Roughing them up

Violence is pervasive in an inner-city environment.  It seeps into every aspect of life, and there’s far, far too little to counteract it.

This is particularly apparent with our junior high after school program.  Our 6 boys are great kids – they are rarely mean to each other, they have a lot of fun together, and they are generally pretty respectful to the staff.  They are definitely tough to keep under control – they have a lot of energy for 2 leaders to manage… but they aren’t bad.  They’re just boys at the beginning of adolescence.

It’s hard not to notice, however, that almost everything fun to them revolves around violence.  They play fight, and can get pretty physical while wrestling.  Much of their humor and positioning in conversation relates to violence.  We played a game yesterday where they acted out several scenes, which they could make up on the spot, and all but one of the scenes they created was a violent one… a robbery at Wal-Mart, a crazy Chinese lady asking for rent, any other excuse to knock a guy to the ground and pretend to kick him…and so on.  Afterwards we talked with the kids about this phenomenon, and they realize how prevalent it is, and recognize that it comes from a lot of the media and their environment.  They also didn’t seem to mind too much, and it was VERY difficult to get them to think of something funny or entertaining that didn’t involve someone getting hurt.

This causes a bit of an issue for me.  I’m a Christian and a pastor at a pacifist church.  For both eternal and pragmatic reasons, we want to steer them away from a mentality that gives violence such an esteemed position.  At the same time, being able to talk and joke about violence and mess around with them is a very effective way to build a relationship with them.  I’m not at all opposed to roughhousing and playing around, and there are humorous situations involving “violence” that can, and perhaps should, be laughed about. But, in their case, how much of that is just reinforcing the more serious culture of violence that they already get too much of?

Perhaps this deserves a closer look at my specific situation.  In my past, violence has played a pretty big role in my mentality, if not my actual actions.  Though I keep my distance a lot of the time to keep from setting too much of an example, there have been several occasions where I’ve played around with them and shown them, in fun, how easily I can throw them around.  They like it, we have fun, it builds relationship.  I don’t think roughhousing is bad.

More seriously is when they start getting out of line.   I’m a firm believer, especially with young guys in the city, in getting in their face and telling them when they’re wrong.  I don’t want to teach them that conflict is the way to resolve problems, but it’s a language that they understand.  If you tip-toe around the issue, or spend a lot of time talking about stuff, it opens the door to getting labeled as powerless and being walked all over.

Instead, get directly to the point.  Get in their face, tell them to shape up.  You’ve asked them nicely, you’ve told them, you’ve warned them… and they keep going.  Get in their face, honestly tell them what’s up, and make it clear that you can and will make them do it if you have to.  Don’t get angry, don’t be more forceful than necessary, just make it clear that you are NOT playing around anymore.

What’s this look like?  Lots of things… physically pulling kids off of each other and restraining them when they’re wrestling, not because they’re fighting, but because you’ve already told them it’s time to stop.   Or playfully threatening one of them with a ruler when he’s starting to distract others from their homework, and when he “challenges” me because I’m ruining his fun,  quickly taking him to the ground to make it clear that there is nothing he can do to get past me.  Or, when they keep wrestling when they’re supposed to help set up tables, and have ignored several requests for them to stop, grabbing one of their wrists, pulling him off the other kid, g him straight in the eye, and telling him it’s time to stop.  And that’s the end of it.

What allows it to work?  Basically, relationship.  They know I care about them and enjoy playing around with them… they’ve seen that I’m not just a jerk stopping all they’re fun.  It seems that they like me and respect me for those same reasons.  I don’t act angry, or hold things over their head.  We deal with it, and it’s done.  They generally understand that, and they’ve come to realize that I will deal with things.  We still have a lot of getting to know each other, but it seems we have a pretty good starting point.

So after all of this rambling about violence and confrontation, what’s the point?  Just this – my job is not to convert them to pacifism, or to convince them that all of their playful violence is bad.  My job is to show them Jesus, and to demonstrate His love for them.  If that means throwing them around because they enjoy it, and forcefully confronting them when they misbehave because that’s a form of discipline that they’ll understand, so be it.  Christ is all about building solid, trustful relationships, and He would never be satisfied with His followers giving correction that’s not understood.  My job isn’t to teach them to be non-violent, my job is to show them a God who wants to deliver them from the poisonous culture that tells them violence is how to solve problems.

It’s up to God after that.

~ by Peter on November 9, 2007.

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