Maya and the "Bad Guys"

Yesterday after school Matthew took Maya to the playground, where she got into an altercation. She was playing with her best buddy from school when an older friend of theirs started bugging  them. Maya's friend, who is not shy about speaking up for herself, kept telling him to go away and then would follow the kid around for awhile telling him what he did wrong. (At this point her mother, who I adore, says to Matthew "Someone is going to pop my kid one someday and she is going to deserve it." I know the sentiment well.) The girls continue playing until a group of four bigger kids approach and two of them run too close to Maya and frighten her. Her friend, in a fit of fierce loyalty, decides to go give them a piece of her mind. So she storms over to them and starts yelling at this boy wearing a track suit (which is always a sign of trouble, just watch any 80's movie), who is looking angrier and angrier, scowling and balling his hands up into fists. Maya and her friend  walk away and then suddenly the pack of four or five kids make a circle around the two girls and the track suit kid grabs Maya by the arm. Maya proceeds to break his grip, shoves him with her other hand and says "You stop right now!" Then Matthew, unsure of how track suit boy is going to respond,  steps in and tells them to all go away, which they do because everyone always listens to Matthew, especially when he uses his "Sensei voice." Maya then runs over to him and kind of comes apart from the trauma of it all.

Afterwards Matthew and Maya went to the movies. Later that evening, while eating dinner, Maya said she was a bit worried. She wanted to talk about "bad guys", which she sees in movies and TV shows all the time. Every Disney movie has a Bad Guy. Half the shows she watches have them. Who are these bad guys and what if they come after her? More importantly, what if what happened in the playground today happens again? I told her that it probably wouldn't but that if it did it would be ok because what she did was exactly the right thing. She got the boy's hands off of her and told him to stop. We also told her that if the boy had not let go and there were no grownups to help, it was ok for her to hit him. (After considering this for a moment, Maya then decided that she would not hit to the face because it was too mean. Apparantly that is crossing a line, even for a bully.)

Matthew then asked her if the fact that she knows how get away makes her feel less scared. She thought about that for a second, then nodded her head.

You can teach kids all kinds of rules about what to do when someone bothers them. But in the end it is really about how they feel when they walk out the door. Confident? Scared to death? Or somewhere in between.

Ultimately, that is what self defense is really about. Do you feel confident you can handle a difficult or even dangerous situation? Because karate is not about whether or not you can beat the crap out of someone else, despite what the late night patrons of the Bay Ridge bar scene might think.  All that really matters in any self defense situation is getting home safe.

When people find out that I have done karate for over twenty years the question I most often get is "Have you ever had to use it?" My answer is that I use it every day. Every time I see a pack of rowdy, bored looking teenage boys on the corner and I cross the street I am using my karate. Every time I stop walking and pretend to dig in my bag so the person who is walking directly behind me (and who for some reason has made me uncomfortable) can pass by, I am using my karate. (Although there was this one time a bar fight broke out and I threw a guy into a wall. I was not involved in the fight, it was just happening right in front of me and he was blocking my way to the exit. Again, it is all about getting home.)

Maya knows how to break someone's grip because her and Matthew "play jiu-jitsu" all the time. (She can also pull off a pretty decent hip bump sweep.) Of course not every child is going to be lucky enough to be born into a family of martial artists. But she knows how to throw a solid punch because she has taken karate for over a year. Any kid can do that. More importantly she knows to say things like "You stop that right now!" because we taught her to use her words, and to make them clear and loud. As for what actually gave her the confidence to be able to put all these things together and protect herself from a bigger boy? I wish I knew. Did we do something right or is it just in Maya's nature (the one that also has been known to throw a tantrum when she doesn't like the shirt I picked out for her) to fight?

Stopping bullying is sexy nowadays. It is a good sound bite, the bandwagon everyone wants to jump on. There is a groundbreaking documentary, appropriately titled "Bully", in theaters right now. (Also any time South Park does an episode on an issue, you know it must be popular.) The current focus seems to be all about raising awareness, that if we somehow teach the bullies to be sensitive to the feelings of their victims they will no longer bully them. While I agree everyone could, and should, do more to stop bullying in our schools, you cannot have an anti-bully campaign without also talking about the other side of it. When a kid feels alone and helpless and is bullied for so many years that it eventually leads to suicide, this is tragic and horrible and needs to be prevented.  It is also one extreme of a very complex issue. A lot of bullying is just kids being kids. I doubt that the boy in the track suit in Maya's playground is a mean kid. He just didn't like being yelled at. And he was bigger and stronger and had a larger group of friends with him. So he got aggressive. Maya's friend needs to learn that she cannot just speak to anyone however she wants to without there being consequences (come to think of it, Maya could use a bit of this lesson as well). And that boy needs to learn that it is not ok to turn a verbal argument into a fistfight. Both kids were wrong.

If what we are talking about is stopping bullying, kids need to learn more than just how it feels to be called a loser. They need to learn that despite how much their words may hurt your feelings, what other people think of you does not matter nearly as much as what you think of yourself. Therefore, tell yourself you are beautiful and smart and positively invincible. (It seems to work for Matthew) They need to learn that no matter how dramatic and all consuming childhood seems at the time, it is just a tiny dot on the map of a much bigger, more important life. They need to learn how to shout "NO!", how to push back, how to break grips and maybe even a few bones. Most importantly they need to fill their brain with everything they know so completely that they enter every schoolyard with the confidence of a prize fighter. Not because they are going to get in a fight. But because they know, at all times, exactly how to avoid one.