Little kid fisticuffs

I don’t condone violence, I really don’t. But having worked with a bunch of little boys at an orphanage for the past three weeks now, I find myself being permissive with letting the tiniest one (4 years old) retaliate against the older ones (6-8 years old) when they pick on him. This kid is not defenseless by any means; at the slightest transgression by another peer, he turns into a flurry of Muay Thai kicks and punches. But I let him defend himself, even with a little violence. However, if he’s trying to pummel the other kid’s face in Watchmen-style, of course, I step in and separate the two. So am I being a hypocrite, though, if I let the kids here in Thailand do their thing in a “boys will be boys” fashion, while in the States, when working in a group home, I wouldn’t tolerate this way of conflict resolution at all?

I think it’s about knowing my role. I’m not the kids’ houseparent here, or group home counselor, but more like a role model type figure.  But I think they see me as some odd Thai-looking, but not exactly Thai-speaking, anomaly of an adult who gives them piggybacks and swings them around from time to time. I do try my best to be this role model for them, despite my communication limitations. (I can ask in Thai, “Why do you keep on fighting that kid?” but then I don’t really understand the following response.) So even though I’m not really a social worker at the orphanage, the boys seem to enjoy my presence. It’s very touching when I drive up in my motorbike to their cottage and a bunch of them come running up to me to give me a hug or hold my hand.

Back to why I let the boys non-lethally go Lord of the Flies on each other sometimes – you also have to think about the context in which you work. I really don’t subscribe to traditional notions of gender socialization and masculinity, but who am I to come into this orphanage and tell the kids that they should not box each other at all 100% of the time? Looking around at the other boys and teenagers, they all play pretty rough with one another – so is this a norm in the orphanage?

Furthermore, I think it’s somewhat cultural here for boys to grow up mimicking Muay Thai punches, kicks, and flying knees. It kinda makes sense – it’s the national sport here, just like how we slap on Red Sox hats or NBA jerseys on little toddler boys. What I’m trying to say is, you have to take a step back and think. It’s like, who would you be to go into someone’s house and tell them they should take their shoes off inside the house or hang dry their clothes instead of using the dryer?

Admittedly, telling someone they shouldn’t fight is different than telling someone they should change their curtain drapes’ color from purple to blue.  So is it all or none? Sometimes allowing violence, or having zero tolerance? I don’t think it’s binary. You just have to be mindful of cross-cultural issues and think about how you can appropriate your interventions; it can be both/and Western/Eastern instead of either/or. Back to the little guy as an example, I remember when one time he was about to blow up on another kid, I didn’t wag my finger like a Westerner, “Don’t hit anymore!” nor could I let the two be left to themselves, because I could see the little one was going to blow up more extremely than usual, like the Hulk. So I stood in between the two, put my hands on the shoulders of the little one, and repeatedly said, “Jai yen, jai yen,” literally meaning, “Cool down your heart.”

It was not my intent to replace a coping mechanism with another, but rather, to show the kid that he has different options to his responses. It’s like adding onto his toolbelt, instead of trying to convey there’s only one tool to use all the time. Furthermore, if I were to continuously “rescue” him all the time and shield him from the other kids, what about the times when I’m not there? Or when I leave in a month and a half?

Navigating cross-cultural differences can be difficult at times, but that’s when you have to be creative and think out of the box. With the help of a friend of mine who is a teacher here, I’m going to bring some coloring sheets and crayons for the boys. Hopefully, that ought to mitigate the instances of little kid fisticuffs and absolve myself as coming across as a nagging pseudo-parent.

Is it culturally OK to let kids go at it sometimes?  (Credit:

Is it culturally OK to let kids go at it sometimes?

What's your disciplinarian style?  Western, Eastern, both, something else?  (Credit:

What's your disciplinarian style? Western, Eastern, both, something else?

Listen to the Rock!

Listen to the Rock!


~ by wannabejochen on 15/03/2009.

One Response to “Little kid fisticuffs”

  1. 🙂 I tend to think a little rough housing can be good, but only to the extent that the intent is NOT to hurt someone.

    Call it my fluffy upbringing, or cultural imprint, but I think when someone feels angry and they intend to really pummel another person, it is the right thing to step in and put your hands on their shoulder, and so on… anyway, I liked your approach to the whole thing.

    I hope all is well in CM!

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