Enough with Bullying

Those of us who teach martial arts recognize the transformative nature of our chosen craft. We have experienced first-hand in our own lives, as well as those of our students just how powerful life on the mat can be. Through training, we identify our weaknesses, as well as our strengths, and strive for improvement on all counts, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It turns out we’ve been promoting the growth mindset (Dweck, 2007) for decades. We need to “lead by example,” and grow some more – it is time for the anti-bullying rhetoric to be shelved, and the bully hysteria to end.

As I pointed out in previous posts, the current definition of bullying has become too broad. By lowering the threshold of what constitutes bullying the lines between pathological and normal have been blurred. This lowered threshold diminishes or trivializes the severity of any actual pathology and the suffering of those targeted. Simultaneously, it demonizes children for behaviors typical for their cognitive development, while turning others into victims. As martial artists, educators, and parents, we must push back from this inaccuracy for the well-being of our students and children.

The concepts of the bully, the victim/targetand bystander (B, V & B) reinforce dichotomous, or black-and-white thinking. This oversimplification is convenient, but forces children into preconceived roles. Such labeling creates what psychologist Carol Dweck, (2007) calls a fixed mindset as opposed to a growth mindset, and precludes the many other very real, and more-than-likely, possibilities.

Given the age of our junior martial art students (4 – 15) most of the behaviors currently listed as bullying are, more often than not, unintentional – the result of the social ineptitude, lacking impulse control, and cognitive ability common at these ages. When adults view such common childhood behaviors as bullying, we are projecting an adult level of understanding and intent that simply isn’t there for children.

Likewise, the “Bystander” concept is problematic. A person in this “role” is taught to act, thus inaction becomes tacit support of the offense. It is unreasonable to expect a child with cognitive abilities similar to those of the purported “bully” to not only distinguish between typical behavior and pathological, but then to take action. While we want to teach children about empathy and compassion, it simply isn’t age-appropriate to saddle them with such responsibility.

The current B, V & B model is contradictory to our message. The martial arts teach us to recognize our individual agency, and pigeonholing children into these roles does the exact opposite; it reinforces a fixed mindset. It’s time for a better paradigm.

How the martial arts should lead the way.

As educators, we should be focusing on the behaviors rather than the roles.

  • We must foster a greater understanding of the numerous phenomena currently lumped under the bullying title, and help our students recognize that teasing, joking around, rough-housing and peer aggression are normal aspects to childhood development; we all must learn to distinguish from the pathological.
  • Just as with sparring, we can teach appropriate responses to each phenomena. Being prepared to respond in a cool, calm manner as opposed to reacting in a hot, emotional one is key to de-escalation.
  • We should be helping our students become more courteous and respectful, and to develop better self control, for over time, these are the traits that eradicate so-called bullying behavior.
  • Perhaps most importantly, we must teach our students they are not victims to other’s words, nor their own often volatile emotional state. They need to learn they are not fragile, but anti-fragile. (Taleb, 2012) We need to reinforce the admonishment,

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

See you on the mat.


  1. Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books
  2. Porter, S. (2013). Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House
  3. Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. New York, NY: Random House, c2012.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

Who remembers the kids on the backs of milk cartons? If you grew up in the 70’s & 80’s you surely pondered those poor kids’ fates as you poured your umpteenth bowl of Cap’n Crunch®.  These images were part of the missing children campaign, which quickly gained the nation’s attention in the early 80’s, transforming America’s perception of reality. Our children were in danger – Stranger Danger, and something had to be done.

The Birth of an Epidemic

The 80’s saw an explosion of public awareness to the plight of children as victims. Advocacy groups for the victims of abuse & neglect, child snatching (by a noncustodial parent), runaways, and child abduction were all working to bring their individual issues to prominence.  Through their concerted efforts, and with the horrific stories of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh being burned into the public psyche via the newly created 24-hour news cycle (CNN was founded in 1980) , Congress created the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 1984. What had previously been recognized as separate issues became the monolith that it is today, and this was intentional. Kristen C. Brown of Child Find (a child snatching advocacy group) said it herself in a 1981 Senate hearing:

“It is absolutely critical that we establish a policy which guarantees that the various criteria used to determine whether or not a child is to be considered a missing child be subject to the most generous interpretation. We must not begin by discriminating kinds of missing children.”  (Best, 1990)

The specter of a dangerous stranger became the social norm; the result of an emotional campaign based on disingenuous manipulation of the statistics. There was never a huge increase in these horrific crimes. They greatly overstated the estimates, lumping in runaways (90%), and kids taken in custody disputes (5%) with the visceral images of actual stranger abductions (less than 1%), thereby inspiring us to take action.

“Now Gentlemen, I am going to indulge in one of the favorite techniques used in the past to generate a reaction on the part of legislators. I am going to tell you a story from real life, imply that it represents the tip of an iceberg and infer that only you can offer redress, justice or correction. It worked before, why not again?

-Charles A Sutherland (U.S. House 1986c, 92)

The martial art industry was perfectly positioned to help in the war on this apparent epidemic. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s we were all caught up in the fervor, doing our part to teach our students about Stranger Danger. (What a terrible message to convey to our children.) While we may have had the best of intentions, we were wrong. In fact the NCMEC finally admitted this in 2017 (better late than never).

I am afraid that once again we martial art instructors are going to end up on the wrong side of history. Today’s buzzword is Bullying. A quick google search brings up 1000’s of books, websites, and programs devoted to the menace, and advising you on how best to protect your child. The rhetoric and statistics used to warrant the products being peddled are just as scary as those used for missing children back in the 80’s. State legislatures have passed laws directing school districts to establish policies to address the epidemic. Even the martial art industry is on board, developing programs to help “bully-proof” students – and why wouldn’t we? We are supposed to be experts in self defense, right? While all of this is done with the best of intentions, we’re often missing the mark. Our over-reaction to a threat that barely exists is in many ways harming the very children we’re trying to take care of.

Currently there is too much misleading hype and rhetoric surrounding the concept of bullying. This has led to public misconception as to what the threat is and it’s severity.  As this plays out in the public forum, the public’s understanding of what bullying is, and what it is not, should evolve into a better, more concise picture. This clarity will enable us to develop better responses. The question is, are we leading the way, or will we end up on the wrong side of history?

Next week: How martial arts should help lead the way.

See you on the mat.

 

Best, J. (1990). Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern About Child-Victims. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

Haslam, N. (2016). Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology. Psychological Inquiry, 27(1). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2690955

Porter, S. (2013). Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House

Throwing Out the Baby

October is upon us, and with it comes the fall weather, and the knowledge that Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are right around the corner. Indeed, we’re already seeing it in the marketplace as vendors stock their shelves with seasonal holiday products too far in advance. (Santa will be on the shelf before our kids have finished trick-or-treating.) October is also National Bullying Prevention Month, so we’re sure to be bombarded in the media with scary statistics, and anecdotal tales, while those professing to have a fix peddle their wares.

As a parent and a martial art instructor, I want to know the facts in order to best prepare my children and students for the world in which we live. For the month of October, our posts will be an attempt to add some clarity on the subject of bullying.

In his paper Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Nick Haslam discusses how concepts like bullying have been expanded to “encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” They are extended outward to include new phenomena and downward to include less extreme phenomena. Potential benefits of such expansion include recognizing formerly tolerated negative behavior as problematic, and increased sensitivity to others suffering or maltreatment. There are, however, a number of problems that come with this expansion.

Some Bullies tease, but not all teasing is bullying.

Teasing is one of the casualties in the ever-expanding definition of Bullying. The two are often used synonymously in the media and much of the available “anti-bully” literature. This semantic overlap has led to much confusion and mis-information for parents. It is also a headache for teachers and school administrators. As they work to establish legally mandated “learning environments free from distractions,” they create so-called zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying. In other words, NO TEASING ALLOWED.

There is an extensive body of academic literature studying the many cultural facets of teasing and it’s beneficial role in human communication. As explained by Kruger, Gordon, and Kuban (2006),

“To be sure, some teasing is designed with the sole purpose of hurting, humiliating, or harassing the target of the tease. But often, individuals tease to flirt, socialize, play, enhance social bonds, teach, entertain (themselves, the target, or an audience), or to express affiliation, affection, and even love (p. 412).”

In The Good, the Bad, and the Borderline: Separating Teasing from Bullying (2009), Mills and Carwile thoroughly discuss teasing, it’s relationship to bullying, and it’s value as a communicative device. While teasing can be used by bullies in a negative, aggressive manner, teasing also plays a very beneficial roll in our interpersonal interactions. For a more in-depth look click here.

Teasing is very nuanced, utilizing humor, innuendo, sarcasm, and irony to indirectly communicate the intended message. Even as adults we oftentimes misinterpret the intent of someone’s witty or sarcastic quips. How can our children grow into strong, high-functioning adults, if they aren’t given the opportunity to develop this skill?

Rather than eliminating all forms of teasing in a misguided attempt of protecting our children, as parents and educators we need to do the hard work of distinguishing between the positive, beneficial forms and the negative. We need to allow children the opportunity to fine-tune these skills themselves, and help guide them through the sometimes murky waters of human communication. This understanding will make them stronger, more resilient, and more safe, enabling them to more effectively discern healthy human interaction from the threat of a bully. Otherwise, we’re just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

See you on the mat.

image credit: stopbullying.gov


Haslam, N. (2016).  Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Psychological Inquiry, 27(1). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2690955

Kruger, J., Gordon, C., & Kuban, J. (2006). Intentions in teasing: When ‘‘just kidding’’ just isn’t good enough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 412􏰀425.

Mills, C. B. (2009, April). Communication Education. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Carol_Bishop_Mills/publication/263612607_The_Good_the_Bad_and_the_Borderline_Separating_Teasing_from_Bullying/links/58a72725a6fdcc0e078ae9c7/The-Good-the-Bad-and-the-Borderline-Separating-Teasing-from-Bullying.pdf

Honor

Our school motto is Força e Honra, or Strength and honor. These are the first two of our Five Pillars of SuccessTM. For the month of May, we will be discussing the concept of honor in our Little Samurai and Junior Jujiteiros classes. Honor is a virtue that has been extolled throughout the ages, from ancient philosophers such as Homer and Confucius to the concept of Chivalry in medieval Europe and the Bushido Code of the Samurai. But what exactly is it? 

Honor is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “a showing of usually merited respectrecognition.” We honor our instructor, our school, and our teammates through our appreciation. We respect Professor Cassio for his accomplishments as a competitor, his guidance as an instructor, and his example as a family man. We support our school and our teammates as part of that honor, showing up to train, contributing our own “blood, sweat, and tears” to the process of helping make each individual better. We honor our teammates, for we share the common understanding of the trials and tribulations we all experience on the mat.

Merriam-Webster also defines honor as, “a keen sense of ethical conduct: integrity.” There have been various attempts to codify ethical conduct, none more apropos than those coming from the warrior communities of the U.S. Marine Corps and Jiu Jitsu’s own Bushido heritage.

As per the U.S. Marine Corps website,

“Honor <sic> is the bedrock of our character. It is the quality that empowers Marines to exemplify the ultimate in ethical and moral behavior: to never lie, cheat, or steal; to abide by an uncompromising code of integrity; to respect human dignity; and to have respect and concern for each other. It represents the maturity, dedication, trust, and dependability that commit Marines to act responsibly, be accountable for their actions, fulfill their obligations, and hold others accountable for their actions.”

The Bushido of the Samurai was a code of conduct which evolved over the centuries. Earlier versions include The Hagakura, and The Book of Five Rings. These codes were eventually  paraphrased, so to speak, as The Eight Virtues of Bushido by Nitobe Inazō in his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan.

  • Righteousness (義 gi)
  • Heroic Courage (勇 )
  • Benevolence, Compassion (仁 jin)
  • Respect (礼 rei)
  • Integrity (誠 makoto)
  • Honour (名誉 meiyo)
  • Duty and Loyalty (忠義 chūgi)
  • Self-Control (自制 jisei)

As martial artists we train for the love of the art, to make ourselves stronger, for fun, and for the camaraderie. We pay homage to these ideals after every workout, with the intent of making them a part of our lives. They espouse something greater than ourselves; something to live up to. Just as warriors, both past and present, we too live by a code. Força e Honra.

See you on the mat!

On The Shoulders of Giants

“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

-John Adams, 1780

As a parent, I’ve come to a greater appreciation for the sentiment in John Adams’ letter to his wife.  We do what we must to provide a good life for our children, and we try to give them more than we had, just as our parents did for us, our grandparents did for them, and so on back through the ages. With a little historical perspective we see that humans have been highly successful. Historical perspective also helps us not lose sight of the traits that led to that success.

Since the 18th century, life has gotten better. The global life expectancy has more than doubled – from around 30 years to nearly 70. Literacy rates exploded from under 20% to almost 100%! A little closer to home, consider the early pioneers of this country. Our trials and tribulations pale in comparison to the hardships they faced as a matter of course. Imagine what the Donner Party would think of Interstate 80 today; 30,000+ vehicles cross over the Sierra-Nevadas without incident almost every single day. Through scientific understanding, technological advancement, democratic institutions, and free-market economics we have transformed our world into a much more hospitable one.

Surely we have achieved what John Adams aspired to. Current generations now have the luxury to study “Painting, Poetry, and Musick.” We also have immediate access 24/7 to safe drinking water, flush toilets, medicine, and just about every food imaginable. Indeed, most of us are so far removed from any real struggle, that it’s easy to take what we have for granted.

The conveniences of our modern life allow us to become soft and weak. This is why training in a martial art like Brazilian Jiujitsu is so important. BJJ is the perfect activity for helping develop and nurture strength and resilience of mind, body, and spirit. On the mat we learn to push our limits, to remain calm under pressure, and to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. We learn to accept defeat as an opportunity for growth, and to be gracious in victory. BJJ conditions us to be hard and strong.

“We [the Moderns] are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants [the Ancients], and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.”

attributed to Bernard of Chartres by John of Salisbury

As we enjoy the benefits of the world past generations helped create, it’s important that we do not lose sight of their accomplishments, and the hardships endured to get to where we are. We must be diligent in passing onto our children an appreciation of what it means to live in this era, to have gratitude for all that they have, and to value the traits that enabled our ancestors to get us here. That past should stand as testament to the strength and resilience that lies within each of us. Indeed, our children have the right to study the arts, but not at the expense of mathematics, science, or philosophy. They must also study history, politics, and war, in order to continue the tradition of passing on a better world to the next generation.

See you on the mat.

Attitude of Gratitude

November is here and we find ourselves gearing up for the upcoming holiday season. Thanksgiving is only a week away, and the kids are already getting a bit giddy with excitement. In the spirit of the season, we’re focusing on having what Zig Ziglar termed an “attitude of gratitude.” We’re considering the full extent of our good fortune, living as we do here in the burbs of NorCal in the 21st Century

We humans are problem-solvers. This is advantageous for obvious reasons, and the evidence of our success is all around us. World-wide, child mortality rates continue to drop, while we are also living longer, healthier lives. Over the last century, the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved, and now the majority of the world lives in the middle class. (Rosling, 2018) While we’re surrounded by the fruits of our labors, we still see the many problems that need to be fixed, and the tendency to focus on them often leads us to believe things are worse than they are. Thus, it’s healthy to remind ourselves from time to time of all that we have to be thankful for.

On a personal note, we are thankful for the opportunity to participate in this Brazilian Jiujitsu experience. We are grateful to be living in a time and place where it’s possible for a person to provide for his family by sharing his passion for the sport of Jiujitsu. We are grateful for the wonderful families who have become a part of our extended BJJ family, and for the amazing friendships we’ve developed along the way. We are thankful for all of our training partners who help push us on the mat, fine-tuning our BJJ game, and becoming better versions of ourselves. We appreciate each and every one of you who chooses to join us on this adventure, and we will continue to do everything we can to give back to the community in kind.

Obrigado. Thank you for becoming a part of our family, and for your continued support.

See you on the mat.

Rosling, H. (2018). Factufulness: Ten reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are better Than You ThinkNew York, NY: Flatiron Books.