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When Is it OK for Children to Physically Defend Themselves?

What do you do if you're in school and there are no teachers around, then a student walks up to you, punches you and knocks you down?

A martial arts student of mine wrote me an email that I thought would make a helpful article — an article that could act as a guide for parents as they talk with their children about how to handle assaults and bullies while at school.

My student's question was about how to respond when the situation escalates beyond the victim’s ability to “talk the bully down” or just get away.         

 My student’s email and my response are shown in their original forms below, except that names have been changed to protect privacy. This young lady is 12 years old and a Black Belt at my martial arts academy. I applaud her for trying to think this through before a situation arises. Thinking it through in advance will help her respond appropriately to the situation should it ever happen.

“Dear Master Waldron,                

My brother, my Dad and I were having a conversation of what to do if you're in school, in the hallway, and there were no teachers around. Then, a student walks up to you and punches you, and knocks you down. My Dad and I both have a different opinion. I know that my Dad has actually lived this experience so he probably understands more with what to do, but I think that he's kind of being a little aggressive with his ideas. I think that he's thinking that now because of his experiences back then and is full of hatred. I thought that you shouldn't just knock him back down, but I agree with him that you shouldn't just walk away and tell a teacher because the Bully's going to feel stronger and also angry that you got them in trouble. Although, I also think that the kids from that generation, that are teachers now, would understand more of what to do instead of just a simple lecture at the bully.

I wanted to know what you would do, if you would like or had time to reply. Thank you.”

And my response to her:

“Hi Ms. Doe,

Good question and you're both right.

If it's a first time, I don't think you should retaliate — assuming that you can get away after being knocked down the first time. If you try, but can't get away, the only option left open to you is to physically defend yourself. Your safety is at stake and they have no right to touch you.

If it's a first time and you can get away after being knocked down the first time, then it's time to get the teachers, principals, guidance counselors and your parents involved. You're right, it is a different day and age than when your father and I were in school. Things should get handled differently these days.

If, however, it's not the first time, and you can't get away, and for whatever reason the adults (school officials and your parents) that were supposed to keep you safe failed to do so, then you're father is right — you need to send a message. A message that says you are not an easy target and that you won't accept the attacker's behavior. Your dad has a point — defending yourself does tend to keep such attacks from happening again.

Having said that, once you have backed the attacker off and you can get away, you should — and then contact the adults again and explain what you had to do. Hopefully they will get it right this time. If the adults in your life are on the ball, your should never have to deal with this person (or their friends) a second time.

Every situation is unique and so it's hard to put this down into a simple, easy to follow 'procedure.' But this is the general idea that I would recommend.

Jane, I think your father's concern might be that you tend to be on the "too gentle"/"too forgiving" side. He might be concerned that you might let too much slide and therefore allow people to believe that you are an easy target or that you don't need to be taking seriously. I understand his concerns. This is why I've worked with you to help you become louder and more assertive. You've come a long way, but I think you've got farther to go. Let's work on this together.

Let me know if you have any other questions or would like to discuss this in further detail.

Thanks for bringing this to me and asking my opinion.      

Be well,

Master Waldron”

We do of course teach our students at the academy to avoid confrontation whenever possible. We also teach them many non-physical skills such as verbal de-escalation techniques to use when possible. But in the case where the intended victim has done everything possible to avoid a physical confrontation and fails, the victim must be given the right to defend themselves to any extent necessary to protect themselves from the attacker.

Be proactive and talk about situations like this with your child. It’ll give them the best chance possible at success should the situation arise.

wyatt November 20, 2012 at 12:25 PM
I've always told my children to never provoke or start a fight. I have also told them they have the right to defend themselves and weaker children who are being attacked, whether or not a teacher is nearby. There is nothing like a good, hard kick in the right place to stop a bully in his tracks.
Sharon November 20, 2012 at 02:23 PM
When my daughter was just 4, a 4 year old boy (that we did not know) at a water park kept pushing her under the water. She continually asked him to stop and tried to find a new place to play. I tried to find this child's parent but was unable to and the lifeguards there literally told me I should take my daughter and leave if we had a problem. They refused to address the problem with the aggressor. Rather than lose a whole day at the water park after paying the outrageous prices, I taught her to defend herself physically. I told her to try to tell him to stop each time she encounters the boy, and when that failed that she should punch him. She was shocked, but I spent a few moments teaching her how to properly punch and continued to watch carefully from the side of the pool. He came to attack again, she nicely but firmly told him to leave her alone. He didn't and she punched him good! I was one proud mama! She handled it beautifully. And unfortunately parents involving themselves usually only escalates the problem with the aggressor's child, so my daughter had to learn to fight her own battle. I agree that first you should try reason, but when reason fails, fists usually get the job done.
Bill November 20, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Not a well worded question, defense implies being attacked, your child should be told it is ok to physically defend themselves any time they are physically attacked.
Elise Springer November 20, 2012 at 04:13 PM
Yes, it's important to note that defense and counter-attack are not the same. The art of Aikido is especially clear on this difference, as aikido-training enables kids to come away strong -- without being "knocked down" -- but no hint that the right stance is "... or I'll beat YOU up!"
FearTheTruth November 20, 2012 at 04:18 PM
We may call ourselves Human Beings but, we still have the Animal instinct inbred in our subconscience. We are closer to Wolves in our social structure than anything else. The keywords are ALPHA MALE and FEMALE. They will always be around and there will always be Bad ALPHA MALE and FEMALES and that's when the Good ALPHA MALE and FEMALES need to step up and put them in their place.

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