Martial arts, Self-defense, and Bullying

Dawn White of Satori Dojo in Phoenixville, PA, raised a timely and important topic over on the “Suggest Future Topics” page — namely, What can martial arts teach kids about how to handle school bullies? Here’s what she wrote:

“I had an issue raised to me today that has caused quite some thinking. I have a friend whose 10-year-old daughter was physically assaulted by another girl in school. This is what she told me [D=daughter]:”

D did nothing to this girl but ignore her. Never said a word. The girl started giving D trouble and D ignored her. Didn’t even look at her.
This went on for 1 class and part of lunch. When she was being verbally assaulted at lunch, threatened “do you wanna be smacked?”, a teacher heard the girl and told her to go sit down. Can you believe it? That’s all he told the girl!
At their next class the girl was running her mouth at D. D continued to not look at her or say anything to her. On their way out of the door, D was talking to a friend and the troublemaker told D to “quit being smart with me.” D said nothing.
Girl said to her “So now you have nothing to say?!!”
D said, calmly, “I’d rather keep my mouth shut.”
Girl said, “I told you to not smart off to me.”
Then smacked her in the back of the head, pulled her hair, and smacked her across the mouth!
D went to a trusted teacher, crying, who called in an administrator to help. Then sent D to another administrator who told D that the girl will “probably be suspended.”

Dawn goes on to observe that many of the physical techniques we teach in traditional self-defense classes, and even sometimes in kids’ self-defense class, are designed for use in extreme circumstances (against would-be rapists, kidnappers or child molesters), and wouldn’t be appropriate for school bullies. I’d add that even the “milder” martial arts techniques we teach our kids (blocks and counters) can be risky to use against bullies — not just because of the chance of escalation, but because in schools with “zero tolerance” policies against fighting, the victim who defends herself will be given the same suspension meted out to the bully. This is a source of great frustration to bullying victims and their parents.

Let me add one more item to stir the pot before opening up the discussion: I’ve heard it said that martial arts is the wrong answer for bullying, because “it only teaches more violence.” Needless to say, I think that reflects ignorance about martial arts. But maybe we need to be clearer about what we teach kids, and how it applies to situations like the one Dawn’s friend described.

I have much to say, both on the specific incident described above and the general topic of martial arts and bullies. But before I chime in further, I’d like to invite instructors, as well as teachers and parents who’ve dealt with these issues, to let us know what you think.

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11 Comments on “Martial arts, Self-defense, and Bullying”

  1. Chris Baglieri Says:

    This post beautifully illustrates not one but two problems…

    1 – Physical defense is only part of the equation, and becomes -more- likely when kids don’t have other skills.

    2 – Despite (usually) good intentions, and truly desperate need, most schools do a horrible job of handling bullying. i.e. – The classic example of “If you ignore a bully, then they’ll stop,” is patently wrong. If you ignore others’ annoying behavior it will stop, but bullying just escalates.

    Still – we are teaching kids far more than blocks and punches. I agree that actually using these skills, short of threat to life and limb might cause more problems than they solve.

    NB – I teach kids to scream “Leave me alone!!” before many self-defense techniques. At least they’ll have some evidence on their side if it comes to “zero tolerance.”

    Ideally, we teach them several lessons that work better than blocks, though.

    – You are stronger than you think, and even getting hit will probably not stop you. So try to act without fear. The appearance of fear or weakness makes you more vulnerable.

    – You can (and must) stand up for yourself while respecting others, even an “enemy.”

    – Perseverance pays off. If you ask one adult and it doesn’t help, ask another, or try another strategy.

    And most importantly,

    – We give them a social network (the dojo) and a positive identity, with some self esteem to go with it. We see them as strong and independent, and they become stronger and more independent.

    And when all else fails – We teach them to scream!

  2. Heather Shaw Says:

    This is a topic of great interest to me, even though my son is still only 2.5 years old. I am practicing Aikido right now, and I’d thought it was the answer to bullies/ zero tolerance policies since it teaches us to be gentle with our attackers. But a simple block can get a kid suspended? This makes very little sense to me; if someone hits you you’re supposed to absorb the blow? Yikes! I am very much looking forward to your further comments on this issue!

  3. Tanner Critz Says:

    More than how to break things, martial arts teaches control and confidence. Bullying rarely occurs against a person who is confident, aware, and prepared to fight if it should come to that.

    I began training in the martial arts as a 10 year old with depression and weight issues. After six years of training I had gained significant skill and self-confidence, but there was a span of time when I hadn’t figured out how to hold myself at school in a way that communicated these accomplishments and I found myself being bullied on several occasions. The presence of an “attacker” would bring me back into “dojo mind” and I would straighten up, look the bully squarely in the eye without any hesitation and say “Oh, are you a bully?” The combination of confidence and making them call themselves a bully was almost always the end of the encounter. The two times that a bully had gathered a crowd and couldn’t back down without losing face, I would slide them ten or twenty feet across the floor being careful not to hurt anything but their ego, and that would be the end of it.

    The key thing that martial arts does for a kid who might be bullied is to teach them not to be a target, to speak clearly and confidently, to move through life without fear and in control of themselves and situations that may arise.

    Once I learned to show my confidence outwardly I was never bullied again.

    Tanner Critz

  4. redwoodojo Says:

    Thanks for the comments thus far, and I look forward to much more discussion.

    Heather- imagine one kid punches, one kid blocks…then there’s another attempted punch, another block, two kids with arms flailing…it sure looks like a fight & it’s his word against mine when I say what happened. Then top it off in some cases with his parents sticking up for him and the principal wants to be “fair” and not take sides… Things get sticky (and frustrating) really fast.

    Chris, Tanner, you make excellent points. I want to say more about “ignoring the bully.” I think people sometimes conflate “ignoring what the bully *says*” (ignoring the name-calling & insults so you don’t let them get to you), and ignoring the bully him- or herself. Clearly the bully must not be ignored, but confronted and dealt with. When I read in the example that ‘D’ didn’t even look at the bully, I cringed, because I knew things were going to get worse. The bully was demanding an interaction; the only question was whether it would be on the bully’s terms, or on D’s – and although D may have felt she was doing the right thing by trying to ignore it, she was signaling that she wasn’t going to put up any resistance. Just what a bully wants.

    Tanner had the perfect response in “Oh, are you a bully?” It ignores the verbal attack, but confronts the bully in plain terms. When D was being verbally assaulted in the cafeteria, I wanted her to stand up and say plainly, calmly, and very loudly – within earshot of all the teachers – “Are you threatening to hit me? You’re threatening to hit me, aren’t you?” That might not be the whole solution, but it’s a start.

  5. Dawn White Says:

    Both Chris and Tanner hit on my immediate response to this. Ignoring bullies will not make them go away. I wondered what would have happened if the very first time the bully started with the verbal abuse if her daughter would have squared up to her and loudly said ‘leave me alone’ or something similar [I like calling it ‘bullying’ in response, I’d hope it would draw immediate attention from teachers]. We teach that to kids and adults, to scream and yell during self defense situations. It seems as appropriate [if not more so because of the zero tolerance rules now in schools] to use words versus physical actions.

    I’m so sad to know that the school has completely failed in this situation. The bully was suspended [in school] for 2 days and returned the next week and was right back to her old habits. The school’s response was to allow the victim to end her school year early 😦

    I’m wondering if there is no physical response answer here. At least not a ‘right’ one. My friend is seeking out a dojo for her daughter and son so hopefully for her and her kids it will help prevent future issues with bullies.

    Thanks for the comments and discussion 🙂

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Can anyone tell us why the school fails so miserably here? Why they are willing to “end the school year” for the well-behaved student, but not for the bully?

      • Deanna Bonnell Says:

        As a dojo owner I work with many children whose parents are seeking skills to protect their child from bullying. As a school based behavior analyst I am often asked to work with the student who is the perpetrator of bullying.
        Sometimes resolutions such as this situation are the path of least resistance. It is a parent choice and not a school choice. According to legally mandated Response to Intervention the school is required to make documented attempts to rehabilatate the behavior, document prior history of the behavior, and justify to their district level supervisors prior to seeking to remove any student from the school setting. The parent does not have to do any of these things.
        That is not to say this is a correct thing to do. In this case it sounds as if the school abdicated responsibility to both the victim and the bully in favor of the status quo.
        The steps I mentioned are safeguards that are important, but shouldn’t prevent any action from being taken. Removing one victim does not “cure” the bully. Bullying is also not just an individual issue. Some of the most successful anti bullying programs actually target the submissive accepting audience in a school wide manner, while acknowledging and acting to protect victims. University of Oregon has some really good research in this area.


  6. I have also encountered bullying at the school my son attends in Westchester,NY. He is in kindergarten – boy do they start young! Even though he was not involved in the bullying, it was brought to our attention by the teacher of his class that other kids in his class were bullying. They wanted us to be aware because it was actually one of Benjamins friends (benjamin is our son) that was being bullied. My husband and I had a talk with Benjamin (who also takes martial arts at my dojo) about what he might have been able to do to help his friend. Benjamin is well liked, stong and confident and doesnt get bullied for these reason I suppose. His friend does not carry himself as such. we actually spoke to benjamin and asked him how he thought he could have helped in the situation. His responses were: “Get the teacher to help” and “tell them to stop being mean to my friend.”

    My friend that is a NYC staff developer does just what Tanner eluded to. She had a girl in her office that was bullying and she called it how it was “mean girl behavior” and that it would not be tolerated. Unfortuantely sometimes, bringing the parents into it doesnt always help because a lot of this bad behavior stems form the home in many cases.

    My husband and I actually role played the class situation out with our son and had him act out different endings and different scenarios. I like role playing for the young kids, it sometimes makes it more clear for them and easier to remember.

    I am also a strong believer in the power of the PTA. Get them involved and they can make a difference at the schools.

  7. redwoodojo Says:

    Both Deanna and Heidi raise the issue of the “submissive accepting audience,” i.e., the friends and bystanders who too often don’t speak up or take action. In a successful, bully-free community, everyone must play an active part. I have heard from students about schools that have “zero tolerance for *bullying*” — a great policy — and all the kids are expected to stand up for it.

    BTW one of the things I do in my dojo is, now and then, sit down and ask the kids about bully experiences they have had, or seen. We talk about what happened, what was done, what worked and what didn’t, what they might try if it happened again. The kids are great at coming up with solutions. And as Heidi said, role-playing can be a good exercise.

    And Dawn- as far as physical response goes, I think the value of training in physical fighting lies in being *willing* – and able – to fight the bully as a last resort. Having that bottom-line capacity allows one to face the bully with a level of confidence one might not otherwise be able to project. That greatly decreases the likelihood you’ll actually *need* to fight them. But if it comes to that – if they are determined, and set about to pound on you – you need the skills to protect yourself in a fight, exchange some blows, look for an exit, etc.

  8. Matt Klein Says:

    Great post, lots of valid points about school’s sometimes indifferent attitudes toward bullying and how far you should go with self-defence. We teach kids in our schools that you only fight in self defence and as a last resort, but that no one has a right to hurt you. Ignore talk, if it gets physical, get help from the teachers if possible, but be prepared to defend yourself.

    Bullies usually have been in trouble before and the school administration knows who they are. If you defend yourself against them and there are witnesses, usually the bully will be the one to cop it. Great tactic to scream and yell.

    At the very least, standing up for yourself means you are much less likely to be a victim in the future, even if it means getting in a little bit of trouble. Needless to say, training in the martial arts means bullies will sense your confidence and leave you alone.


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