“Why?”: the dreaded single syllable word that a child can use repeatedly to raise an adult’s temperature and stretch his comfortable and established philosophies of logic, reason and beliefs to breaking point. I have seen many an adult reduced to a blubbering mess or a ranting dictator, as he tries to explain and justify his answers, while a six year old sits calmly with only the smallest traces of a mischievous grin on his face asking again and again “Why?” The innocence and naivety of a child’s questioning is the perfect foil for an adult, who has a natural instinctive responsibility to educate youngsters. However, the irritation goes further, as this insistent inquiring, that will not be abated cliched answers tried and tested on other adults, often leads the interviewee to question their own inner core. “Why” is tough because it addresses the non-tangible area of intention. “Why” cuts through accepted so-called “truths” and gets right to the fundamentals of your answer. Therefore seeing as “Why” is perhaps one of the most powerful weapons a child can use in a debate with an elder, it seems appropriate that we discuss the whys of teaching children honest and realistic self-protection before we approach the whats and hows.
When I first made the decision to start teaching martial arts commercially I was told by just about every contact and advisor in the industry to run regular children’s classes as soon as possible. I was bombarded with sales marketing material aimed at getting kids into martial arts clubs. There was advice galore regarding targeting schools and putting together attractive packages to encourage more young students to join. Most full-time establishments will tell you that children make up around seventy per cent of the revenue in the martial arts market. You will be hard pressed to find many full-time commercial martial arts gyms and clubs that do not have “Little Dragons”, “Little Ninjas” or “Little Warriors” classes on offer. Many regular primary and secondary schools have a resident martial arts class or have put it forward as an activity. The equation is simple: children plus martial arts equals good business.
From a financial perspective that seemed like a pretty straightforward answer to my “Why”, but as I was fast to learn it was not the real answer to my real question. When I then told my peers that my classes were about realistic self-protection, I was generally met with a very different response. The Corporate side who had given me the golden thumbs up on children’s classes shook their heads and displayed an incredulous look on their faces. “Parents do not want to send their children to a self-defence class” they told me. It undermines their position and it worries them. They do not want to be scared by the prospect of bullying at school and abduction by adults. I batted back, “but I often get calls from parents who tell me their child is being bullied or they are worried if their child gets bullied. What do you tell that sort of caller?” My Corporate mentor smiled back and went straight into his perfectly polished sales pitch, “No problem, our classes are all about building confidence”.
It seemed to make sense. I felt foolish, but intuitively I still knew that this did not fit in well for me. I asked others, but the majority of instructors I consulted were concerned with Health and Safety aspects and the hassle associated with clashes with school teachers and parents. It was like an unwritten law I had somehow completely missed when I first decided to start up my very own martial arts school, CCMA (Clubb Chimera Martial Arts).
After giving the matter a lot of thought I could not escape what I felt was the right thing to do. From the very beginning I knew I had the parents on my side after they had come to my class rather than any other because they wanted realistic self-protection training for their children and liked my ideas – and I have always been concerned about going down the correct channels. I was checked with the Criminal Records Bureau, went for my National Vocational Qualification as an assessor (which I now have), I had passed my Child Protection Certificate, I had my First Aid Certificate and I was fully insured as an instructor. I also had created a Parent/Instructor Association, which I regularly communicated through. Many martial arts clubs end up acting as creches for the children of overstretched parents. I had to defeat this notion, even if it meant losing a lot of potential students in the early days, if I intended to have children pressure tested and to address serious issues regarding self-protection. I insisted on parents watching lessons and made it compulsory for them to watch gradings. The more I worked on the CCMA children’s programme the more I saw how important a task it had become.
Self-protection today is more relevant for minors than ever before. Local communities have become more and more divided, children more alienated from the feelings of others and parents more paranoid about the threat of other adults. Parameters of respect and awareness are less certain between children and adults too. Subsequently these children often gain freedom without first understanding responsibility. This has helped create victims and predators on both the adult and child sides. Some children form gangs and attack adults whereas other children are easily preyed upon by adults who can exploit their naivety.
Books such as “Yob Nation” by Francis Gilbert details the increase in crimes perpetrated by youths all around the United Kingdom and Gavin De Becker‘s excellent “Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)” demonstrates how often children are denied the protection they naturally expect from the adults in their lives, as well as being passed on confusing messages about managing their own safety.
Gilbert paints quite a terrifying picture of the recreational violence being embraced by younger and younger people in the UK. During one of his interviews with undercover policeman, Detective Sergeant Simmons the author was told some disturbing accounts of the problems the UK’s capital is beginning to face:
“Many of these gangs don’t have names because they are not organized. They are just groups of people who around the same places, as the same times, in the same clothes, speaking the same lingo, doing the same things. And the thing is, human nature being what it is, all it takes is one or two psychos to lead the whole group. What usually happens is that the psycho will give their victim a slap to start the fun off, and the others will imitate him. ‘Happy Slapping’ is a good example of this. These kids love to take pictures on their mobiles of people looking distressed and being abused. We’re now frightened that the craze, which is sweeping London, could escalate to more sinister levels.
There is little doubt about it. We see more cases now where children are intimidating adults. One gym I regularly visit has a fair few members who are part of gangs. During an interview with the experienced and well-seasoned gym owner I was told that twenty-four years old was now quite a ripe age for a gang member. A lot of the young adults got worried around this age by the up-and-coming teenagers on their block. As if to back up these concerns one local girl in the same area told me how she did not like going out anymore because of the abuse and aggression she got from youngsters â€“ she is nineteen and you can see no likely pushover.
Furthermore I have heard such concerns being echoed by adults I certainly would not fancy meeting on a dark night. One formidable self-defence instructor told me that he actually feared groups of kids jeering and trying to intimidate him because of the legal repercussions that would incur if he faced them off.
This is the point. As intimidators these kids understand the law is on their side and as active violent assaulters they have learnt that by attacking en masse and with weapons they will become more than a match for the toughest of single individuals. Like it or not the enemy of today has changed. With the advantage of the internet children can create their own communities with no morals or parameters to guide them, where they are free to encourage, impress and influence their peers in a virtual world that is the real ethical equivalent to Pinocchio’s infamous “Toyland”. They are part of our cyborg nation, a consciousness plugged into virtual worlds and promises of instant gratification. Along the way real flesh and blood communities are becoming a thing of past, as is the sympathy and empathy that such institutions cultivated.
On the flip side of this we have those adult members of society who by definition have little regard for the laws that protect minors: child abusers. There is a common act of denial that claims that crimes committed against children have more publicity today than they did because we know more about it now and therefore it should be considered to be a growing concern. There is some truth in this idea and it is fair to say that more parents are unnecessarily paranoid about paedophilia and child abuse today. I say “unnecessarily” as no paranoia is ever necessary. Awareness and understanding of parental intuition is another very different matter. According to the definition of threat management expert, Gavin De Becker worry and paranoia are reactions to imagination whereas real fear is a reaction to intuition. It is also true that we know more about crimes committed against children and our media has a tendency to report these crimes on a regular basis in lurid detail along with the latest health scare, political scandal and celebrity caught on a bad hair day. Are we living in safer times for children than ever before? Well, we may not be sending children up chimneys, down coal mines or into workhouses anymore, but there is one inescapable fact that gives the recreational predator a bigger advantage today than ever before.
This is the mutual alienation of individuals in our society today. In bygone years the man who preyed on children would be easier to spot, as everyone would know everyone in their local community. The oddball with the sinister intentions was often caught out fairly early on. In recent years we have the seen child abuser become bolder and bolder in his attitude. Maybe he doesn’t have many intimate or regular friends in his neighbourhood, but that is no different from most of the individuals who live down his road. However, on the internet he can find hundreds of like-minded individuals who will coach, encourage, feed and support his criminal ideals. They will also teach him how to best operate and even form paedophile rings with him.
Proof of this boldness was revealed a few years ago on the exposure of one huge internet paedophile ring, where some of the perpetrators happily took interviews. Gone was the image of the repentant offender, hidden in the shadows and his voice disguised or replaced by an actor’s. Now we had the grinning martyr, just prior to his conviction, walking around his home town with the all airs of a civil rights activist. As far as he was concerned what he and his fellow offenders were doing was perfectly okay and – get this – they were being persecuted! Such attitudes have even led to the formation of paedophile activist groups. Yes people, these organizations do exist!
Gavin De Becker’s book is an exploration of how human intellectualism and social conditioning often overrides survival instincts. De Becker says that we have become experts in denial, often hushing up our screaming voice of intuition with our heavy demands for immediate logical answers. De Becker has always argued that intuition is a fast alert system that bypasses any form of convoluted explanation to simply deliver us and our offspring from harm. He lists all the physiological feelings and signals that make up intuition, including gut feelings and dark humour, which culminate in the most insistent feeling of all: fear. The dependent nature of children means that they naturally rely on adults to protect them, but what often happens is that as we get further removed from our natural instincts, irrational fears are often dismissed when no logical or comfortable reason can be immediately offered. This brings me back to the social problem that inhibits many martial arts instructors from advertising children’s self-protection: no one wants to admit there is a real problem out there or at least no one wants to address the very real issues.
The protective nature of parents, if we are to believe both Gilbert and De Becker, has led to worry of the more unlikely dangers that affect children. Suspicion of unknown adults the notorious “Stranger Danger“ is a well known parental concern. Yet it is a glaring fact that most crimes of abuse against children, be it from adults or other children, will be committed by people the child knows. If we are to get uncomfortable – read honest – about self-protection then we must accept this reality.
The trouble is there is no good marriage between those who really investigate the related soft data the knowledge to predict violent behaviour in others who have intentions to harm children and those who teach the related hard data robust physical skills used to realistically handle violent encounters. There are plenty of professionals now who can help educate children about their personal space, understanding how a potential aggressor or abuser acts and also how to keep a positive mind and make the right decisions. The trouble is most self-defence courses are still working on the premise that the attacker will be an unknown, jumping from the shadows and not the “Kindly” uncle or the older kid at school who never seems to hang out with his own age group.
Adults, on the whole, give children confusing messages. The pre-emptive strike has become the mainstay strategy in reality-based self-defence circles today (although it is still surprising how many people still cannot recognise this concept). Arguments against the block and counter method are becoming less and less necessary, as most people who have been involved in real life confrontations relay the pointlessness of waiting for your attacker to strike the first blow to more and more people. Yet we often find that the source of the reactive fallacy is not so much found in the roots of traditional martial arts training (read Iain Abernethy’s excellent article “No First Attack in Karate?”, but in the social conditioning individuals receive at an early age. Whereas adults are legally allowed a pre-emptive strike, if justified in self-defence, children are bound by an archaic non-legal law at home and at school: “he who hits first is in the wrong”. This often leads bullies to goad weaker children into reluctant fights or invite them into confrontations where the odds are heavily stacked in the bully’s favour: the infamous “See you after school”.
A bully can then grant themselves a moral and public justification by simply pushing his victim to make the first “Aggressive action”, which is usually a perverse ritualistic non-committed form of attack. The tragedy is we all know this, but still expect our children to follow this ridiculous and unnatural rule of life. For a theatrical example, have a look at the scene from the classic western, “Shane” where Jack Palance’s character, Wilson, bullies the local sheep herder to pick up a gun he has thrown him. The poor shepherd knows what will happen if he does and protests that he doesn’t want any trouble and doesn’t want to pick the gun up. The villain, with an heir of mounting menace, repeats his demand “Pick up the gun”. The shepherd eventually obeys and is immediately shot dead. Palance turns to his audience and says “You all saw him, he had a gun”.
Other children do not even get the luxury of being able to strike back. I knew one parent who sent his child to me and told him that on no account was he allowed to fight back. This entire saga resulted in this mixed up kid never believing what either his parents or I were telling him. He was perpetually bullied at every school he attended and also bullied others.
Rather ignorant arguments are often delivered in defence that children are less likely to be involved in serious confrontations. Tell that to all the child victims of beatings and stabbings by other children, abduction and abuse by adults and to the graves of those who were so traumatized by being bullied that they killed themselves. Children have as much right to preserving their life as we do. We have to swallow the hard fact that we are not always going to be there to protect them and adults cannot solve every problem a child faces. I would also add that making children over-reliant on us as they grow older will often result in damaging side effects, including making them a soft target.
Sadly the best the martial arts community often has to offer – and I admit there are few exceptions – are abstract lessons on discipline and confidence through rituals and sports. Parents will happily go along with this. As far as they are concerned their once unhappy child is now more confident at school and, if needed, he will have the skills to see off the school bully. Yet during my research on reality-based self-defence culture I came across many cases of children who were fed on the myths of martial arts and became overconfident, which led them into unnecessary confrontations and more bullying. I urge you to read Davis Miller’s account of his failed martial arts skills when he faced the school bully in his essay “Ellen’s December 1971″, which is featured in his article collection, “The Zen of Muhammad Ali and Other Obsessions”. Others simply applied the same level of respect their instructor gave to the soft data side of training and used martial arts to become bullies themselves. Of course, it was not the martial arts they were really using but more the inflated opinion that had been cultivated in the classes they attended.
Why teach children realistic self-defence? The answer is that this is really where self-defence is most relevant and needed today. The martial arts revolutionary Geoff Thompson warned us back in the early 1990s that the enemy of today was not the enemy of yesterday. His argument was that the enemy of his father’s generation was more of a “Match” fighter, someone you could expect to have a square-go or one-on-one fight with outside. His enemy, in the main, did not want to risk a match fight and preferred to use sniper and ambush tactics. These devices had to be understood, learnt and mastered by anyone seriously involved with civilian violence. Geoff initiated what the buzzword users of our society might call a paradigm shift – in other words a different way of thinking. Geoff further warned that tomorrow’s enemy may be different yet again. I believe this has now happened and the enemy we face today is the natural evolution (or devolution) of the predators of the 1990s. We once again need to shift the way we think, building on the lessons Geoff, Peter and their contemporaries taught in the 1990s to handle the most likely types of intimidation and violence we will encounter in the twenty-first century. However, this time we need to bring the kids along too.
We need to teach children realistic self-defence because they have become the most likely victims and perpetrators. They are in more need of our help now than ever before and we are in need of theirs. We hear so much from and about them, but do we really listen? Judging by today’s crime statistics and the messages being voiced by our fellow adults – victims themselves or parents of victims – I would say that the answer is currently no. They ask the awkward questions that we need to develop real answers for, no matter how uncomfortable the task.
Like the bewildered and bloodied black belt who suddenly realized why all the techniques he had only drilled to thin air or against a compliant training partner or in a touch-contact sparring arena would not stop the untrained thug who picked on him outside the chip shop, we need to take a long look at the new arena through much younger eyes.
To date, one of the very few good books on the subject. Debunks the “stranger danger” gimmick with a shocking reality check:
Astonishingly there hasn’t been another serious and realistic book written for children on self defence in the English language, which is what inspired me to write mine. This is currently the best book available (and is currently out of print!)
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Tags: anti-child abduction, bulling at school, bullying, child abduction, Children, Childrens self defence, Clubb Chimera Martial Arts, Criminal Records Bureau, Gavin De Becker, jamie clubb, National Vocational Qualification, paranoia, Sport, Violence and Abuse, weapon defence