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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 02:09 PM
It is always OK for a child to physically defend themselves when necessary (such as when they are being physically attacked).
AnneMarie Heller Cox November 20, 2012 at 02:29 PM
Tough question. My concern is that bullies in a traditional sense target those who are percieved as weak. This may be physical, emotional or social (loners with few friends to support them). For these kids, attempting to defending themselves physically may not stop the harrassment, and may actual set them up for more assaults. I strongly believe that teachers and administrators MUST be told what is happening. They may not always do a good job stopping the harrassment, but they must have the opportunity to attempt to do so. The bully needs to learn that society does not tolerate this behavior, and that we are structured to address it, and the consequences can be significant.
Saul Freedman November 20, 2012 at 02:55 PM
Joel, again I find it so ironic you teach how to beat people up for a living, then tell people never to use it.
Don Shepherd November 20, 2012 at 10:14 PM
it's not a tough question. it has to be swift retaliation. Don't waste your time learning self defense if you are going to debate using it. To tell people to wait until it happens more than once to defend yourself is just asking to be bullied. Bullies grow up to be bigger bullies if they aren't stopped immediately. A good scolding or talking to by a parent or teacher doesn't do half as much good as getting taken down by someone they thought would be an easy victim.
James Bond November 21, 2012 at 12:36 AM
I had an incident when I was in 6th grade with a kid who is now a friend.It was over the 1967 Worrld Series at the bus stop.He was 2yrs older and punched me real hard .I hit him back and we had at it.I lost,but he never again went at me.This also had an effect on the others.Issues arose,but the others knew I wouldn't back down so no futher physical displays were needed.To this day we're friends and once in awhile we talk about it and he said my standing up for myself worked. Just an F.Y.I.

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