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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.

Thomas Cornick November 24, 2012 at 10:52 PM
At any time other options are not available to the child then physical self defense is a right.
Sandy D'Esopo November 26, 2012 at 11:27 AM
Self defense is always a right. When I was a boy, we were expected to, as my mother once put it, "Fight our own battles." In the 1920's and '30's, when my dad was a boy and teen, boys weren't just allowed to fight, they were encouraged to. The idea was that boys should be strong and fearless. What a difference from today! Frankly, I don't know which philosophy was better, then or now. I do know, though, that when I was a boy and teen in the 40's and 50's, youthful suicide was unheard of, while nowadays it's the second leading cause of teen deaths, after accidents. Much has changed, and not all for the better, of that I'm sure.
Genevieve Triplett November 26, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Great article. However, recently a young man in Westerly tried to defend himself, and he was killed by his attackers, the police. In the court his attackers have been found innocent. Life is fickle sometimes. I was taught to fight, to defend my rights and my physical person. My Dad was, and is a tough inner city kid who had no father to protect him, they fought all the time growing up. It drained him and he never delt with that anger till much later in life. I have taken a pledge to never raise my hands to another human being. You can alwas avoid confrontation, it does not make you weak or a target, it makes me stronger everytime to say no to anger, violence, fear. I can be loud with out raising a fist, and I am a better person for it. It is how I would choose to raise my children.
Sandy D'Esopo November 26, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Genevieve: I too decided never to take a hand against another, and never have since outgrowing spats with my brother at around 14. However, in self-defense or myself or others I would strike. The tragic affair in Rhode Island was a disgrace. Police are trained to use violence when necessary, and unfortunately some are predisposed to do so, and others simply misjudge. That they all too often are exonerated by judges and/or juries is a threat to our liberties. That more policemen (if what I've read is true) commit suicide with their service weapons than use them in upholding the law, makes me wonder if like the French and English they went unarmed, we'd all be better off.

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