Girl punched by classmate told 'I bet he likes you' by hospital staff

Oct 9, 2015 at 11:37 a.m. ET
Image: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

When Merritt Smith took her 4-year-old daughter to the hospital after a boy punched her hard enough to break her skin, she was probably hoping the hospital staffers would have some kind words to say.

Unfortunately one staffer's attempt to offer comfort was to say to Smith's daughter, "I bet he likes you." Just in case you don't know this already, people who like other people don't typically express that by punching them in the face. It isn't a normal way to show affection, and we do neither boys nor girls a favor by pretending it is. Smith was understandably upset by the exchange, and it's clear she's a mom "who gets it" by the Facebook post she shared about why the sentiment is inappropriate:

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It's not an uncommon sentiment, as pretty much anyone who has ever been slapped, punched, kicked, pushed down or had their hair pulled as a little girl by a little boy can tell you.

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The prevalence of this attitude — that hitting someone is a normal, age-appropriate way to show them that you like them — doesn't make it right. It needs to stop, because putting that idea in a kid's head, especially at a young age, is harmful for kids of both genders.

For girls, it encourages the idea that being hit is no big deal and is in fact a compliment. As a child, when someone hits you, it's painful and confusing, and when you turn to an adult — as you've been taught to do — for help, it can be downright baffling to hear that you should be taking it as a compliment. Furthermore, it feels unjust; kids have a pretty black-and-white idea of fairness, so excusing unacceptable behavior as flattery is beyond comprehension.

Of course, this says nothing of the dangerous precedent and foundation adults lay when they start conditioning girls early to accept violence as a normal, even positive part of their interactions with their male peers.

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It's also unfair to our boys. We already have a serious issue with the way we frame masculinity — that boys must be hardened and that showing emotion is girlish and weak. If in fact they do "like" a girl, we need to be teaching them how to express that healthily, and punching someone you like is not healthy.

By normalizing violence as an acceptable way to express emotion, we're setting boys up to fail too. They might not get in trouble for their actions in the short term, but letting this slide as a harmless type of flirting only reinforces that healthy emotional expression should be set aside for toxic masculinity.

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Finally, hitting is not a sure sign someone likes you, even on the playground, no matter what we've all accepted as conventional wisdom for a long time. Instead, it's typically a sure sign of conflict. When boys hit boys, they get in trouble, and when girls hit girls, they get in trouble, as they should, because conflict is better resolved without sending someone to the hospital.

When we, as adults, say that punching is a kind of flirting, we're ignoring what could be a different kind of conflict altogether and using that as an excuse to not deal with the underlying issue.

Merritt Smith's 4-year-old said it best: "That's not how we show we like someone. That was not a good choice."

If a 4-year-old can grasp the concept, it's time for the adults to catch up.

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