My 9-year-old son head-butted me the other day, and it hurt him more than it hurt me. In fact, a goose egg emerged on his forehead within a minute, and when he realized what had happened, he began to cry. Holding him in my arms, I dried his tears and congratulated him on a well-timed collision.
I taught him how to do that.
He is strong and tall, with large bones, like his father. We have discussed the whole Spider-Man “with great power comes great responsibility” adage, and my son understands if he is bigger than the other children, he has to be more careful when engaging in that puppy-like behavior kids seem to get into at this age.
He and his classmates learn at school that they must respect one another and be helpful and nice. At home, we have open discussions daily about what it means to be a good friend and why it matters that we are open-minded and considerate to all. He is kind and empathetic, a rule follower who wants to do the right thing. I am encouraging that, because I want him to be kind.
I also want him to be able to protect himself and others fiercely when necessary. And, perhaps, I want him to have the advantage of self-defense in the hope he will be able to protect himself — and others — from assaults like the ones I have experienced.
My emotional scars affect both my son and my husband. I try to contain my anxiety for their safety; part of it manifests itself in practicing self-defense with my son. When he was much smaller, we started to wrestle and practice what to do if someone was trying to hurt him. Gently and with age-appropriate words, I taught him about stranger danger, as well as how to scream and what to do when he is lost. We have talked about good touch, bad touch and how his body is his own.
As he got bigger and stronger, he wanted me to tackle him, and he wanted to tackle me in return. I would pin him to the ground and talk him through how to fight back. He knows if someone is actively trying to hurt him, he can bite, punch, scratch and head-butt to get away. (Not at school, however, I tell him. Getting expelled would not be a positive outcome.)
Maybe — probably — I am drilling him on self-defense as a way to cope with my own history as a sexual assault survivor. Our rough-and-tumble practice gives me a small sort of comfort that maybe if he were in a compromising situation, muscle memory would take over and give him the tools he needs to escape.
“Having only one tool in your toolbox in any situation doesn’t work,” family doctor and parenting expert Deborah Gilboa says. “Teach kids to interact with empathy and kindness first. Try to understand where someone is coming from. Give them the option to walk away from a touchy situation. And also, explain to them when it’s acceptable to hit back.”
My positive, rosy-outlook self wants to believe if my son is kind to everyone, life will be a bowl of cherries. The fearful, Mama Bear side wants him to know how to fend off a bully, because we all know bullies will pop up. Bad guys exist. According to Ip Man, who taught Bruce Lee the art of Wing Chun, the martial art “is to maintain one’s flexibility and softness, all the while keeping in the strength to fight back, much like the flexible nature of bamboo.” Speak softly, but carry a big stick and all that.
Remember Ralphie in the movie “A Christmas Story?” It was not until he started hitting back that the bully left him alone. In “Home Alone,” Kevin defended his home. Mr. Miyagi taught Ralph Macchio’s “Karate Kid” the skills he needed to overcome a pack of meanies led by a head oaf at a nearby martial arts school.
My son is still learning the nuances of social situations and decision-making. Gilboa says he is in the process of understanding all the tools available to him, and he will learn how to prioritize. When he is in high school, for instance, if he sees someone taking advantage of a girl, expressing compassion and kindness should not be the first option. Nor, potentially, should using his fists. But teaching him situational awareness and empowering him to understand the consequences of his reaction will benefit him and the people around him.
“There will be times in a kid’s life when he will be so angry he wants to hit something,” says Gilboa. “If you give kids context on how to handle those feelings and when fighting back is appropriate, they can avoid losing control, along with accompanying feelings of rage and shame. Talk through situations and consequences with him and make it clear that if an adult is trying to hurt him, all bets are off. He can use all of the tools in his toolbox and go berserk if it means getting away from a bad guy.”
I know. Fists and kindness do not go hand in hand. There is no part of me that wants my son to hit another child or an adult, ever. But I also do not want him to be at the mercy of someone who wants to use hands or weapons to hurt him. So I am arming him with words for beauty and diplomacy and intelligent conversation; compassion to help others; and the skills to know how to stop someone from hurting himself or others, when all else fails.
Maybe it is a lot to ask of him. But hopefully, I am empowering him to feel self-confident and strong.