She Punched the Bully

Written by NPN Guest on November 14th, 2011

Family Safety, Responding With Sensitivity

I had never imagined the phone call or my reaction.

The call that begins with, “Hello, this is Madame. Rowan punched another child at school today.”
And my reaction that went something like, “Really? Who? Seriously? All right, Rowan!”

Of the limited “teacher calling home” scenarios I have imagined for my kindergarten child, this was not one of them.
“Rowan needs stitches.” Sure.
“Rowan spilled paint all over her clothes and needs fresh ones.” Could happen.
“Rowan is the best child we have ever had in this school; she must have a brilliant mom.” OK, maybe not.
But hitting someone? No.
And me cheering about it? Never.

Children hit each other, I know.
Just like every dog can bite, every child can hit.

But our home is pretty peaceful, and nonviolence is a strongly held belief and practice.
We are a gentle, natural sort of family.
We don’t play guns, or pretend to shoot anything or anyone.
We don’t hit each other.

And then there is Rowan.
And why this was such a (pleasant) shock.

Rowan had a rough start to the school year. It started with ongoing harassment by a classmate (unwanted touch, that is another article altogether) which reduced Rowan’s naturally shy-with-peers sense of self to dust. And into this vulnerability stepped every five-year-old bully-wannabe in the kindergarten.

While the exclusion and general meanness of the girls she relied on as friends was much more difficult to deal with, it was the physical bullying laid on her by another girl that made her feel that she was simply not safe at school and no one could or would defend her.

Almost daily there was the litany of Emily’s abuses.
Punching. Pushing. Kicking. Stealing.
Spitting in the face.
One day while I was in the classroom, I watched Emily pull Rowan’s chair out from under her.
A constant barrage.

Yes, the teacher knew, and yes, the school was doing what they could do. After having dealt with a toweringly angry and persistent Mama Bear in regard to the first incidents, they knew to take me seriously.

But it persisted.

At home we talked about it; we played it out.
We wrestled and raged and cried and made jokes.
We did a lot of role playing about how to handle the situation (and others — “You are not the boss of me!” was our favourite practiced response!).
And we gave Rowan full permission to stop Emily, physically.

Her first line of defense was to loudly yell at Emily to get away from her.
This was too challenging for my withdrawn child.
Her next was to push Emily away if she moved in close.
Again, too daunting.

She couldn’t bring herself to defend herself, partly out of lack of esteem and partly out of a fear of getting in trouble because, of course, there was to be no yelling and pushing at school!

I secured the permission of the teacher and the principal and had them, gently, share with Rowan that it was OK to defend herself. But all of this was very upsetting, asking her to act out of character and beyond the rules. And that was heartbreaking, that she should be in this position and have to carry this responsibility. But it had reached the point where she had to claim her strength and ability to care for herself as part of her growth and healing.

As we rolled towards the Christmas holiday, my vivacious five-year-old was acting like a scared three-year-old. She wouldn’t eat and was constipated (two things she could control) and having impressive tantrums. We were seeing a therapist, working on her esteem, and doing as much loving and caring as we could. These factors, time, and a holiday break seemed to make a difference.

It was the first day back after the break that the phone call came.

The call that began with, “Hello, this is Madame. Rowan punched another child at school today.”
And the reaction that that went, “Really? Who? Seriously? All right, Rowan!”
Followed by big smiles, relieved laughter and general merriment by us parents and the teacher, too.

Rowan had turned the corner.
Actually, Emily had turned the corner and Rowan had sucker punched her in the stomach.
At first I tried to picture it, thinking about Rowan throwing a punch, and then I recalled that she had been a keen student all fall in karate class…. She knew how to throw a serious punch.

Talk about a difficult conversation to hold with your child!
I ended up going with, “While hitting someone is never our first choice, or the best choice, we understand why you hit Emily and you are not in trouble. Next time you feel the need to punch her, try to use your words first and ask for help if they aren’t working. But if you need to defend yourself, do it.”

I know some said that it wasn’t self-defense.
But it was.
And that children should never hit.
But sometimes they must.

In five-year-old world, it might take four months for that punch in self-defense to work its way to the fist and out to its target.
And I was so darn glad she did it.

Because it meant she was coming back.
She felt like she could protect herself.
She believed she had the right to make the bullying stop.
She trusted again.

And after that day, each one was an improvement.

Our happy girl came back, and she began to stand up to the other bullying from her peers.
She claimed her right to be part of the group.
And even more, when she saw another child become the target of Emily (who has not touched Rowan in the six months since that punch), Rowan stepped in, told Emily to stop…and bless her heart, told her friend…

“Maybe you should punch Emily. Sometimes you have to punch somebody to make them stop hurting you.”

No, I had never imagined cheering for the news that my daughter punched someone.
But parenting takes you all sorts of places you never imagined yourself.
And teaches you lessons you didn’t know you needed to learn.

Hooray! for shocking phone calls, for life lessons and for resilient little girls with fists of fury.


Lori Campbell is the mother of one, in the process towards adopting one or two more. She has more to write about lessons learned this school year, but not quite yet. She is still mad enough to punch someone. The family lives, peacefully (most of the time), in Northern Ontario. Lori blogs at Beneath the Rowan Tree.

16 Responses to She Punched the Bully

  1. Erica Douglas

    Love this article! Sooo glad Rowan stood up to the bully!

    I am currently reading “Queen Bees and Wannabees” by Rosalind Wiseman and it is the scariest book I’ve ever read. I’m horrified at how mean girls are!

  2. Jupiter  

    Rock on, Rowan!
    We’re of the same mind on teaching non-violence and we’ve also had to give permission to one of our kids to defend herself.It becomes important when all other methods have failed.

    The only time my son got suspended from school was for punching a kid. My son wasn’t the one being bullied but rather a friend of his and the bullying wasn’t only physical at times, it was racist-based, nasty ugly mental abuse. The issue had been going on for a long time & nothing was really being done. One day in the locker room, my kid had seen enough & stepped in. HE got suspended b/c the school has a Zero Tolerance policy for hitting. At home, we did not punish him at all.The bully was basically only scolded ,since in this situation, he only used his words. So many things wrong w/ the way bullying is handled sometimes….

  3. Jupiter  

    Oh, hubby is reminding me, my son actually didn’t punch the kid but pushed him hard.

  4. Michelle  

    Thank you for such an interesting piece – I value your honesty. On the one hand, it’s great that Rowan stood up to her bully and put an end to the intimidation. On the other however, it sounds like Rowan now has a new feeling attached to her actions. And that feeling is power. Now, used wisely, this can be a good thing. But, at such a young age, is it reasonable to expect that she has the emotional intelligence to be able to use that power wisely? Keep an eye on her, eh? I truly wish you and Rowan all the best.

  5. Amy  

    I really appreciate you outlining the progression from seemingly meek little girl to a child willing to protect herself. It sounds like it has been very empowering for everyone involved (except the “bully”).

    I realize that not all “natural parents” are on the same page when it comes to conflict resolution so the rest of what I’m about to say may or may not be welcome; I’ll say it anyway.

    I did read in your bio that you’re still mad enough to punch someone, Lori, so please don’t receive my words as instigation towards that. I come in peace. 🙂

    Possibly there is a progression from where the situation now stands that can benefit not only Rowan, but also the bully or potential bullies. Bullies are often vulnerable, too, and do not have skills to work out problems peacefully. Meeting the bully where she’s at, with fists, can make it’s point, but what about when a bully is bigger or weapons are involved or your daughter gets tired of feeling like she has to fight someone off, or…

    Peaceful conflict resolution is a skill that children often need to *learn*. Many adults do, too. I know I’m learning it and it has become more smooth with practice, feels kind of frustrating at first. It is one step to help a child become confident enough to stand up for what they believe in. It is another step forward to teach them how to work with the perceived bully and teach them how to learn new communication skills. This addresses the needs of everyone and can actually lead to more safety.

    Is the school or are you open to teaching and role playing real life peaceful conflict resolution with all of the students? It’s possibly that the “bully” is being bullied at home or elsewhere, has a domineering parent, or something else – and can benefit from something of that sort – along with everyone else. Just a thought that may possibly go along with everything else you are working toward.

    • NPN_Admin  

      I am totally seeing the merits of Rowan’s actions, and how much strength it takes to endure all that negative, unwarranted attention for so long.

      I also see what Amy is saying – that some day, one person may not be able to stand up for themselves physically, especially when all the kids/people involved are much older. The level of potential danger intensifies with age.

      At some point, fighting back with fists won’t be enough, or just won’t apply to the situation at hand…

      While a teacher cannot supervise a bully or protect a child the entirety of the day, it’s unfortunate that sometimes these things come to a head – and I’m glad for Rowan’s sake that she’s established herself, good for her to feel empowered. I’m sure there are other kids who will see her example and know that she’s doing the “right thing” as best she can.

      It’s more difficult to address the true root of everyone’s problem, which is “why is the bully acting like a bully?”… It’s hard to address the bully’s behavior from the outside – clearly that child is dealing with outside influences and does not have enough people setting a good example.

      I’m sad/shocked that this type of situation exists in Kindergarten setting, and in such an intense manner… it just shouldn’t be something a 5- or 6-year-old should have to deal with!

      • Dionna  

        I agree with what Tom and Amy have said – it’s awesome that Rowan felt empowered enough to stand up for herself, and you were right to help her realize that. But I bet there is something going on at home with the bully. I used to teach preschool to children labeled with “emotional/behavioral” disorders – I would say that the vast majority of them who used violence as a communication/resolution tool (yes, as preschoolers) were being physically, emotionally, or otherwise abused at home. It is heartbreaking from all sides, really. I hope that the situation is better now for you, Rowan, and the bully!

  6. Amy  

    I agree that children ought not have to deal with this type of assault from other kids. Nobody “should”.

    Here’s a book that outlines some options also…

    While many people may think we have to resort to violence to stop violence, there are other ways. Our children deserve to learn them.

  7. Amy  

    Here’s link to a controversial, non-violent approach to bullying also…

  8. Momma Jorje

    What a great story! It really sucks she had to go through the first part, but how very empowering to make it through to the other side so strongly!

  9. Sheila  

    I think throwing one punch is just what she needed to do to realize that she isn’t powerless. It doesn’t look like she’s picked up a habit of hitting … just that she now knows she is capable of making bullying stop. Just that knowledge gives her a whole treasure chest of peaceful tools to use.

  10. Lori/ Beneath the Rowan Tree  

    Thank you for all of your thoughtful responses 🙂 I truly appreciate them, especially the resources towards alternatives in peacemaking (where were you all then?! LOL).
    I would LOVE to have some overall intervention at school for these kids who just don’t have the tools and support to find alternatives.

    We are in Ontario, and our School Board is, well, useless. Our local children’s mental health provider/ center will offer training and role playing and even year-long social skills groups, but it is tough to get them in past the school administartion (although nominally they are partners). I have tried for two years.

    We do talk about it in ongoing ways here, especially building a positive relationship with Emily and the other girls implicated in my post. Almost a year has passed since these incidents and so far Rowan has never thrown another punhc 😉 but she has stepped up to be a peacemaker more than once, I am proud to say.

    Off to check out the resources, again, thank you all!

  11. Leeanne

    An inspiring read. Thank you! I will remember this when my son is old enough to have such conversations, hopefully not this experience but you never know. Really, really wonderful.

  12. Amy  

    Lori, my oldest is 11 and will be entering middle school soon. This morning I had a moment where I felt protectiveness surge over me when she mentioned that she’d rather not eat breakfast than sit by a boy at school she doesn’t like. He teases. Boys do that, but of course I’d like an environment where she just feels comfortable. So we talk and we role play and she still chooses to be away from him at times; which is best for her. Sometimes we need space from those who are adversarial, of course!

    I think I may have felt a little of what you felt dealing with this situation. It surely is a process to help our children know they are powerful beings while teaching them ways to intervene/stand up for themselves in ways that don’t harm/do stand for peace. Thank you for being an example and for sharing all that you tried in various ways. 🙂