This evening at roughly 2200, I stopped at an all-night drugstore to buy a few items after a very long day. There, I got “pwned,” as the kids say, by a couple of children.
Except that, no, they weren’t children. Not really. They were unknown contacts. And therein lies the problem, because too many adult students of self-defense don’t recognize the unique considerations where minors are concerned. To call them “children” is to soft-pedal the issue; it’s like those news reports where a teenager is hurt or killed after violently assaulting a citizen and the news media run yearbook photos of the “child” that are years old. The innocent image is belied by the violent reality. But this is only part of the problem.
I’ll first describe what happened and then we’ll analyze what we can learn from this incident. When I pulled into the drugstore parking lot, there was an unusual amount of activity there. I think there may have been some kind of event going on at the adjacent hotel, which shares lot space with the drugstore. There was one creepy dude just sitting in the back of a pickup truck, staring; there was a woman screaming at her kids to get in her car as they fought in the driveway; there were other kids running around the area. It was, in short, nuts. My first mistake was in believing I could just park amidst this chaos and go about my business.
Two of the minors fighting and running through the parking lot were a boy of perhaps ten and a girl of maybe 16, although it’s hard to judge ages. Under the street lights, I at first took them for white kids. I later realized — when they accused me of racism — that they were probably Hispanic. (That’s the only explanation that I can think of, for it would make no sense for two white kids to accuse a white guy of racism out of nowhere.)
The two kids, probably brother and sister, were fighting in the parking lot and on the grassy median between the drugstore lot and the hotel lot. It annoyed me for “get off my lawn” reasons that I’ll ascribe to being a middle-aged man, so I decided (mistake number two) to encourage them to leave. I took out my phone, somewhat ostentatiously, and made as if to call the cops.
My third mistake was in not removing myself from the area entirely and calling the police in seclusion. The two kids immediately saw me, disengaged from each other, and approached. There is a self-defense class I have taken called “Managing Unknown Contacts.” I should have taken these “kids” seriously as unknown contacts, but instead thought of them as young people. I was an adult and they were children; they should be concerned enough that I was supposed to be calling the cops that they would disperse. Shouldn’t they?
Well, no. And honestly, this is a lesson I should have learned before. A couple of years back I yelled at a kid in a public park because he was riding his skateboard in an area where skateboards and bikes were not allowed. He approached me, got in my face, threatened me, and took a half-hearted swing at me. There was nothing I could do, and he told me in so many words. “What are you going to do, old man?” he sneered. “Hit a kid?”
Failing to learn that lesson is the reason I felt so foolish tonight. When the two kids in the drugstore parking lot approached, they started shouting at me that I was “ignorant” and a “racist.” Who could blame them for immediately jumping to that conclusion, when they are fed a steady diet in media, popular culture, and school that white people, police, and authority figures in general are pervasive and omnipresent racists seeking to do them harm?
“Oh, I’m a racist, am I?” I said.
“Yeah, you are, you ignorant asshole,” said the girl. “You’re probably a child molester, too. You probably jerk off to kiddie porn.”
“Fight me, you bitch,” said the ten-year-old boy, balling up his fists. “I’ll punch you in the face. You can catch these hands.”
Well, I thought. That escalated quickly.
And just like that, I realized they had me. There was nothing I could do. They weren’t at all scared of the police being called; they didn’t care that they had been fighting in the middle of a public parking lot at ten o’clock at night; they didn’t give one good damn that I thought their behavior was inappropriate. I was an ignorant racist, and worse, for calling them on their behavior. For making to call the cops, I was part of the patriarchal and racist system of all-pervasive and omnipresent tyranny constructed to oppress the less fortunate; for being an adult who dared to oppose them, they were going to make me pay. They were fully aware that I could do nothing to defend myself; they were further aware of exactly which false accusations to shout to gain the upper hand.
I did the only thing I could do; I got in my car and I drove away as they threw parking lot debris at me. (I think one of the items was a soda can.)
As I drove, I started composing this article in my head. I realized that at the root of this problem is that those of my generation grew up with the concept of in loco parentis.
The legal dictionary describes this as “a legal doctrine describing a relationship similar to that of a parent to a child. It refers to an individual who assumes parental status and responsibilities for another individual, usually a young person, without formally adopting that person.” Much more broadly, though, it is the notion that an adult, even a stranger, has a certain amount of authority and responsibility for other people’s children. That’s because, well, they’re children.
If you saw a child unattended in public about to do something like, say, step off the top of a jungle gym because he didn’t understand gravity, you’d run and grab him even though he’s not your kid. If you saw two kids fist-fighting on the side of the street, you’d put yourself between them to stop them from hurting each other.
At least, you would have when I was a kid. Now, you’d be insane to do the latter (and you’d probably get sued for doing the former).
When I was a boy, I got into a fight on the sidewalk with another kid after school. A stranger pulled over, got out of his car, and stopped us, yelling at us to cut it out. We immediately ran for what we thought was our lives. We were mortified that an adult, a stranger adult, had yelled at us. Why, he would probably somehow alert our parents through some mysterious adult communications network.
The same thing happened to me a few years later: I was at a campground, riding my bike around an asphalt circle that delineated the camping spaces. I rode too closely behind some younger kids, bumped a child’s Big Wheel, and caused him to spill onto the pavement. He cried and his father came at me with all Grownup Guns blazing, yelling at me (and rightly so) for causing the accident. I remember lying in my little bunk in our pop-up camper that night, terrified that my mother and father would find out what I had done. The pressure got so bad that I finally confessed my crimes unbidden.
Today, any sense that this grownup authority exists is long gone. Children of today are either well-behaved, in which case you’ll never have an issue with them, or they are little savages, in which case you had better avoid them.
They’re savvy to what’s going on, too: As the young man at the park informed me explicitly, and as the teenage girl demonstrated by example, they know they hold the upper hand over an adult. They are fully aware of how hostile and obnoxious they can be, and they know full well how little power and authority you actually have.
Legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, wrote of a future in which teenagers were soulless murders of whom adults lived in fear:
He looked down the boulevard. It was clear now. A carful of children, all ages, God knew, from twelve to sixteen, out whistling, yelling, hurrahing, had seen a man, a very extraordinary sight, a man strolling, a rarity, and simply said, “Let’s get him,” not knowing he was the fugitive Mr. Montag, simply a number of children out for a long night of roaring five or six hundred miles in a few moonlit hours, their faces icy with wind, and coming home or not coming at dawn, alive or not alive, that made the adventure.
They would have killed me, thought Montag, swaying, the air still torn and stirring about him in dust, touching his bruised cheek. For no reason at all in the world they would have killed me.
We’re not there yet, but we’re headed that way. Today’s young people, often raised in homes without sufficient parental authority, are forced-fed nothing but anti-authority conspiracy theories in school, on social media, and by their teachers and peers. For this reason, you cannot afford to see “children” as just somebody’s kids. You must see them, if their behavior is at all questionable, as unknown hostile contacts. But because in the majority of incidents you cannot and would not use physical force against them (no matter how many ten-year-olds tell you that you can “catch these hands”), a special set of protocols must be in place:
- Avoid the temptation to play authority figure. You have no authority. Don’t bother. Don’t get involved. If you see youths misbehaving, just leave.
- Never call the cops within earshot of the young people in question. Always remove yourself and do it in secret.
- Remember that young people know as much as you do. You’re not smarter than they are when it comes to the “system” in which you operate, legally and socially. They know what buttons to push, what accusations to make, and just how little power you have over them. They know that you cannot and would not touch them.
- When in doubt, just go. It will bother you that unruly youths might force you to go somewhere else to do your shopping, or to leave a movie early, or to choose another part of a park to sit and read… but you don’t have a choice. You can’t fight back and you have no power where minors are concerned. It’s galling, but it’s the truth.
I know a young man who, as an adult, got into an altercation with a fourteen-year-old after the teenager struck the man’s car with a skateboard. That altercation led to this fellow earning a criminal record. He is a hothead who should know better than to fight with teenagers, no matter how obnoxious some of these punks can be. As I drove away from the drugstore considering where else to do my shopping, I thought of this man.
I am not a hothead; I have extensive experience writing about self-defense and the legalities thereof; I pride myself on my patience and try not to let little things bother me. Yet I got “pwned” by a teenager and her tween brother because I failed to learn from, or forgot the lessons of, past encounters with violent or criminal minors. Tonight was a valuable reminder.
This was a non-incident; it was a couple of kids calling me names and throwing things at my car. But at the other end of the spectrum, where incidents like this are concerned, are screaming matches that become physical fights. Any altercation can escalate into something like that if you handle it wrong… and if you do this while dealing with a minor or minors, you will never win.
In today’s America there is no such thing as in loco parentis. There is the chilling indifference, the principle of don’t get involved, that defines our present. Then there is the terrifying future of Bradbury’s predictions.
God willing, we won’t get where Bradbury thought we might go… but I don’t like our chances.