I've read this question, but I don't think that is the solution for my situation.

My son is 6 years old, and has a 5 year old step sister. The sister is able to get under his skin very quickly - either being annoying, hitting him, or screaming/singing random sounds. My son has learned from a very young age to just walk away if asking the person to stop does not fix it.

This all sounds good in theory, right?

My issue is, she will follow him, and eventually an argument breaks out, and my son starts crying because his mom (who lives in a different household than I do) told him "Boys are stronger, girls are smarter. You can't hit girls back". He simply doesn't know what to do, so looked to me for advice.

The advice I gave him was, "You know you are stronger than . You know you have more maturity and intelligence than she does. If asking her to stop, and walking away are not working, and she hits you, you can hit her back. You cannot hit her harder than she hits you, and you cannot load up and keep hitting her over and over."

My thought process was "If a girl is going to be a bully, why does it matter that she's a girl". I've seen my son, time and time again, walk away or ask her (or others) to stop doing whatever it was that was bugging him. I've also seen where he gets egged on, and it frustrates me as the parent as well.

I explained this to my partner in private, and she said it was the wrong lesson to teach. I asked what should happen then when he tries the other methods and they fail - neither of us could come up with anything better.

I want my son to be able to stand up for himself, and not fear being in a different room than I am since he "shouldn't hit girls". He is a confident boy, and is very polite, even to his step sister.

My question is, am I right in how he should defend himself after exhausting non-physical responses? If not, what would be a better way of dealing with this situation in the future?

  • Where is this step sister? Is this happening in your home or in his mother's home? How long have they been in this situation & how often are they together and what sort of duration (a week at a time, weekend, etc)?
    – threetimes
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 5:23
  • @threetimes My son is with me for a week on, week off. The step sister is with us all the time. This is happening in my home right now. Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 16:31

7 Answers 7


Of course he should defend himself. some boys are stronger than girls, some boys are stronger than other boys, none of that negates your right to defend yourself.

He is being bullied and instead of helping him his mother is actually telling him if he defends himself then he is one that is wrong, oh and by the way your not as clever as your step sister. What a horrible things to say.

My eldest son is 6, I've told him that if someone is bothering him that he can speak go and tell his teacher or me or his mother. But I have also told him that no one has the right to hurt him and that if someone is hitting him he is allowed to hit them back and I will always support him on that.


The girl needs more firm supervision and training, because other kids will not be so tolerant and will deal with it in a "natural" manner when adults aren't looking. If she can't behave around other kids, then she needs to either be removed from other kids until she has learned her manners, or left with other kids who have no such restrictions until they teach her the boundaries.

As a martial arts instructor, I'm heavily biased on the side of "when you can't walk away from physical abuse, you fight back hard then walk away." Anything that prohibits the target of a bully from defending himself enables the bully, and creates a long term safety and health hazard for the target.


Oh boy. There are a number of things you need to deal with here.

First is the idea of "Boys are stronger, girls are smarter. You can't hit girls back". That is a broad, sweeping statement. It shows your son that he will never be as smart as a girl just because of genetics. It also shows your step-daughter that she can not be as strong as a boy. It also enforces the notion that because of a chromosome difference, girls are immune from physical repercussions. That statement is completely false1. Not everyone is going to share that sentiment. Telling your daughter this is just begging her to push someone too far one day and get beat up because she thought she couldn't get hit. You and your partner need to stop telling your kids this now.

Second, you need to teach your son what an appropriate response is. Sometimes that's just walking away or getting an adult. Other times, a physical response is appropriate. You will have to show him what things he should do and when. Sister poking him? Tell her to stop and walk away. She's singing annoyingly and following him around? Get an adult. Hitting him? Defend himself and get you. Getting hit more than once? Fight back to stop the beating.

No one has the right to hurt your kid, ever. They need to know how to defend themselves appropriately and that it is OK to do so. They need to know that they can protect themselves. I was always taught to protect myself and end the threat, no more. That means that you block hits and possibly attack back enough to get someone to stop. After that you disengage.

1 I'm not advocating violence against girls/women. I was brought up to respect and honor women. But I was also taught that that belief has a logical limit, it doesn't grant blanket immunity or the power to let someone walk all over me.

  • I think you may have misunderstood the situation (partly because I was quick writing it). When I asked my son why he won't hit back when his step-sister is hitting him, he told me at that time that his mom (who lives in a different home) told him that line. I corrected him right away, as I also think that line is detrimental to society and, by extension, him. I believe we are on the same page on the other advice. Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 16:41

I think a discussion with his mother is needed:

his mom told him "Boys are stronger, girls are smarter. You can't hit girls back"

This is an interesting conundrum. You should ask her about her opinions. What I see is "Girls can use their advantage, because they're smarter. However, you can't use your advantage. You have to combat them in the domain where they are better." That really isn't a manageable message in the long run.

There are ways to solve these sorts of problems, but they're very hard to teach because most adults don't understand them. There's a fine line between "respond in kind" and "retribution" which one has to tread. Most good martial arts instructors teach this, but martial arts is not always the right answer for a 6 year old. You would have to decide if it is right for yours.

My recommendation is to recognize that force is not a binary physical/non-physical dynamic. There's no magic line between what is physical and what is non-physical. Sure, we can draw a line, but I've seen physical strikes that you are expected to shrug off, and verbal assaults are known to end in suicide. Expect that line to be fuzzy. If you start from the assumption that it's a clear line in the sand, you won't be able to help because you've bound your hands.

My recommendation would also be to teach your son to use the minimum force necessary, and reward clever solutions for minimizing force. Walking away is an example of how to resolve the situation with minimal force... until it no longer resolves the situation. Then a new solution needs to appear. It may even involve physical force. So be it. Whenever he uses too much physical force, work with him to find better ways that use less force. Perhaps he doesn't need to give his step sister a jab to the nose, perhaps all he needed was to shove her arm away. Maybe all he needs to do is hold her wrists. Let him learn how little force can be needed.

Eventually, you do reach a point where the force you use is so subtle that the other person can't sense it at all. This is an incredibly powerful skill to develop. It's what you need to diffuse tense situations without having to give up ground. However, it's very hard to develop this skill with a "no force" rule. The rule must be "do your best to minimize how much force you use."

Make it clear that you are rewarding him for developing his skills at looking for the minimum force solution. Yes, his step sister's probably going to get a few knocks, but the tradeoff is that you'll have a son who is learning a valuable life skill. While physically defending oneself may not be all that important in this day and age, learning to use minimum force in other environments (such as business negotiations or relationships) goes a very long way in non-physical engagements. A son who learns how to use carefully chosen words to calm down an angry girlfriend, rather than being a son who has learned to say whatever he wants as long as he doesn't hit her, is going to be respected indeed. That is a skill one can develop once one has the desire to always seek minimum force.

  • 1
    And to put this in line with Pojo-guy's answer, sometimes the minimum amount of force required is all out fighting. Just make sure you're in control enough to walk away once further fighting no longer supports your interests.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 0:49
  • 1
    Strategically, you want to use enough force to make it known that you could have completely overwhelmed the attacker and restrained yourself. If you gradually escalate, all you are doing is training your attacker to become a more effective attacker.
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 0:55
  • 2
    @pojo-guy I think we may have the same opinion, just from different vantage points. My interest is learning how little force must be used to completely overwhelm the attacker. What I have learned is that that amount is surprisingly small if you know how to apply it properly. However, to your point, if all you do is train your attacker, then you are indeed failing to use enough force. That being said, if you have a teacher who can teach you how to control more force correctly and wisely, then that's a different story.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 1:27
  • 2
    I agree. With that said, this boy sounds like he is likely to self regulate with only minimal guidance. Notice that my first and prefered suggestion was for the parents to get the girl under control.
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 1:46
  • 1
    Not sure why someone gave you a -1. Your answer is not bad.
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 1:48

With about 40% of domestic abuse happening against men by women, I think you are feeding into a toxic system when you initially said to him that "Boys are stronger, girls are smarter. You can't hit girls back". People shouldn't hit people back. Adding the gendering and those prior clauses is negative.

I think you need to actively interfere in this when it happens. You've tooled your son with the most common ways to avoid this: just walking away. Teaching him that an authority (a parent in this case) needs to be involved when someone is harassing him this intensely is the best solution imho. Imagine a situation like this for him in high school, work, or at a bar as an adult. Walking away or ignoring it will solve the issue most times. He needs to learn, i.e. be taught by you, that persistent harassment calls for escalation to an authority (a teacher, HR, or the police respectively).

  • "With about 40% of domestic abuse happening against men by women, [...]." Can you please cite your sources for this number, so others can read more about it? Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 16:01
  • @AnneDaunted I'll give some but note that the stat is hard to pin down. For example, how does one count reciprocal domestic abuse? Do you count individuals or individual incidents? Only police reports? What about homosexual and polyarmous relationships? Do you weigh the severity of abuse? Do you filter 'lesser' abuse incidents out? What location are we talking about? How long do we count it for (past year, past five years, anytime in lifetime)?
    – Lan
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 17:05
  • 1
    @AnneDaunted With the above disclaimer, here is a StatsCan link: statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2016001/article/14303-eng.pdf . It's findings are that the rates of victimization is similar for men and women although the rates of different types of abuse is different. This (from the state broadcaster) again iterates the rate is near 50/50 for Canada, cbc.ca/radio/the180/…
    – Lan
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 17:08

The problem isn't really in your sons 'response' to the step sister but in the parenting of the step sister. She should be punished by her mother to not be a bully to any kid. If she is dealt with by the proper authority (her parents) then your son won't be having this problem anymore. If for some reason that isn't an option then maybe tell your son he can restrain her. Hold her hands behind her back or bear hug her with her arms trapped in between them. Some kind of restraint he can put on her where he can control her arms and how long she has to stay like that. I believe it wouldn't take too many times of him holding her down and asking her if she was ready to calm down and quit the abuse and to not let her go until she agrees before she will quit messing with him. Enough has been said from other members about his mom saying boys are stronger and girls are smarter but I definitely suggest a sit down with his mother to discuss morals and ethics for him to be exposed to and another sit down with step sisters mom to make rules, boundaries, and punishments for all the kids in the house. If a rule/punishment list is generated that every kid knows and has to follow and it is strongly inforced eventually the kids will learn "if I do this thing which is wrong then this bad thing will happen" the punishment should closely relate to the bad behavior and be bad enough that the kids won't want to do it so they behave.


Since I am unclear where the situation happens at I can simply tell you how I avoid this issue with my kids & the ones I watch. Every child I watch and each of my own has a small pop up tent. If you spend a little time on searching, you can find decent options at not too high of price that fold down super flat & are easy to store. I current have 7 of them & they all fit easily under my couch with room to spare.

The point of the tent. Every person gets a retreat space. I set them up in out of the way locations. The child can place any item in there to not share. They are not permitted to fill it with items to not share, it's one or two personally owned items they do not want to share. They can use those items inside their tent only. They also have a pillow & blanket if they want. When someone goes into their tent, it's a time out for interaction. No one can bother them, talk to them, etc. No one goes into anyone else's tent, ever. The tent is for alone time. I put my own kids in their room. This has worked very well for avoiding conflicts, particularly physical ones. I even let them go in there if they do not wish to talk to me. They will have to talk to me when they emerge, but they can choose a cool down time before we talk. I should mention I do not allow electronics inside the tents. I am pretty sure if I did some might stay in there all day.

So I tell you all that in case this might work. It would allow your son a space to say "ENOUGH", but since she would also get one, that she too would want respected, she may see the barrier clearly enough to back off when he tries to walk away from her. Items I bought that I recommend for the kids to stock in their tent are fidget toys (not spinners, there is a while range out there), chew toys (dishwasher safe, so doesn't matter who used it last and yes, frustrated 6 year olds love to chew, remember chewing your pens/pencils or kids who did? Same idea, only safer since it's silicone, better for teeth & health), squeeze toys (the type for frustration) and other similar items. I have items in a big bin, many identical items so every kid can pick something to chew, squeeze and so on. They can choose items from that for their tents to help them calm themselves, including simple things, like we made water bottles together with oil, water & food color, we also made some with glitter or other things. Those calm down bottles have all kinds of tutorials online. I would recommend gluing the caps in place. Believe me, if you do those, just glue it. You would thank me for that tip if you knew the misfortune I had with a toddler and one of those. ;)

If this conflict is happening at mom's house. You can buy a tent for him for your house, and start using it. Then you can tell mom how great that has been working and offer to provide tents for the kids to use there since your son loves it so much & you don't want to leave the step sister out. You can then also have the son gift the tent to the step sister and try to pick one you think she will adore. It could garner some much needed goodwill too, as the best case scenario is that she may one day want him to like her & as such, act in ways that will inspire that bond. If you are gifting, you could also have him help make calm down bottles & such so that they both get items for their tents that are for helping them settle down & rebalance before rejoining interactions.

Here is one example (with directions) on a calm down bottle that my kids LOVE, yes even the boys. Falling glitter is mesmerizing. http://mskcpotter.blogspot.com/2015/06/calm-down-jar-upgrade-and-recipe.html

You can also use distilled water by itself & colored paperclips. I added a couple caps of peroxide because I was still worried about it going yucky. Anyway, you can then tie a magnet on a string to the lid & use the magnet to drag the paperclips all over from outside the bottle. Mine also love that one a lot.

Add on since I see now the situation is happening on your own home. That is better anyway, since you can have more influence in your own home than you can elsewhere. So in my home we make rules together as a family, the kids are really prompted to come up with them, generally everyone easily agrees (like you can't go into someone's else's room without permission, no hitting, etc). You can set up rules that help cover this issue & you can prompt with questions like "What about when...." and see what they come up with rules on their own. Then when a rule is being broken, you can also say "hey I thought you were the one who said...". We also all sign the rules contract. In our house that contract is for everyone.

I definitely think mom is off on her message here. It sounds as though she is condoning verbal assaults based on being female. Egging someone on & running your mouth isn't okay no matter the gender of who is doing it, same for hitting. And this idea that being smaller means you can be easily taken down isn't reality either. I am about half the weight of my husband and a foot shorter & he will tell you in wrestling, etc that I am much harder to tackle than many people larger than me. It depends on if you have a lot of spunk, little concern for pain or a high pain threshold and if you know what you are doing. I am not saying it's right, but when I was 5yrs old I gave one my teenage siblings a black eye, on purpose (I hit on purpose, the black eye was more than I planned on). Being smaller doesn't mean she has license to get away with hitting nor does it mean she isn't capable in inflicting serious pain. I tell my kids they are permitted to use enough force to get away in a situation where they are being hit. It's not been something that we've needed to use, but I feel it's a reasonable thing to say & I can't tell them to never hit anyone ever. That isn't how life goes sometimes. I do want them to avoid it when it's possible though & it is usually possible to avoid.

So I do think you need to work on what messages your children are getting, that they are strong, firm, confidence building & limit setting. It is not okay to tell a boy that girls are smarter. It is not okay to a boy that boys are stronger. Those are far from universal truths & they do not help in character building for either kid. What I find helpful in my kids is I speak what I want to see. I say things like "I know you have a loving heart. What is going on right now that you can't show that part of you?" I find it much more effective than saying "Why are you being such a little meanie pants?" Your step daughter, at 5, isn't some awful diabolical little tyrant as much as it may seem so. She has reasons for doing what she does & when you sort out why she is doing those things, often solutions are much more attainable. Kids will act it out when not happy. We call it "acting out" instead. We also say things like the kid is "giving" me a hard time instead of seeing the kid is having a hard time. Children don't just up & decide to be aggressive. I didn't give my sibling a black eye for no reason. If you think back to your own childhood & the things you did, there were reasons you did them. If those had been resolved ahead of time, chances are you would have never misstepped. It could be something like jealousy even, especially if she doesn't see her dad often, or it could be insecurity if she thinks her mom might love him more than her, or or or. Children usually have something under the surface going on when their behavior seems this level of purposeful & repetitive & unkind.

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