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I’m Telling My Kid Not to Be So Nice

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Ugh. My 5–year-old son knocked another friend to the ground today at school. “Taylor was pulling on my shirt and he wouldn’t let go and wouldn’t let go and wouldn’t let go,” he tells me. “So, I pushed him to the ground.”

Internally I freak out, convinced that the other shoe is finally dropping and my kid is some sort of violent delinquent. Externally, I remain calm and ask, “Why?”

“Taylor was pulling on me and wouldn’t let go. I told him, 'I don’t like that' just like you told me and he wouldn’t let go. I tried to run away, but he wouldn’t let go. I told the teachers, but he wouldn’t let go. So I knocked him to the ground and he finally let go.”

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In my head, I run though the list of things I’ve told my kid to do when a conflict arises. Even the nicest of kids can be a bit Lord of the Flies-y at times. So I’ve taught my kid over and over what to do if, and when (because he will—they all will), he has a problem with another kid.

Tell him you don’t like that, check. Ask him to stop, check. Ask a teacher for help, check. Throw the kid to the ground, check? Should I be mad, or proud, of that last improvised move? On one hand, I never want him to hurt another kid. On the other, what the heck else are you supposed to do when nothing else the grown ups have told you to do works?

I end the conversation, reminding my son that we never want to hurt somebody, but that it sounds like he did the best he could considering the other child wasn’t listening (and didn’t care).

There are rules we all live by and then there’s reality.

But the story stays with me. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever been really conflicted as a parent. We can teach our kids to do the right thing, but if the other kid doesn’t do the right thing then you’re in a tough spot. Not everybody is nice. Not everybody is raising their kids to be nice. I want my kids to be able to function in the real world; not just the sweet world of pre-selected playdates and carefully curated parks.

I tell my friend Kat, whose kids are a little bit older, about my dilemma. What do I tell my kid to do when he’s done everything possible to be nice? Kat says she’s been in the same spot. Her 10-year-old was being hassled by a bunch of kids who were teasing him and knocking his hat to the ground. Like mine, Kat’s son had tried all the “right things” to do, but was still being hassled by the same kids, repeatedly.

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“So,” Kat says, “I told my son to knock that kid in the face.” She then tells her son that while he’ll probably get in trouble from the teachers, he’ll never be bothered by those kids—or any other kids—again. I’m taken aback. What surprises me isn’t that a mom is encouraging her son to stand up for himself with physical violence. What surprises me is that I agree with her.

There are rules we all live by and then there’s reality. Sometimes the rules of the playground supersede the rules of being nice. I want my kids to be nice people, but I also want them to have the confidence to stand up for themselves. And while I would never advocate my child hurting another, he has to know it’s not OK for someone to do that to him. If he’s tried every nice bag of tricks I have to offer and that doesn’t work, at least he’ll know how to stand up for himself. Which isn’t always nice.

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