Self-Defense for Children: What to Teach and How much is too much?

There have been a series of emails coming in that have been asking questions along the same line of thinking. The main points being:

  • What should be included in a children’s self-defense class?
  • Where is the line regarding how much information the child needs to hear in a class, without crossing the line?

In other words; if the dangers a child faces are in many ways different from those an adult will face, what do we need to cover in a self-defense class for children, and how much is too much when we are telling the kids about the dangers they face?

I will start with the first: what should be covered.

In truth, the self-defense for a child needs to include everything the child needs to know. Depending on the age of the child being taught, some facts may need to be brought up in less detail, but the child needs to know what they are up against, without being forced into paranoia.

The dangers and challenges that a child may face range from bullying and other harassment, to physical assault from an adult, and even sexual assault from an adult who statistically is likely to be someone they know, but there are enough cases where children are sexually assaulted by strangers that the threat from those people they do not know cannot be ignored. These categories are broad and contain subsets of study.

Let’s take a look at these issues one at a time.

Bullying and other harassment.

As there are different types of bullying that happen today, the pat answers that our parents gave us are no longer correct, and in many cases are irrelevant to the child.

The child needs to be taught that much of the advice that adults may have for them on dealing with a bully is outdated or just flat wrong. Ignoring the bully does nothing, and standing up to the bully only works if the bully is insecure. Ignore the bully is the advice of a middle-aged person to a child who does not have the life experience or maturity to successfully apply it. Standing up to the bully is asking for trouble, unless the bully is insecure. And just as a hint; if the bully was insecure about being able to beat down the victim, they would not bully them, they would find someone weaker. Bullies don’t look for a fight, they look for a victim.

Children need to be taught the ramifications of fighting the bully, as most schools in the U.S. have adopted zero tolerance  policies on fighting.  A zero tolerance policy sounds like a good thing because of the name and the given subject matter, but the fact is that violence still happens, but the school sees both parties as guilty, or at best, sees both parties as willing participants. And while it may anger some parents to read it, the schools are correct on this part of the issue. There are a good number of opportunities to extricate yourself from a tense situation before it ever turns into physical violence, so in one aspect both parties are willing participants in a fight. But the bullied child may not see it that way, and may think they fight back in self-defense. This brings up another issue which children need to be taught – there is a difference between morally justified and legally justified. The complicated details will pass over the head of most children, but an adult can still communicate to the child that the law may not always be on their side if they fight everyone who offends them. Additionally, one must remember that these are kids we are discussing. Being told that there are opportunities to walk away before the conflict turns physical, and actually being capable of walking away are two completely different things. We have social programming hard-wired into our brains, and kids (as well as adults) often fail to understand and/or recognized when impulse rather than reason is driving their actions. So, helping a child understand this aspect of the situation really should be a part of what is taught. As difficult as this may seem to the self-defense instructor, there is a real opportunity to make a difference that can have a long-lasting impact on the life of the child. If you make the kids understand that backing down and thus avoiding the fight with a bully is in fact self-defense of a high order, due to the superior presence of mind needed to do so, then you will have done a great service to the child. There are adults who never learned that it is not only okay, but actually advisable to back down from some fights. Getting a kid to understand this is an important factor in their long-term safety.

Another aspect of bullying that is often overlooked is cyber-bullying. The common answer from adults is “just ignore it! Don’t read the hateful emails and don’t read the venomous Facebook posts.” This is really easy for a middle-aged person to say. If you do not have some experience in ignoring the bad things said about you by the time you reach age forty, you probably have not lived in the real world. Again, these are kids we are talking about. They do not have the life experience to see this rationally. And lest we forget, when we were teens we desperately needed to be accepted, and if we were not it hurt us grievously. I had the chance to read some of the vitriol posted on a Facebook page about some of the students in the school where I teach. The things that were said offended me, and the comments were not even about me. Knowing some of the kids that were being talked about made it worse. As an adult removed from the situation, I was still affected. How much more so for the child who is being “blasted”? Cyber-bullying must be addressed with kids or they will have nothing to go on when it happens to them.

For the other forms of harassment, most children face times when someone forcibly excludes them from being a part of the group. This is difficult for adults, and much more so for children. It is important here to teach the child that these things do happen, but the best way to deal with it is to find something that they are interested in and participate in it fully. For me it was martial arts. For others I have known it was music in orchestra, band and choir. For others so gifted, sports were the answer, and I have personally seen the wonders that were found in a book or poetry club, but the point is to find somewhere to belong, and be a part of the group. Teach them to avoid the dead-end road of gangs, and instead opt for something positive. Being a part of something that they are interested in will give them that sense of belonging, and also provide them with a group of friends, which is the biggest element missing in the life of the bullied child. They need to find a place where they are accepted. Once they are a part of the group, the antics of the bully are lessened and fade away. added benefits are increased self-confidence which will deter bullies, and the sense of fulfillment that one gains from doing something they enjoy.

Physical assault from an adult.

It is not possible in almost all cases for a child to fight off an adult. We do a grave disservice to children in a self-defense class when we make it seem that they can easily fight off the adult if they do it the way we say. We all want to promote what we teach as the best there is, but we must remember that we are dealing with the life and safety of a child, and a certain degree of honesty would not at all be out of line. In fact, anything less is irresponsible.

I am blunt with students of an age to understand. I tell them that most adults would annihilate them in a fight, and their best recourse is to fight back with the intent of escaping the fight. It is not about the child winning the fight with an adult, it is surviving the assault, escaping, and calling the police as soon as they are free from the assault. It is irresponsible for the instructor to give the child the false sense of security by making them believe that their new black belt and awesome ninja skills will beat a violent adult. Fighting is nasty business. For a child or teen, escape is more important than standing and fighting, and this must be taught.

 Sexual assault

Many adults feel uncomfortable in even letting their brain accept the thought that there are adults who prey on children, but those people are out there. The child needs to be taught warning signs, how to spot predator behavior, and what to do when they understand that they are in the presence of a predator, including what to do at the widely varying stages at which they might first understand that they are with a predator. If this is a part of the self-defense curriculum you teach your students, then it would be recommended to let parents of potential students understand this before they bring the child to the class.

How much is too much?

To tell the truth, the answer to this question is going to depend on a lot of factors, such as the age of the student in question. Obviously you don’t want to go into a lot of details about child abduction with a group of four-year olds. But if your class is a group of teen aged girls; approaching subjects ranging from abduction to date-rape is a legitimate part of the lesson provided their parent knew it was a part of the class before signing the girls into it.

I think children should be told the truth. I do not follow the reasoning that children need to be shielded from the less desirable realities of the world. I would prefer to arm my children with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place, but that if we are aware of the dangers then the dangers are greatly reduced. If telling a child that there are adults who will harm them because they are a child makes the child more cautious and thus more aware and safe, I am all for telling the child this truth. However, depending on age, some truths will need to be sugar-coated.

To approach a children’s self-defense course with anything less than a 100% commitment to get things right is to cross a line of dishonesty that many people are incapable of, and whether the instructor is legitimate or not, most do not wish to harm children.

So in answer to the how much is too much question, I say that depends on the age of the child. But keep in mind – children today know more about some subjects at an earlier age than we let ourselves believe. However, there is no age where dishonesty is appropriate. One need not go into the details of sexual assault with a group of students who do not fully understand what that is, when the same problem can be addressed in making the child aware of warning signs that a person is not acting right, and arming the child with the knowledge that telling a trusted adult about the inappropriate behavior of another adult is the right thing to do, that calling for help and making noise is acceptable, and that sometimes being rude to an adult is appropriate.

Just as with adult self-defense, self-defense for a child needs to start with awareness.

One Comment

  1. Chuck says:

    I agree with everything you’ve written here. Children need to be from a basic, ground-level view how to defend themselves and programs like yours are a great place to start. Thank you for taking the time to write this.


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