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