Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Learning That Playful Hitting is Still Hitting

I snipped off a red Spirit stripe from the white belt of a promising young student last week because he popped his elementary school buddy in the stomach too hard. Both students agreed they were playing, and that the hitting just got out of hand.

Still, this athletically gifted, quick-study 9-year-old had read and signed Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s Code of Conduct, which clearly states in boldface: CAUTION: Do not misuse the skills you learn in the dojang; use them only in real self-defense situations.”

There’s a reason that rule is there: I’m teaching young students to use their hands and feet as weapons that can hurt others. I’ve got to know they have enough self-control to not misuse their skills on a whim.

It’s truly hard to teach martial arts to children. One of the biggest reasons is because martial artists have to hold themselves up to a higher standard, and that means there are a lot of things that normal, everyday people of all ages can do that we cannot.

Like playing a rather innocent round of “Slug Bug.”

From time to time, I still grieve the fact that slug bug—a traffic game in which friends playfully punch each other in the arm the second they see a Volkswagen beetle roll by—is a luxury I can no longer afford.

After 18 years in the martial arts, I can knock someone into next week with my fist. That’s a wee bit too hard.

And honestly, if I expect my young students to respect the “no horseplay” and “no using Taekwondo outside class unless your life is in danger” rules, I can’t play this game ever again on principle. I must set the example.

I understand that no matter the intensity or intent, hitting is unacceptable. Still, it’s a hard concept for my white belt student to wrap his head around.

“But I didn’t hit him hard,” he said. “I didn’t know that was a Taekwondo strike.”

He showed me how he hit his classmate, demonstrating a knifehand side strike.

“That’s a Taekwondo strike,” I replied. “I’m teaching you how to use your hands and fists as weapons, so you can’t hit others. Period.”

“Do you understand?” I finally said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

Maybe not.

My young white belt has not returned to class.

In a martial arts teacher’s life, you win some (students/lessons/competitions) and you lose some. I’ve had to confront many other students regarding “playful” hitting, and most have come back to train and try again. The students who stick around—the ones who see the benefit of Taekwondo despite a self-control setback—always become stronger and more respectful, responsible, and confident young men and women in the end.

Will my young student take this lesson to heart and return to continue practicing our way of life?

More will be revealed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

10 Strategies to Deal with Bullies

[Part 6 in a series]

Oftentimes it takes a combination of actions to stop bullying. Below are tips I give my martial arts students to help deal with such situations.

1. Don’t retaliate. If a bully physically strikes you in any way, don’t hit back. If a bully says mean things, don’t top that with a hurtful comment of your own. This will only escalate and feed the bully's power. Instead, tell a friend, a teacher or an adult about the person and incident.

2. Walk away. Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s first rule of self-defense is to run away from dangerous situations. Walk away from anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable, whether the person is physically or verbally threatening. If the bully follows you, walk right up to a teacher—and just stand there.

3. Make a bully-buddy. One of my students recently told me that a classmate would stick his leg out to trip her as she walked by in the lunchroom. If this happens to you, find a “bully-buddy”—another student (or maybe several) to walk around with you. Bullies are less likely to target students who travel in pairs or groups. When challenged, many bullies will back down.

4. Avoid the bully. Another student recently said that she and her friend were scared of a boy who hovered around them and said hurtful things as they waited in the hallway for class. In this situation, the bully-buddy method wasn’t enough. Their solution? The girl and her friend began hanging out at a bench outside in the school courtyard; by class time, the boy was gone.

5. Think strong, stand tall. When confronted by a bully, think strong and stand tall. Imagine you are huge. Pretend you’re a super hero. Keep your chin up and shoulders back; and imagine that you’re wearing a cloak that doesn’t allow mean or hurtful words through.

6. “No! Stop!” If a classmate kicks or hits you, pulls your hair, cuts in line, or takes your possessions, say, “No! Stop!” as loud as you can, and then go tell a teacher what happened. This isn’t tattling. It’s called self-defense—and taking care of yourself.

7. Don’t believe everything you hear. Bullies love insults, and they have a way of pressuring otherwise nice classmates—even ones you thought were your friends—to laugh at you, or join in mocking gestures to try to make you feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, ashamed, and sad. Try a role-play game in which your mom or dad play the bully. Practice not believing mean things someone might say to you. Here’s an example of one I played with Peter, a smart, blond-haired, freckle-faced boy in my Taekwondo class.

“Peter, you have the most disgusting purple hair I’ve ever seen.”

He grinned. His classmates giggled.

“What are you smiling at?” I asked. “Your hair makes me want to throw up!”

He started to laugh. So did the rest of the class. “Why aren’t you upset, Peter?”

“Because it’s not true,” he said confidently. “I don’t have purple hair.”

“So what’s the difference in me saying something mean about your freckles? If you believe your freckles are beautiful, it doesn’t matter what I say. Right?”


“But let’s say you don’t think you’re good at math, and someone calls you
‘stupid.’ Then it hurts. Because you think it might be true.”

The class nods in silence. Some kids look down.

“The key is to know what’s true about you, and not be distracted by what’s not true. Love yourself for who you are—freckles, imperfect at math, and all. If others don’t ‘get’ you, their loss.”

8. Smile and nod. Bullies love to make you cry or see you be afraid. It’s a game for them. Don’t show that you’re hurt or scared. No matter what others say, smile and nod. It confuses bullies, and if they don’t get the reaction they seek, they’ll likely get bored and leave you alone.

9. Tell someone. It may be hard to speak up, but don’t be silent about bullies. Know that parents, teachers, and school counselors want to know about bullying, and that teachers are PAID not only to teach you math, English, science, and social studies, but also to ensure that you’re safe while in their care. It’s unfair—and can even be considered disrespectful—to not let them help you. Plus, your teachers may get in trouble with their boss, the principal, if you don’t let them help you.

10. Think outside the box. A parent told me that a bully had taken her son’s shoes one day at school and then threw them to his friends while her son chased after them. “If he takes your shoes again,” I told my student, “ask him to return them. If he doesn’t, don’t chase after him. That’s part of his game—to make you look silly running around. Instead, march right up to the teacher and tell her, ‘Excuse me, ma’am. Can I borrow a pair of shoes?’ When she finds out what happened to your shoes, trust me, she’ll handle it from there.” I explained that, technically, he wouldn’t be tattling on the bully; he’d simply be asking to borrow shoes.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bullying: Signs and Solutions

[Part 5 in a series]

How can you tell if your children or your friends are being bullied when they won’t admit it?

Watch for these signs in others:
• Feeling anxious or upset about going to school or getting on the school bus
• Complaining of feeling sick—especially with headaches and stomachaches—before school
• Crying before school
• Being unusually quiet
• Avoiding certain people at school
• Having lower self-esteem than usual
• Showing a drop in grades
• Coming home from school with torn clothes
• Having unexplained bruises
• Saying they lost a personal item but not wanting to talk about how it happened
• Not mentioning that a personal item has been broken
• Denying (with irritation) that anything’s bothering them

No matter how great a relationship you have with your children or friends, targets of bullying may be hesitant to reveal what’s going on. They may feel that admission makes them look weak, or they may believe the things others say about them and therefore don’t want to talk about it because they feel shame.

A low self-esteem is a prime give-away that something’s wrong at school.

If you suspect your children or friends are being bullied, be supportive. Tell them OFTEN:
• How much you care about them
• How important they are to you
• That they can tell you anything they’re experiencing at school without judgment
• That their peers are crazy if they don’t “get” them or don't think they’re the most terrific person in the world
• That they are perfect just the way they are

Ultimately, trust your instincts. Parents, if your gut tells you that you should intervene further, set up a meeting immediately with your children’s teacher, school counselor, or principal.