How to help a kid beat a bully: soft defense
I am not condoning violence or combat. Jiu-jitsu means the ‘art of softness.’
Norfolk, Va. — If you stand up to a bully, he, or she, will back down. But what happens when you don't know how to do that or, when you do, the bully doesn't back down?
Recent news reports have provided evidence ranging from a boy firing a gun in school to a little girl begging her parents not to send her back to her tormentors because she'd rather die than go to school one more day.
I have four sons, two in high school and two in elementary school. Bullying has been a factor for each son, at various ages, in both public and private schools.
The immediate disclaimer here is that teachers and parents can do only so much to help a child combat bullying. Telling an authority figure and bringing in the bully's parents often result in the bully getting more cunning and vicious.
At some point, we all have to learn that the victim (at any age or stage of life) is the one with the true power to stop a bully – or any abuser. For example, our high school has cameras all over to document who hit whom first, but getting to your student in time to prevent major damage is not a solid lock.
Also, according to the student services representative, students are not allowed to get into "mutual combat," which is "a bout of punching/hitting." If your child hits back, he or she gets punished, no matter who started it.
Students are, however, allowed to take down and pin an attacker once they've been attacked and while they wait for help to arrive while not being beaten to a pulp or causing damage to another.
To find a resource for that kind of defense I called a colleague, Adisa Banjoko, founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation in San Francisco. He's been banging the "jiu-jitsu is mental and physical chess" drum for two years. Now, he's persuaded me to take a new Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu course with my sons. (You can also buy the DVDs and do it at home with your children.)
I'm a vegan pacifist who grew up in New York City's Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s, but even I have come to the point where I know my child has to be equipped physically, as well as be mentally empowered, to keep from being victimized.
The course, called "Bullyproof," teaches the three T's:
Talk your way out.
Tell an adult.
And, as the last resort, and only when attacked, tackle the bully (first using "Verbal Jiu-jitsu" techniques). Then, if the person attacks you physically, grab him in a bear hug and take him down to pin and safely hold until rescue comes.
To be clear, I am not condoning violence or even combat. Jiu-jitsu literally means the "art of softness" or "the gentle art" in Japanese. And it's about harmonizing with an opponent's force rather than trying to oppose force with force.
Jiu-jitsu teaches confidence and inner strength: two things achievable, certainly, without a self-defense class. But I've found this particular discipline not only encourages us to think more deeply about how we interact, it also teaches a valuable life lesson to help us reach new levels of confidence and strength. The lesson? That the little guy can and does win through harmonizing style, knowledge, and technique.
I'm not going to lie: It does feel pretty good to just heave a 6-foot-2, 250-plus-pound man off you from the prone position and feel him tap your shoulder to say "uncle." Sure, I fail many times throughout practice, but it's worth it to feel less afraid at night or when volunteering in a rougher school environment.
And it's worth the cost, as I know that ultimate success will come in a school stairwell or on the playground or in a parking lot when my sons use these lessons for self-preservation. Or even better, their new confidence from these lessons preempts the need for such a confrontation. Our new sayings: "Knowledge is power" and "If at first you don't succeed, trap and roll again."
• Lisa Suhay is a Hip-Hop Chess Federation partner and a children's book author.