My youngest son, Jack, has always been a passionate young man; keen to see fairness, ensure everyone is safe and protect others from injustice with a strong voice and righteous energy – and I love him for it.
A few years ago, when he was just 6 years old, he was in the playground at break time and used this knightly energy to protect his friend, Tom, also 6 - and unhappily the wearer of a stomach mounted insulin pump, from another child’s violence. Jack and Tom, being active type boys, were playing a tig type game within a group when Tom was kicked violently in the stomach by another boy who was enraged by an unfairness.
Jack immediately and instinctively, whilst dodging further blows, shoved the angry boy away hard and shouted clearly and strongly that kicking Tom was not ok. He then comforted his mate and took him sobbing and in some discomfort to the playground supervisor, for adult help.
Zero tolerance gone mad?
What followed was a really good illustration of how confused some institutions and their staff have become around the whole area of behaviour, the nature of being a boy, violence – and the dreaded zero tolerance policy. Now, the boy who had violently kicked out had some diagnosed behavioural issues – so was appropriately talked to along the lines of agreed and planned responses to his anti-social behaviours – so far so good and to be applauded.
The victim, Tom, was taken to see the school office to check his pump and he were ok, was helped to calm down and given sympathy – also good, and what we would all, I feel sure, want for our youngster. My son, who remember was only 6, and had protected another vulnerable little boy, in the best way he knew how, was taken to the Head and given a warning.
Apparently he had breached the schools ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards violence by aggressively pushing and shouting at the perpetrator. He was given a clear understanding that any such repeat would result in an exclusion, despite his corroborated explanations of what had taken place and his clear and reasoned assertions that Tom needed his protection; that his punishment was simply not a 'normal' response and most definitely not fair!
When is it right to be a knight?
You see, despite him being only 6, this policy was not flexible for him; because he did not have a diagnosis of ADHD, that allowed for flexibility and recognition of individuality.
My lovely, loving and brave son came home in tears of injustice, upset and hurt. We talked and I held him and praised him for protecting his friend. I told him it was all of our jobs to protect the vulnerable, that sometimes this needed us to be physical against the aggressor – and that if possible it was better to not use violence; I also let him know that I was pleased he had pushed rather than hit.
That night I made sure that the bedtime story was one that both acknowledged his actions, validated caring for others – and at the same time the ability to recognise that sometimes even the strong and powerful (read school staff – Kings in the story) can get things wrong – and that is ok to forgive them because of their many good deeds along the way, and in looking after and caring for their subjects and their kingdom.
Let common sense prevail
The next day when I dropped Jack at school I reaffirmed the messages I had given him, that I was proud of him and together we walked across the school yard to greet Tom – who gave Jack a spontaneous all enveloping hug. I exchanged eye contact, a smile and a morning greeting with the Head and registered her discomfort – clearly she had also been reflecting; which as an ex residential teacher myself I could both understand and empathise with.
You see in the moment we often have to follow policies and guidelines from 'on high' and are left in the wee small hours contemplating what we have done and all too often wishing we had the ability to wind back the clock just a few hours and deal differently with conflicting feelings, emotions and requirements.
To beat it all the school topic at that time was the first world war, and , apparently our shooting, bombing and killing was good – because we were ‘the goodies’ and our righteousness meant we were the victors; but the enemies similar acts were all too often war crimes – because they were ‘the baddies’ and so lost. At least in this playground moment only one vulnerable young knightly spirit was momentarily dented, and I was proud to be able to be there, salve the wounds, put him back on his horse, show my pride and set my son back on his wondrous journey on life's quest.
Paul Mills lives on the West coast of Scotland. He is is a parent, a trainer in the education and care sectors, an ex foster carer and therapeutic teacher who cares passionately about and working with young people, especially boys, as they start their life’s journey.
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