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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 e-mail 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 e-mail 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.

Miss Mary Mack November 20, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Unfortunately, in the Tolland school system, bullying is pretty much brushed under the rug with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. I'm willing to bet that any student that defends themselves will be punished for doing so.
Lynne Terri November 20, 2012 at 04:43 PM
The advice I always give to my niece, nephews, their friends, etc.--anyone, really--that if you're alone and you're being physically attacked, scream your head off. Sometimes just screaming "No!" is enough to startle them off long enough to get away. If you make enough noise, someone might hear you and will come to help. If it's not just a matter of someone hitting/pushing and then walking away, if they really mean to cause you harm, use whatever you have available to get away. Head butt, push and run, bite, claw, anything. Don't worry about hurting them, the idea is to stay safe. This sounds very harsh when talking about kids in school, but kids seem to be getting more physically agressive. I've taught in several school systems and have never been completely satisfied with anti-bullying policies. It seems like authorities aren't quite sure how to handle the problem. Anyway, I think kids should know that it's okay to fight back when they need to.
Mark November 20, 2012 at 08:46 PM
I believe it can be both extremes. It is on us to teach our children to make good decisions, and they will know when it is time to walk away or time to use force. My son has taken Karate and Tae Kwon Do. The first lesson learned was he was never to lay a hand on another person first. He could defend himself and would be backed 100%. However, if he was the aggressor, he would be held accountable for his actions. Unfortunately, my son found himself in a position to make that decision twice in eleven years of school. Both times he was one of the new kids in school and attempted to talk his way out of the situation. However, both time he stood his ground. Running is not a solution, as the bullies just think you are scared and it spurs them on. Finally he had to defend himself from the bullies. It took only one or two shots to get the message that he was not going to let this person or persons abuse/take advantage of him. All the kids and parents involved were called to the school, The situation was discussed and the student who started the problem was suspended. Justice and due process do work well. For my son's part, the message was well-received by the school system and by my son, they can make good decisions and be supported. My son understands the difference between being on the defense or being the aggressor. He is having a great time in high school and has friends without the worry of intimidation or self-doubt.

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