Bullying is an unfortunately common experience in childhood, and, as anyone who has ever seen The Karate Kid knows, bullying can exist on both sides of martial arts. One would obviously hope that when the martial arts philosophy is correctly applied it does not lead to bullying and is only used defensively and protectively. How can parents determine if their child is the object of bullying, or becoming a bully themselves, and what can be done about it?
“Remember,” says Kathleen Brennan M.A., LCPC, “bullying does not involve one incident, and is ongoing and is intended to cause harm to the person being targeted. Ongoing, intended harm can be overwhelming to an individual at any age.”
No parent wants to discover that their child is on either side of a bullying situation; however, bullying is not an isolated phenomenon by any means. This is why Chicago martial arts instructor Eric Rasmussen covers bullying regularly as part of his kids classes. “I teach the students to never play into a bully’s game,” says Rasmussen. “Don’t get into name calling and insulting with a bully, and never resort to violence. The best way to win a fight is to avoid getting into one. Speaking to an adult or authority figure and letting them know what’s going on. Sticking together with a friend or group can also discourage a bully.”
Does having a strong social network and an outgoing personality equate to a defense against being bullied? Are the shy and quiet children the ones who will be most targeted? “There are risk factors that can make a child more vulnerable to being bullied, as well as being the bully,” states Brennan, who counsels children, adolescents and adults around trauma, loss and grief. “In children and teens who are bullied, they may be less popular than others, have increased anxiety or depression (when compared to their peers), have low self esteem and may not get along with others.”
Rasmussen, as well as many martial arts instructors, does generally notice an increase in poise as his students progress in martial arts. “I have been told that students are becoming more outgoing and confident,” he says of speaking with parents. “They practice their techniques at home and show greater interest in school. The most rewarding part of being an instructor is seeing a student grow, not only as a martial artist, but as a person. Watching a student transform from a meek and shy newcomer to a confident and motivated class leader is a beautiful thing.” While statements like Rasmussen’s are encouraging, this does not mean that placing your child in martial arts or any team sport is a quick fix toward making them bully proof.
“Bullying can happen in any setting,” warns Brennan, “so it would be important that the sport or social activity promote teamwork, sportsmanship, self-esteem through appreciating each child’s strengths and not tolerate bullying (by coaches or teammates).”
“One thing that I try to focus on with the kids is to not be a bully themselves,” Rasmussen states. “The golden rule, Treat others the way you want to be treated, is a concept simple enough for children to understand and profoundly useful.”
Although, martial arts may be in many ways the perfect activity to arm a child against bullying with it’s staple features of discipline and respect, along with the usual bonus of instilled self-confidence, parents should be aware in case their child becomes fascinated with martial arts for the wrong reasons. Instructor Ida Dolce lists a few warning signs; “He or she starts to not get along with other kids in school, starts to talk back to adults, or looks at training with the view of ‘how can this be used to hurt other people?’ rather than ‘how can I use this to protect myself?’ The biggest warning that a child is into martial arts for the wrong reasons are when a child is going too rough or aggressively in class with another child, but every martial arts instructor I know knows how to respond immediately to that.”
Rasmussen himself had a student confess to bullying “after class with a somber face and his head facing the floor. He looked up at me a stated that he had used his martial arts on a student at school because they had an argument.” Rasmussen said that the student’s mother watched, but did not need to coerce the confession. After telling his student that he would not continue teaching someone who used martial arts in an offensive way and confirming that this was understood, Rasmussen asked the recalcitrant what he should have done instead. “He told me that he should not have argued with the student or told the teacher he was having a problem. I asked why he didn’t do those things and he responded that he was upset and didn’t think about it until after. I explained that part of being a martial artist is controlling your emotions and thinking clearly. I then let the student know how proud I was of him for admitting his mistake and talking to me about it.”
Although Rasmussen, his student and the student’s mother were able to proactively nip potential bullying behavior in the bud, parents should be aware that most children involved in bullying will not be forthcoming about what they are experiencing, especially if they are on the receiving end. “Children can walk around with a great deal of shame related to being bullied,” Brennan cautions. “They may question why they are the one being targeted and believe that there is something wrong with them.”
“For parents,” she continues, “it is important to begin the initial conversation in a place that feels safe and invite your child to share what has been going on. If your child does not want to talk about it, do not insist that they tell you. Teachers can also be a great source of information. Do get to know your child’s teacher(s) at the start of the school year and keep open lines of communication so that you can comfortably approach school-related issues.”
Rasmussen himself, now an amateur MMA fighter with a winning record, experienced bullying as a child and strives to be a role model for his students as well as be available and approachable for students and parents. “The students certainly look up to their instructors,” he says. “Children will often model the behavior of those around them. That means the instructor must work hard to set a good example for their students not just in technique but in how they conduct themselves both in and out of the Dojo. The instructor can use real life experience of success and failure to teach the children valuable life lessons.”
“Children and adolescents that feel connected to others rather than isolated and alone, can have a positive impact on how they relate to others and how others relate to them,” says Brennan. “They have more opportunity for connecting with others to reach a common goal, gain a sense of mastery through ongoing practice and growth and have more opportunities for making friends. That very connectedness and self-esteem building that can come out of these activities, can reduce the risk factors (mentioned earlier) for kids becoming a target for bullying.”
In looking at martial arts as an activity for your child, do your best to find a school that does address bullying, offering both instructions on dealing with being bullied as well as discouragement from becoming a bully. Get to know your child’s instructors and what they’re learning. Fortunately, Rasmussen’s students have not come to him with any serious bully problems, only minor instances of being picked on which were quickly resolved. “The student spoke to his teacher at school, stopped responding to the bully’s taunts, and stayed with a friend on the playground. This combination eliminated the problem rather quickly.” About his own past being bullied, Rasmussen says, “In the end what stopped the bullying was having confidence and believing in myself. The very fundamentals we teach at Degerberg.”