Martial Arts and Bullying

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:

  1. Your child gets hit, and doesn’t respond. This is clearly unacceptable.
  2. Your child gets hit, hits back, and loses the resulting fight. The school then suspends both children for fighting. This is unacceptable.
  3. 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.

8 thoughts on “Martial Arts and Bullying

  1. Hi there,

    I think it’s particularly difficult to look at a situation like my daughter’s at school objectively when you’re the parent and it’s your child. I don’t want my child to hurt another, but I also know that when I was bullied by one particular girl, it only took me standing up to her once (not hurting her, but knocking her down none-the-less) to let her know that I was not going to take it. It immediately stopped.

    What I said to my daughter was not meant to make her go be the aggressor, but I DO want her to stand up for herself. I know my kid, and I know that when I say to her “Kick her back” she won’t do it. But she will tell the girl to knock it off. That’s obviously not going to work for every kid. I wanted her to give the girl a verbal warning and if the child persisted, then (and I know this is the controversy) I wouldn’t have minded if my daughter had popped her in the shin to give her a little taste of her own medicine, especially when the teacher was not providing any assistance.

    To answer your question, if I could have been my daughter that day, and was the one who got kicked, I would have told the girl firmly “Do NOT kick me again!” and walked away. If she had continued to chase me and try to kick me as the girl did, I would have told her again to knock it off and I would have warned her that if she kicked me again, I was going to have to do something about it. If she had tried, I would have done something like, catch her kick and hold her foot there while telling her that was the last time she was going to kick me, or grabbed her hand or arm and put her in a harmless but definitely meaninful joint lock and repeated my warning that she shouldn’t do it again. I roll played these things with my daughter. None of the things we roll played would have hurt the other child, but it definitely would have sent her a message.

    The last thing any parent wants is for their child to feel victimized, especially when the parent went through it herself (as I did). Thankfully everything has been worked out and the girls are now friends. I couldn’t be happier about it.

    I took a lot of criticism for my reaction to my daughter’s situation but when it’s your kid and another child hurts her. . . sometimes you just need to vent about it and that’s exactly what I did.

    Sorry for hijacking your comments. 😉

  2. BBM,

    I absolutely agree with you: when it’s your child, it’s very hard to remain objective. I think that’s why I took the opportunity to write about this topic: for the moment, I could at least try to be objective, and attempt to explore what sort of options are available to our kids and what we actually want our children to do.

    Your response in regards to what you would actually do if you could be your child proves my point. I think that, too often, when we perceive our kids are in danger we encourage them to engage in actions that we don’t really mean. I’ve said it myself: “If I could be my daughter for just five minutes…” but, in truth, I really wouldn’t react any differently than what you wrote.

    I also agree that, as parents, we never want our children victimized. As a result, too many parents treat that as a go-ahead to let their children victimize others. One of my co-workers has this situation–another kid continually bothers his own child, and the parent not only couldn’t care less, they passively support the behavior.

    As a martial arts instructor, I get parents bringing kids to the dojo on a regular basis who want their children to learn self-defense. What I try to ascertain, then, is what do they REALLY want their child to learn. Self-control? Or how to beat people up?

    I’m very glad you wrote about this topic, because I think it gives us a chance to really think about what we, as parents, really value in martial arts programs for children.

    Hijack any time!

  3. Chris,

    By using the term, “avoid,” I’m referring to avoiding situations in which the person in question has the ability to be a bully. Given that, there are lots of opportunities available. There were kids in my school that I didn’t get along with, and more than one of them enjoyed trying to make my life miserable. Yet, despite the fact that we were in the same class, I was able to easily avoid them most of the time. The thing is, I wasn’t even consciously avoiding them. There simply was so many options during lunch, recess and other activities that I was able to keep my interactions with the kids I didn’t like (or didn’t like me) to a minimum.

    That said, you can always come up with situations in which avoiding the person is impossible, just as you can also come up with situations in which avoiding the person is easy. My point is that, in the case of BBM’s daughter, she had the opportunity to avoid the individual and she took it. I am sure that, were she unable to avoid the situation, and were she to feel that she was truly being threatened, she would stand up and take care of herself. That doesn’t necessarily mean she would fight–as BBM stated in the comment above, she could simply stand her ground and verbally assert that what the bully was doing was not okay.

    Avoidance is not the same as running away. It is about controlling and understanding your environment so that undesirable situations are kept to a minimum.

  4. Interesting thoughts all of you. I am not yet a parent, but, at 22, I still remember being bullied in high school quite keenly. A particular incident comes to mind. Keep in mind that this was only about seven years ago, so in our modern social climate. I was not yet studying Aiki at the time, but had a background in karate and wrestling. Still I was far from a “tough guy”, rather chubby (ok still am), bookish, and nerdy. In study hall a very much larger boy was constantly throwing paper the back of my head. I stood up and asked him to stop, at which point he also stood, a good six inches tall than I, and told me dismissively to go sit down. I asked him to do so first, then so would I. He sat down, seeming to think he thus won, and at once there were chuckles at his expense as I casually walked back to my seat. The study hall monitor had done nothing to this point. As the class let out, the bully waited for me outside the door and grabbed my by the shirt collar, hoping to regain face by threatening me. He barely got a word out before I punched him hard in the stomach, causing him to lurch and let go. He then threw three wild punches which I parried. Then, in frustration, he grabbed my ipod, threw it as hard as he could down the stairs, and ran away at a sprint. The study hall monitor finally got out of his chair and told me to go see the principle, which I did, and explained the situation. End result, the bully was suspended and humiliated, and never bothered me again. I was not punished or reprimanded in any way, but simply told to go back to class once I had explained the situation, and it was never brought up again. On reflection, I have a few thoughts about this memory:

    1) While the teacher in the room let it go too far, in the end the administration reacted sensibly, and I was not punished for defending myself with reasonable restraint. Not all school principals are by-the-books martinets when it comes to fighting.

    2) I think it is important that children be taught not only how to defend themselves physically, but how to defend their actions in words when speaking to an authority. I was careful not to sound proud of the situation (though of course I was), not to mention my training, and not to emphasize that I punched him, but that I “hit him so he would let go”. In this case, a reasonable authority figure, school or law enforcement, will be more positively disposed.

    3) Would I do this differently now after studying Aikido for a few years? Not really, I don’t think. I would perhaps apply kote gaeshi when he grabbed me and get off line instead of blocking his strikes, but other than using different techniques, the response would be the same. Under the circumstances I can think of no other reaction, even years later.

  5. I believe the best approach is to attempt to weed out the kind of weed seeds of hatred that germinate into bullying and violent behavior later. I have developed a unique program called “Weed Out Hate; Sow the Seeds of Peace” that utilizes existing school gardening plots. Kids relate symbolic weeding with the desire to root out one’s inner bullying instincts..This way, the lesson gets re-enforced with every gardening excise. The kids are then rewarded with packets of sunflower seeds to be planted in the spring.

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