Our secret single male foster carer shares his thoughts on fighting and standing your ground...
Boys fight. Not all of them, but a lot of them, and those that don’t are often under considerable pressure to hit someone, if only to prove their courage. And now, perhaps more than ever, girls fight too.
As a young boy in this town, I found myself under great pressure to fight. There was a local gang – we’ll call them the Chapels, so called because they were dominated by four brothers whose surname was Chapels. They thought it great fun to pick on people, fight them, give them a kicking.
So generally it was wise to cross the road to avoid them – leave the park when they came in, generally do the best you could not to occupy the same space.
Eventually though, they’d spot your creeping evasion and you became their prey. At 14 years old, I was definitely their prey. I would be in the high street and they’d spot me from across the road. They’d call my name, attach it to a swearword, and call me to fight. Paul Chapel, my age, would taunt me with an especial venom.
I did not fight. I was too scared. I walked away, or sometimes even ran, ashamed, knowing other people I knew in the high street were less than impressed by my flight.
I found this emotionally crippling – I was frightened walking around my own small town alone. I hated myself for a coward and that feeling was reinforced day after day. For a year.
I tried to speak to my parents about it, but that didn’t go well. I should stand my ground and fight and not be a chicken, my father told me. Mother agreed.
I became depressed. And then depression turned to resolution. Inspired by the unlikely source of a Batman comic, in which a young Bruce Wayne did daily press-ups to build himself up sufficiently to avenge the murder of his parents in a Gotham alley, I began to put on muscle and to practice fighting the air. I even took up karate.
Months on and countless nightmares later, the moment came, that test of courage and machismo. I was in the local cinema one summer’s day with my brother, when the Chapels walked in, some minutes after the film had begun. They sidled into a row several behind ours and, within minutes, rubbish from the floor was landing on us. I stood up, in front of the whole audience, and said, ‘right, we’ll sort this out in the intermission!’ (Yes, I’m old enough to remember intermissions).
This earned a big ‘woooooooo!’ from the boys and another avalanche of detritus.
Come half-time I walked out, leaving my worried younger brother alone, and Paul Chapel was waiting for me on the street outside, laughing with his mates. I was scared but adrenalated. He said, ‘come on then,’ and I replied, ‘no. I won’t attack you – you go first.’
This caused both confusion and mirth and a few seconds later he leapt at me.
The fight was short – I was pumped up – he was simply not ready for my rage, accumulated over a year of torture and self-hatred. He clearly expected me to be another weedy middle-class boy. Within four seconds he’d announced that he’d ‘had enough’.
To cut a long story short, that encounter ended my fear of walking around my own town, increased my status and it was pretty much the last fight I ever had.
I had shown that I would stand my ground and proved myself a boy not to be bullied, who was prepared to defend himself. That was all that was required by my enemy peers. Is he a wuss or will he stand up for himself? That is the question.
All this history repeated itself when my middle son, growing up in this town, was subjected to the same sort of abuse by another generation of young bloods. It went exactly the same way – he was too scared to fight until the fear crippled him and he could not bear it. I did what I could to tell him to ignore them, that he was a gentle lad who didn’t like or need to fight, but, like me all those years before, he tortured himself about it until he plucked up the courage to strike back. Like me, the fight, when it came, was short and conclusive, and from that day on, he blossomed in self-confidence, having spent almost two years in self-destructive, self-hatred for what he saw as cowardice. He too, had had his last physical fight.
So how would you handle such a situation as a Foster Carer? Would you do, as I did, encourage the young person to avoid the situation, to be peaceful, to tell them that they are bigger than that, to talk their way out of it, to ignore the accusations of cowardice?
Or would you do, as I also did, when watching my son’s misery and self-hatred, tell him that he could agree to fight, one-on-one, but that he’d have to prepare himself for it. That really, all they wanted to see, was that he was willing to stand his ground?
Such a hard question to answer. We are trained to teach the young people in our care to step away from violence. With knife-crime on the rise, advising children to defend themselves rather than run, can be a dangerous option. In this world of gang culture, when music for their generation is dominated by gangsta rap and stories of violence, it is indeed the duty of any carer to do what they can to help their young men and women to look at life another way, to embrace the peaceful options, to say, ‘I’m not a fighter’. Foster carers should give sensible advice on how best to avoid violence.
All good in theory. But almost all the boys that I’ve looked after since I’ve been a carer have got themselves into local fights. I advise them against it, but sometimes, if it is a matter of self-defence and their own fear is bringing them down, my advice is, admittedly, half-hearted. But pretty much every one of them has come from a tough background, so my role was more to tell them of the trouble they will get in if they resort to violence, especially if they cannot prove self-defence.
One tale that may be of use is the story of Nigel, 17, in my care and who had been in a fair few fights. He had had a row with a boy from a nearby town and had resolved to ‘settle it’. He told me he was going to catch a train to the nearby town and face his enemy in a fight. I warned him, ‘I can’t stop you going, but be aware, if you do this, the chances are that he will not be alone. There’s every chance that if you get the upper hand, you will be jumped by his mates.’ He poo-poohed this. He also kept secret from me the day of the appointed duel.
The first I knew about it was when he returned around 9 o’clock, his knuckles cut, his face bloody and boasting two black eyes well on their way to colourful fruition. I gave him first aid and told him I would take him to hospital – which he vehemently refused. He had, as predicted, gained the upper hand against his opponent, when he got jumped by two others.
He talked, bravely of the adrenalin of it, of the rush. But that, to my knowledge, was his last fight – the news spread locally of his resolve, even in defeat.
No amount of me telling him that he should have avoided that fight had had any impact.
Sometimes, you’ll not only get a fighter, but you’ll get a bully in your care. You’ll know pretty quickly because local social media will be full of it, and you may well find yourself named as the irresponsible party in charge of the young hooligan. When this happens I step into the conversation and say, ‘listen, I am a foster carer. I actually cannot comment publicly on this for professional reasons. But if anyone affected by this wants to speak to me directly, please message me directly. Then we can meet, talk and find the best way to stop this happening’.
In one case this approach led to a call from a Mr O’Donnell who was spitting with fury because one of my charges – we’ll call him Jon – had terrified his son by chasing him down the high street with a stick, and was continually waiting for him outside school, punching him and hitting him, showing off to a gang of young friends.
He told me that if I didn’t do something about it, he would continue to name and shame me in social media, and do anything and everything he could to ensure the safety of his children. He even suggested that we might meet so that he could beat the living daylights out of me.
But what could I do? Bullying outside of the placement is pretty much impossible to control. Once the kid is out you cannot control them. I didn’t tell Mr O’Donnell this.
Instead I calmed him down by pointing out that I hated bullying too; that I had been bullied as a kid. He revealed he had been bullied and hated it for the same reasons.
He asked me to imagine what it was like to have your son run in to your arms, terrified to go out. I told him I could imagine it readily, for one of my sons had been badly bullied, and, as a child, I had been bullied in this town and had experienced the same terrors.
I then suggested that at a time convenient to Mr O’Donnell, that I’d bring young Jon round, who, if I could persuade him, and I think I could, would present a full apology, promise that it would never happen again, and even undertake to stop other members of his gang from touching Mr O’Donnell’s son.
This mollified Mr O’Donnell. We agreed that the police, overburdened as they were, wouldn’t be able to make much impact in this case, but that if we could resolve it ourselves, then that was the way ahead.
I spoke to Jon about the proposed meeting, who, after a fashion, accepted his role in the affair, and I told Mr O’Donnell that Jon had agreed. But the meeting never happened – evidently satisfied, Mr O’Donnell never called me again.
And yet some boys manage never to get into a fight. How do they do that?
The answer lies with my youngest son and his experience may have lessons for us foster carers. Unlike his two elder brothers, he has never had a proper scrap in his entire puff.
First of all, he trained in boxing and ju jitsu and became very good at both – especially the latter– so that playfights with his peers and demonstrations of his techniques sent the warning that he was tough to tangle with.
Secondly, and even more importantly, he made great friends with the fighting types at his school.
No one dared come near him.