This is a post that could get me in trouble.
With one noteable exception, I don’t tend to write things that I think might directly cause conflict with other people in the real world or in the blogosphere. It’s not really my place–there’s plenty to talk about, and it’s all to easy for people to take things out of context when it’s put out on the Internet. But there have been a few posts and comments lately that have caught my attention, and, with your indulgence, I’d like to spend at least a few minutes talking about them.
Over at the blog, Black Belt Mama, you can find this post and this other post. Both of these entries are well-written, and focus on the subject of bullying in schools. Both of these posts contain the same sentiments that I feel when my own child is threatened or mistreated. And both posts point out the fact that, too often, school systems are disinterested or unable to handle a bully in a classroom; worse, too often parents are so secretly glad that their child is the bully, instead of the bullied, that they turn a blind eye towards correcting that child’s abusive behavior towards another. I cannot find fault in the sentiments in these posts, for I feel them myself.
However, when I read through the posts, and the comments they contain, there appears to be a strong underlying theme that it is okay for the bullied child to fight fire with fire. For example, in one post, Black Belt Mama writes:
“The next time that kid even looks like she’s going to touch you, you tell her that if she kicks you, then you are going to kick her back. And when you kick her, you drop her, Big I. And if you get in trouble at school, know that Mommy will go in there and raise hell because you have a right to defend yourself, and . . . “
My reaction to this first started with “Kick her back? How does this solve the problem? Both kids will get in trouble, and her daughter will likely get the worst of it because of her martial arts training.” As I thought it about it, and read the post more carefully, I felt a bit better. Black Belt Mama isn’t telling her kid TO kick the other child. She is telling her child to let the other child know that, in no uncertain terms, she will defend herself to the best of her ability. In a way, I’m okay with this. At least she’s warning the other child not to do anything, as opposed to encouraging some sort of unannounced counterstrike.
What’s giving me pause for thought is not the reaction, but the limitations of it. One of the aspects of aikido that I emphasize highly is choice. Because we study how to remove an attacker’s posture and balance, we often have a wider range of options available to us. Once off-balance, your opponent is physically unable to continue their attack. And since we take our opponent’s balance so quickly in the confrontation, the would-be attacker quickly becomes the defender. How so? Off-balanced attackers are more concerned with preventing injury to themselves than they are with continuing the attack. This role-reversal puts us in a unique position of being able to determine how we want the conflict to end. Do we throw hard to the ground? Do we set the individual down gently? Either reaction could be correct depending on the circumstances, as would any other reaction that falls in-between. But I rarely, if ever, see this level of control demonstrated in other arts. Control of kicks? Sure. Control over a punch? Absolutely. But control over what type of reaction is most appropriate once a physical conflict begins? I’m not so confident. In my own experiences, I have never had someone tell me: sometimes you punch hard, and sometimes you don’t.
Which brings me back to the issue of dealing with bullies at school. I whole-heartedly agree that no student should ever attend school and be afraid of another student. And, in the posts I linked to above, I deplore the reaction of the teacher, who stated that the child should “work it out” for themselves. But encouraging your child to respond violently to a schoolyard attack? I would argue that such a solution does not end the conflict. Let’s look at the possible outcomes:
- Your child gets hit, and doesn’t respond. This is clearly unacceptable.
- Your child gets hit, hits back, and loses the resulting fight. The school then suspends both children for fighting. This is unacceptable.
- Your child gets hit, hits back, and beats the other student. The school then suspends both children for fighting. This is unacceptable.
If none of these solutions are acceptable, what else might we do? I submit that there is a fourth option, which is in fact the one that Black Belt Mama’s daughter followed: she avoided the situation. But she did not avoid it out of fear; rather, she avoided it out of an instinctive understanding that escalating the conflict would not do anyone any good in the long run. Too often, we equate avoidance with “running away” or “caving in.” But this is not always the case. Sometimes, avoidance is simply re-configuring the environment so that the conflict can’t continue. Perhaps this is a more succinct way of describing what we study in aikido.
I think that we as parents need to pay close attention to what values we want our children to gain from martial arts training. We may pay lip service to issues such as honor and integrity, but if through our own actions and comments we encourage a more violent response, what message are we really conveying? Kids are very bright–they quickly seem to recognize when we are saying one thing, but doing another. And in those situations, they quite often choose to model themselves after what we do, not what we say.
I applaud Black Belt Mama for writing about this issue. Talking about one’s own child in the context of a bullying situation is difficult, and she has written something that I think we all should think about. I’d like to take her post a step further and turn her final statement into a question: If your child was being bullied at school, and you could be your child for just one day, what would you really do? I think the answer to that question might reveal more about what we really value when it comes to martial arts, self-defense, and daily life.