there’s something to be said for “you absolutely do not do that”? Why not? I can control the force, the placement of the hit.

Would a lioness accept this behavior from her cub? Am I so different from a lioness that I cannot respond with unambiguous force? Would a “stern talking to” yield any real understanding? At 3 years?

In short, would she be better off? Did I inadvertently place in motion a psychological row of dominos, which will fall, one on the other, throughout her life, from professional relationships to personal ones, all because I did not teach her clearly enough that you do not strike someone bigger than you; i.e.. that there is a very real price to biting off more than you can chew?

It’s not clear that my instincts failed me, or served me.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what my instincts were in this situation. Perhaps that is its own failure?

Still, there’s always the chance that if I had hit her back, and the lesson was conveyed on some primal level, that we would be different, that our dynamic would never recover. That my daughter would lose an innocence she has a right to preserve, at least until she’s 11 and finds out that people let one another down and say things they don’t mean.

Maybe a 3 year old gets one right hook without consequence. Maybe that’s a right protected by youth itself, regardless of how much it hurt me?

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