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.

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