Helicopters and Snowplows

I’m often struck by the stark differences between life here in the burbs of NorCal and my childhood back in Montana. We live in a day and age in which we’re able to invest so much into raising our children. We are fortunate to get to participate so much in our children’s lives – to volunteer in the classroom, to watch them play sports, or to simply walk them home from school. I can’t help but ponder, however, if too much parenting may be detrimental to our children’s development.

I have vivid memories of biking to school with my friend, Steve. As fifth/sixth graders, we covered the entire two miles completely unsupervised. On summer break, my siblings and I left the house after breakfast with the admonishment, “be home before dark,” and spent our days out and about with friends, riding bikes & horses, shooting tin cans with b.b. guns, exploring “the woods,” or abandoned lumber mill, with nary a parent in sight. We crashed our bikes, fell off the horse, and got into arguments & fights. Occasionally, we came home with cuts, scrapes, bumps & bruises, and hurt feelings.

Growing up this way taught us to be independent, to think for ourselves, and to be proactive. We learned that we weren’t immortal, but that our wounds would heal. We also learned that our feelings were temporary. We could stomp off in anger, but be back playing the next day. We learned how to settle disagreements without a referee, to compromise, to apologize, and how to forgive – not because we were told to, but as a matter of course.

Fast forward to the here and now. Very rarely do I see children walking or bike riding, to/from school, or playing at the park unsupervised. At the park, the parents are ever-vigilant. They warn their children of imminent danger with a “be careful,” when the child tries to climb the rubberized, sanitized, age-appropriate play structure, and intercede like a referee anytime there is an interaction with another that isn’t completely joyous and cooperative. Indeed, it is becoming so rare for children to be unsupervised, that people are calling the police, and families are being reported to C.P.S., simply because their children went to the neighborhood park alone!

As parents and teachers, we play a vital part in our children’s development, however the largest part of learning comes not from being told or shown, but from the experience of doing. We can give our children information, tell them right from wrong, and explain cause and effect. We can teach by the example we set, and we can offer counsel when needed. We must also allow them the opportunity to do things on their own up to, and including, failing. We must restrict our natural desire to protect our children to when it is absolutely necessary. They need to fall down, make mistakes, feel the sting of failure, and savor the pride in getting it right.

See you on the mat.

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