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.

Guy Fawkes November 20, 2012 at 09:52 AM
Unfortunately, i would tell my child to do nothing-play dead and take the beating. Our society has laws and rules that , although I am in complete disagreement, with must be followed and thus leaves him no other option. Schools now have a no tolerance policy for any violence, which means exactly that, no tolerance. No excuses, no matter how just or in self defense it may be, if you respond with a punch you will get expelled. This is the age of documentation and anything you do wrong stays with you forever. It is easier to get a few bruises, broken nose and a few broken ribs, and let them heal, and move on with your future than spend a lifetime trying to overcome and explain an expulsion on every college app and job app. Also, i would instruct him never to talk to the principle without myself or attorney present, as anything he says can be held against him in court, even without being properly mirandized or parental consent.
Teenage Sons November 20, 2012 at 02:49 PM
When a child is being unrightfully overpowered they need to be able to assert themselves. A child learning when and how to defend themselves is a part of learning a healthy balance between the rights of others and their own. A parent teaching their children how protect themselves, their family, and/or friends is ok.


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