PARENTS: When it comes to bullying, where do you teach your child the line is drawn on self-defense?

When is it okay to fight back against a bully

As a culture, we spend far more time talking about bullies than we do about how to disarm them.

I’m wondering this morning, in the case of physical violence, at what point do we tell our kids to literally fight back?

Maria Hernandez-Tuten writes on

Have you ever had one of those moments when you go into a daydream and you’re imagining yourself telling your child something that good parents don’t say to their kids but then you quickly wake up before it really comes out of your mouth? That’s how I felt today when my son came in crying because [a neighborhood kid] smashed his fingers with a rock bigger than my hand. I just about had it. I kept my cool as we walked over to talk to his mom. My son shared and then I said a few things. The boys mom called him in. He totally ignored her and she stood in the driveway texting.

I called my son in, so I could talk to him about the situation and I almost did say out loud, “Next time he hits you, knock him out.” {Read more}

As I’m early in the process of researching a book on bullying, I’d love to hear your experiences/thoughts/responses to this topic.

  • Where do you draw the line?
  • How have you taught your kids to manage bullying/relational aggression?
  • How successful has your plan been so far? What have you learned?

Note that I am especially interested in the experiences of families of gifted/2e kids. Here’s why.

Your comments may (or may not) make it into the text, so please feel free to comment anonymously or message me privately.

Finally, note that October is National Bullying Prevention Month. I’ll be posting a survey on the topic next month to delve into these issues further.

Stay tuned!


  1. As someone with a preschool aged kid, I have not had to deal with this yet. But as also someone with a very sweet, quiet, naturally mild-mannered kid, this is something that completely freaks me out. I was bullied a lot as a kid, but my own parents were so dysfunctional that I simply had no tools to deal with it other than the nebulous “Just ignore them” garbage that we got in school back in the 80s. It freaks me out so much that this is actually a very large part of the reason why I’m not likely to put my son in public school.

    I read the Babble article. 2 quotes that caught my attention:
    1) “I called my son in, so I could talk to him about the situation and I almost did say out loud, ” Next time he hits you, knock him out.” Don’t worry, I didn’t say that but…”
    I am, at this point in my life, so cynical that I just don’t believe many of the verbal tactics she mentions, as well-intentioned as they are, work. And I think she would be completely fair to go ahead and tell her son to just knock him out. I mean, the bully’s mom isn’t going to do anything.

    2) In the comments: “My mom told me she would never punish me for defending myself if the situation required me to do so, but I was to try and make every effort to avoid it whenever possible. The thing about bullies is, they pick on those they believe to be weaker and most times if you fight back, they will back down.”
    This. I had a similar experience in 6th grade where I involuntarily punched a girl who had bullying me for awhile. She never gave me a hard time ever again.

    I’m sure a lot of parents will disagree with me, perhaps including you, and I’m fine with that. But until someone gives me a very real and concrete alternative to defending yourself when absolutely necessary (I’m talking when every effort to avoid it has failed and adults are not interested in intervening), I don’t know what else to think.

    I would love to hear about your research as it goes further down the line.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story, June. And I think there is a certain disconnect between words and outcomes. It’s certainly complicated.

  2. I had this conversation with my then four year old son after his eighteen month old sister was tackled, held down and then bitten on the face by two boys that were at least four. This happened at the McDonald’s playplace. The Mom of the two boys said and did nothing to reprimand her sons. She just allowed them to continue playing. I was mortified and didn’t know what to do. So, we left. I still regret not saying something. Anything. But when we got in the car and my temper cooled. I was more able to think of what to tell my children. “You have every right to defend yourself. If someone hits you, you have my permission to fight back. You never start a fight, but you are allowed to defend yourself and others. If someone is hitting your sister you have my permission to defend her, to step in and say you leave her alone or you’re going to deal with me.” I think everyone has the right to not only defend themselves, but also those who are not able to defend themselves.

      • I have no idea. My sweet little girl was really out going and was just walking up to them to say Hi when that whole thing happened. It was awful. At first I thought it was her brother sitting on her and then I realized what was going on. As soon as I got up they ran up into the plaything. She had a bruise in the shape of a bite mark on her cheek. Every time I saw it I would get angry all over again.Looking back I wish I had said something to them or at least the mother, but I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.

  3. I’ve always told my daughter (8) that she can ignore mean words, to let someone know if there is someone being mean to her and I will never be mad at her for defending herself. I have also told her the second that someones hits her or hurts her on purpose she should punch them in the face. She has been training in martial arts for three years, now. Her master says to not hit back unless they are going to hit you a second time and then you have to defend yourself.

    Martial Arts give kids the confidence to not be the bullied kid and to know that they have the personal power to stand up for the kid who is being bullied.

    Also, with a daughter, the dating years will be easier on me since she isn’t allowed to date till she has a black belt 🙂

  4. My son (at age 5) was at Joker’s, in the playhouse, when he came out crying to me. When I asked him what was wrong, and what had happened, he told me about a boy a year or two older than him who was trying to force him down a slide by pushing down on his head an neck. (Geno is so gentle, kind, loving, and playful. He was horrified by this boy. My son had never been physically bullied, or had problems getting along with other kids, so this behavior was alien to him.) I told him to bring me to the boy, who at that time was on his way out of the maze. I blocked his way, asked him to tell me what happened, and he admitted every detail. I did not bother looking for his parents, but had my own “little chat” with him. One of the things I mentioned was that HE was lucky my son had a good mother who taught her kid how to be nice and to keep his hands to himself if he wasn’t going to use them in a nice way. Then I told him that if he touched my kid again, Geno had permission to fight him back as hard as he could. At the time, I was so angry (and sad) that I said many things, some of which I don’t remember. I reacted on impulse, but sometimes you have to. Not everything can be planned out, things happen. Even if you do make plans, things have a way of not happening accordingly. Anyway, I don’t regret what I did, and my son now knows firsthand about kids I warned him about, and how to handle them. Likewise, that little bully will know that parents like me exist, and that they will raise kids who won’t take his crap. I’ll never say “I wish I had said or done something,” or “I wish I had talked to their parents.” I believe in going straight to the child anyway, because far too often I hear “The parents didn’t even do anything. The parents didn’t care.” There is a reason you hear this. If the parents of the bullies were doing their jobs, we probably wouldn’t have so many bullies. It is too late for the parents, go straight to the kid.

  5. I’m not sure about when it’s OK to teach your kids to strike back physically. As a child, I always managed, somehow, to verbally manipulate the bullies into going away and I’d like to hope that will be enough for my daughter, too.

    That said, reading some of these stories, I find myself wondering why people are not pulling out their smart phones, gathering evidence, and filing charges. Sure, talk to the offender’s parent(s) first, in the case of a neighbor. If they refuse or fail to prevent their child from hurting others on purpose, well, we have a system we all pay for to deal with such people.

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