Dear Dr. Webster-Doyle, I am a parent of three children and an elementary school counselor in the public system. I have reservations, as do many other parents and schoolteachers I know, about the martial arts. After seeing what the media portrays as martial arts I was afraid that my children would learn how to hurt people or that they would be hurt. But I decided to take our youngest son to a martial arts school that was advertising a bully program because he was being bullied at school. When I went to the school and asked about the bully program the head teacher (maybe only in his twenties) told me that they taught kids confidence. When I continued to ask him about the bully program he kept on giving me general answers but never did he actually answer my question directly.
When I asked to see the program he said that he couldn’t do that because it was only for his instructors to see. He did tell me that they had a special program for little kids called “Tiny Ninjas,” or something like that. He also said that they had a special self-defense course for kids based on a foreign military fighting system. I asked him what he could do for my son to help him mentally and emotionally to stop bullying before it got to the physical level, because most of the bullying I’ve encountered as a counselor in school has been of this type, not the serious physical type.
The teachers, counselors and administrators I talked to in my area and at professional conferences I attend all see that what is missing is early intervention at the elementary level and a course that teaches young people how to handle their emotional reactions to being harassed and humiliated which they say is the biggest problem at all grade levels. (As a side note: I read your martial art parenting book and from all the information I read my research agrees with your findings that the teens that did all those terrible killings at schools in the recent past were not physically attacked but mentally and emotionally attacked).
I went home to talk over what I had encountered at this martial arts school with my husband, who is a middle school vice-principal, someone who has to deal with all sorts of behavioral problems like being bullied. He was concerned about teaching young children a course on “Ninjas” since Ninjas historically have been assassins, hired killers. He felt that to label little children little assassins was ridiculous and bizarre for the image of Ninjas in other countries has a very violent image even if people in the U.S. don’t comprehend the seriousness of equating children with being “hired killers.”
He also felt that teaching young people potentially lethal military fighting techniques was quite extreme. He felt that this would be like training Jr. Rambos. He questioned just how much self-defense children needed to learn to be able to defend themselves against other children on the playground especially when the problem was more mental and emotional. I think that he speaks for many educators when the topic of martial arts comes up. With his many years as a school administrator I trust his expertise as to whether the martial art school I went to was a properly qualified place to teach our son. But when he also read your parenting book and your children’s book Why Is Everybody Always Picking On Me? he felt encouraged to pursue enrolling our son in martial arts. That is why I went to the school that advertised teaching kids about being bullied. But I now think, after talking it over with my husband, that this school was just using the bully issue to get people into the school under false pretenses because he really didn’t have any bully program.
What can I do if there is no school offering a martial arts bully program like yours? I want to enroll him in the type of school you speak about in your book. I still feel that the martial arts have a potential to help young people deal with bullying. I would appreciate anything you could to do to help.
Sarah Milhouse (town withheld), Connecticut
In last month’s column I receive an e-mail from a school counselor and parent, wife of a school vice principal. Here are the main points from it and my response below. Her concerns were: • She was not getting what was advertised at a martial arts school that publicized that they had a bully program when if fact they did not. She felt tricked into going there. • The martial arts are still seen as just more violence by herself and other teachers, counselors and principals because of the presentation of them in the mainstream media and therefore they don’t advocate that their students take up the practice of martial arts. • Preschool and elementary aged children were being taught potentially lethal selfdefense techniques that were dangerous and unnecessary. They were also being taught a program that meant “little assassins” which her husband, a vice principal, labeled “bizarre” and liken to teaching “Junior Rambos.” • The real causes of bullying (mental and emotional) were not being addressed in martial arts schools even though they were the primary factors that caused the terrible shootings in the schools by kids who were harassed by bullies and are the main reasons why kids suffer from long term psychological and emotional damage from being bullied. • How much physical self-defense does a child need to defend him or herself against another child on the playground when the little time a child spends at a martial arts school could be better spent teaching them to avoid and resolve conflict using their minds instead of their fists?
Dear Sarah Milhouse, It is unfortunate that the media still keeps on promoting the worst of the martial arts emphasizing extreme acts of lethal violence as a form conflict resolution. These “martial arts skills” to adults are obviously not real and are created by special effects and computer generated images which can be seen in movies like Matrix (a movie that was tragically lived out in real life by two teenagers imitating what they saw in the film while planning and then carrying out the terrible school shootings at Columbine High school in Colorado). But to young children they are real and the proof of this is that over 1500 studies have been done since 1956 to ascertain whether violence in films and in video games affects children’s behavior and every one has concluded that it does. So one wonders why we still produce so much terrible violence for them to see!
I think that the martial arts industry must monitor itself and evaluate what we are teaching to children, especially young children. Many of the physical selfdefense skills taught to children are potentially lethal and could maim or even kill a child as happen in one of the Scandinavian countries when two children imitating the Power Rangers killed another child. The Power Rangers have now been banned from that country and well as other countries In Europe.
I personally think that way too much emphasis is put on teaching physical selfdefense skills. I agree with your husband’s comment about how much physical self-defense is needed for a child to defend him or herself against another child on the playground. Really very little, which could be taught in a brief amount of time. When the average child spends only approximately two hours at the martial arts school per week why do we fill that brief time up with physical self-defense training that is unnecessary, potentially lethal, questionably legal and developmentally inappropriate? I personally think that if the martial arts are to survive we will have to reevaluate what kind of self-defense is fitting for children that is developmentally sound, physically safe, age appropriate and suitably efficient for defending themselves against other children who are not trained fighters. I would use the following ratio for a successful martial arts school in teaching children the whole of the martial arts: 1/3 Character Development Skills, 1/3 Conflict Education Skills and 1/3 physical self-defense that was safe, non-lethal and age appropriate. In other words, we need to eliminate the negative and emphasize the positive to create a martial art that is specially designed for young people that will help them resolve conflict, build character and create peace.