I’ve been around kid’s martial arts a long time now. And one thing everyone in my industry promises is “bully defense”. But what do you do when your child is the one that bullies?
It’s an awkward conversation, and no one ever talks about it.
Some kids, for whatever reason, are more inclined to exercise power over others in a way that only benefits them.
It’s hard to look at, but I think as teachers and coaches we have to do a better job of interrupting behavior patterns early before they become more established.
Bullying is making use of power, or perceived power to control or denigrate another person. All the tropes of bullies are true.
Bullies are often kids who lack social skills and/or emotional intelligence. They do not know how to solve problems with their peers, and bullying can be a result of that.
Bullies are people with high opinions of themselves with conversely fragile egos. They can’t process negative emotions well and this negativity spills out.
Boys are more likely to be physically bullied and girls are more likely to be bullied indirectly.
Bullies are insecure characters trying to feel ok through the control of others.
One of the reasons I will always love kids Jiu Jitsu is this: it gives kids a taste of power and also gives them many tries at practicing and developing empathy.
Lets look at both of these one at a time.
It’s funny to talk about a kid having power. But Jiu Jitsu is a hierarchy and make no mistake about it. We wear belts, we stand in line, and we posture ourselves all based on the power dynamic in the room. There are a lot of valuable skills kids can learn in an environment like this.
For example, its obvious to see that the kids who are doing better than you are not doing so by magic, but because they have years of experience on you. And it’s obvious to point out when a kid is doing great for their level, even if they aren’t winning the match. Even being a white belt carries a certain dignity to it.
Learning a skill like Jiu Jitsu is an experience in power. Once you learn Jiu Jitsu, you have literal power over people. The better you get, the more people you could potentially control if needed. This is a lot to take in for anyone, but especially kids.
One beautiful thing I have seen repeatedly is once a kid becomes good, and recognized as being good, they often start to go easier on people. Its like once they have proven it to themselves, they no longer need to demonstrate their prowess all the time. I love that.
Empathy to me is everything. “Focus discipline teamwork’ bla blah blah. Those are the bullet sales points (noise) of people who haven’t examined what we do deeply enough.
I want kids who can focus and all that, but above all, I want kids who can feel, and use that knowledge to improve their own and other people’s experience in life.
Empathy is not a box you check. It’s a garden you grow. It’s a golf swing. It takes endless attempts, and takes continued input and adjustment. I myself have so far to go but have grown so much due to the people I surround myself with who have helped me grow in empathy.
I teach just under 100 kids every week. I’m very emotionally invested in what I do. I care so much about each kid’s experience in my class and also what conclusions they draw about the world and themselves as a result of Jiu Jitsu.
I see things good and bad every week. I do my best to adjust and calibrate. I often fail or miss the thread, but I am always watching and always trying.
My current thought on how to handle kids with a bullying instinct is this:
1. Recognize and articulate
2. Dynamic control
1. I believe in mirroring things for kids. The more they seem unaware of how they are coming across, the more I very directly give them feedback on what is wrong and what they need to do and what will happen if they don’t. Part of bullying is the lack of problem solving skills. Helping kids learn to solve the conflicts they find themselves in is part of this
2. Kids who are bullying others in big or small ways are kids seeking regulation. Its important to give them what they need, not what they want. Often times I’ll pair them up with someone who is way above them, or someone who is way way below them in age or skill so it gives them a chance to practice being the stronger force, but one for good. I love seeing them start to help smaller kids instead of feeling the need to win everything.
3. Kids struggling with this are ones who often feel negative about themselves and others. Kids like this need extra. They haven’t earned it through stellar behavior yet, but they need it all the same. And if you withhold love, its only going to make it worse.
How to stand up to a bully is a much talked about conversation, but the best way to stand up to bullies is to make less of them.