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The Dog That Bites


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My son Gabe’s dog is a pacifist. He has to be. If he so much as snaps at the hand that feeds him—mine—he’d not only be minus a tail, but also all dining rights for the next few years. It’s not like I actually like hosting a zoo of five animals, but it serves a higher purpose. I don’t even need to own a vacuum cleaner. Dropped food doesn’t even make it to the floor, a true asset in a household of boys.

The cat, on the other hand, isn’t as passive. First, he’s completely happy with cat food. He’s not really into jelly bellies and peanut butter sandwiches and pop rock candies. He’s more into survival.

I don’t want to mislead you. Johnny T. (for The) Cat is not a ferocious individual. In fact, he’s quite the pleasant character, doling out opportunities to pet, scratch, and feed him—unless you go too far, which is often the case if you’re a ten-year-old boy. We have one of those living in my home. His name is Gabe.

Have you noticed that there’s something about cats that brings out the Calvin in young boys? I think it’s one of the many forms of male insanity called “underestimating,” a mistake most often made in relation to the feminine but sometimes projected onto anything that is pretty and polite. Yes, a cat might be soft and furry and seemingly placid, but really. It can only be stuffed into so many pillowcases or tied to so many drapery cords before it just plain loses it. Out come the teeth.

Since pre-school, we’ve been told it’s not nice to bite. It’s not the swiftest way to a friendship, and it’s certainly not a cornerstone to success. How many CEO’s climbed to the top of the ladder by clamping their jobs on the competition? Think you’re going to get a raise if your performance evaluator has to count the number of times you’ve chomped on your fellow employees? Though there’s a specific place for biting in one’s love life, the regulations are reasonably defined, especially if you don’t want your mother to know what you’ve been up to. So exactly when is it okay to “bite,” especially if you’re not a cat?

Let’s back up a bit and define the idea of—and reasons for—biting.

Animals bite if they are scared. They bite to defend themselves. Unfortunately, people usually bite for other reasons, which aren’t as defensible.
Recently, Gabe spent hours and hours crying because he had felt bullied at school. Friday night—tears. I comforted him. Saturday morning—tears. I comforted him. Sunday night—I made the mistake of insisting that he had to go to school on Monday no matter what. Gabe stopped crying, stared at me, and said, “You’re not being very comforting, mom. I think you should look up the rules on the Internet.”

Bullies bite. I can’t count how many times I’ve been on the other end of bullying. Shamed for asking to have a need met. Yelled at for sharing a truth. Threatened for simply being something different than the other expected. (Like myself.)  Bullies bite because no one told them in preschool that there was a better way to get what they want. It’s called talking. Listening helps, too.

Other types of people bite as well. When growing up, my dad was complacent nearly all the time. He wouldn’t have “hurt a fly,” as they say—unless you caught him in-between drinks. I had a teacher whose idea of educating was to ridicule anyone who didn’t know the answers to a question. We’re all imprinted with teeth marks, most of them on our hearts, not our skin.

Some of us were so affected by other’s bites that we adopted the behavior. It works, doesn’t it! A toothsome retort gets someone off our back. A mean statement prevents someone from seeing our hurt feelings. I’ve had to work on my own behavior in this regard and continue to do so.
But I’ve also had to grow teeth where I didn’t have any before. Sometimes we have to say something that might make someone angry to allay a greater harm. Sometimes a sharp “no” is the only way to stop abuse. If my children were attacked, you can bet I’d not only bite, but claw and scratch. The older—and hopefully more mature I become, the less I’m able to judge an action out of context.

There are truly unjustifiable reasons to bite. For instance, we should never bite to simply get what we want—even if it works. Isn’t that why one toddler bites another—to steal the coveted toy?  And we should never give someone our toys—or talents or energy or even tears—if they bite us. That’s what victims do. In fact, victims not only hand over the toy, but also write out a check to cover the damages!

That’s bad playground manners.

So biting aside, how can we best respond to threats, pressure, cruelty, and downright abuse? Well, we really can refuse to hand over our toys. Then we can ask if the other understands how we feel. We can ask him or her to stop. We can leave the room. We can refuse to play until the playground rules are enforced. We can get help. We can change tactics. Or we can just plain take our toys and go home. There are other people to play with, after all.

After his battles, Johnny T. Cat, usually takes a break. That’s the polite thing to do. Oh, he’s not perfect. Last week he retaliated for a rough Gabe-housing by peeing on Gabe’s bed. And then, he slowly came around, a little testily and gingerly, but soon, he and Gabe were friends again. You see, Johnny T. Cat is pretty forgiving, as we are all supposed to be. He’s just not stupid about it. When the flashing Power Ranger sword comes out—he’s under the bed. No, he’s not stupid at all.

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