Don’t Let Bullies Get Away With It!

“You don’t fight bullying with bullying.” This is what young children were told during an assembly style discussion on bullying at the school my daughters attend. Her school, which I have an overall incredibly high opinion of, is one of the many schools that proudly proclaim to be a “Zero Tolerance” campus as it pertains to bullying. “Well, what if someone is trying to beat you up and hurt you?” The message was the same, “You don’t fight bullies by bullying them back.” Physical conflict of any kind and for any reason is not tolerated! Zero-Tolerance for ever striking someone, period!

Albeit well intended, this advice and policy is incredibly ill-advised and pernicious to a degree that is hard to understate!

There was a recent Yahoo news story floating around Facebook about a 10 year old boy named Aiden who was bullied but refused to fight back because it was “Not the Jedi Way.” To be clear, this boy wasn’t being teased or even lightly pushed around. In fact, it was the third straight year of bullying.  This boy  had been previously violently assaulted by bullies to the point that he required stitches on his face.  This was now the second time he required a hospital visit post bullying incident for, once again, getting stitches on his face. This incident started with someone trying to take Aiden’s backpack. The mother is now pressing charges according the the story. The graphic included is a picture of Aiden, included in the Yahoo article, after the latest incident.

There is a lot of disturbing detail to this story that can’t be overlooked. Of course, there is the minor detail that it is technically incorrect to say that one can’t fight back because it isn’t the Jedi Way. Star Wars is well, “Wars.” There is plenty of fighting back. But frankly, that is coming from a 10 year old boy. The real issue is the messages he has been given by adults, school policies, and societal trends. Consider, just a for another moment that this boy has been bullied for three straight years and two of those incidents were serious enough that the boy needed stitches on his face. Consider that the child never fought back for fear of “getting in trouble.” I mean, after all, you “don’t fight bullying by bullying back.” There is Zero-Tolerance for ever striking someone, period. It gets more disturbing when adults seem to make comments that extol the “virtue” of not fighting back in these clear cut cases. Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker is quoted about Aiden saying he was, “ astonished by his wisdom and courage.” On my Facebook feed, where I saw this initially, one of the comments in response to the article was, “Good for him.” Good for him? Really? This is good for him? This is the wise course of action? To be hospitalized twice in the last three years and be in a situation that sees this young boy bullied for more than a quarter of this entire life? To be applauded for not even making the slightest attempt at self-preservation? Is this approach supposed to incentive bullies to stop? Is this approach supposed to be good for the physical and mental health of the bullied (or even the bully themselves) or the culture of the nation’s collective school campuses?

This story, and some of the reactions to this story, hit home with me in large part due to my teaching children self-defense for the past two decades. Unfortunately, this story is not only common but every single year I teach, it becomes increasingly more common. The story of Aiden isn’t an isolated situation. Far from it! I’ve personally experienced an overwhelming increase in the number of students and desperate parents coming to our school of self-defense looking for another way.

To be clear, “another way” isn’t code for: encouragement of getting into fist-fights, beating people up at the drop of a hat, or encouraging physical solutions to problems when other clear alternatives are preferable and available. In fact, there many other tactics that can be used which creates a situation where you don’t have to physically fight back. However, it does NOT completely eliminate or attempt to villainize the possibility of having to justifiably physically defend yourself if you truly have no other alternative and are facing physical harm.  The other way is NOT based on the  sickeningly perverse premise that anyone involved in a physical encounter, for any reason, has mandatory punishments imposed on them (zero tolerance). Rather, the other way is based on the premise that you not only have the RIGHT but the RESPONSIBILITY to defend yourself. Physically or not, the policy of Zero Tolerance needs to be replaced with policy of Don’t Let Bullies Get Away with It.

“Don’t let bullies get away with it” can take many forms. In all, but the most extreme cases, we aren’t talking physically striking or fighting someone. But that option (1) can’t be totally taken off the table by stating with there are no exceptions, (2) shouldn’t be villainized (“you don’t beat bullies by bullying them back”), and (3) needs to be clearly understood. We must create a culture that ensures children know that the adults around them find them valuable enough that they find them worth protecting. This is of immense importance. That children are given permission by the adults who love them to keep themselves safe from uncalled for physical attack. Defending yourself from an unjustified physical assault isn’t “bullying the bully”, any more than a woman defending herself from a sexual assault is somehow “wrong” for doing whatever is necessary to enforce her physical autonomy and safety. Difference of degree, perhaps…But the underlying principle is the same: NO ONE has the right to unjustifiably hurt you and if they try, you are JUSTIFIED in the attempt to protect your physical well-being. It is your well within your ethical right to protect yourself.

How dare someone plant the seed in a child’s mind that protecting themselves from unwarranted physical attack is “bullying the bully” or that a child not making any attempt to defend himself is someone to be applauded as “good for him!”

Consider the following few examples. Does a nation have a right and RESPONSIBILITY to look out for its well-being? Does a nation EVER have a right to defend itself from unjustified aggression? Does the actions of those brave souls on Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 who fought hijackers from further harming others fall under the category of “bullying the bully?” Would it have been better if those incredible Americans had thought it the so-called “Jedi Way” to sit down, shut up, and just take it? What about you? It is 3:00 a.m. and you hear someone break into your home. You look at your baby monitor and see the intruder with a hand inside your baby’s crib. The attacker is in your daughter’s bedroom. Is your instinctive response to that scenario to “not bully the bully?” How would you feel if some parent in that scenario, saw it happen, had the means to stop it…but didn’t? Further, how would you feel if after the fact someone then said to that parent that they admired them for their “courage and wisdom?” What if that parent justified it by saying that they were “afraid of getting in trouble” with the authorities? Would that be OK or even virtuous? Would you want the police officer in who has a clear shot on the active shooter in your child’s school to take the shot? Wouldn’t it be his RESPONSIBILITY to take the shot if it is clear and available to him? Isn’t that  the more Jedi like way? Using force to stop bad actors from furthering their actions isn’t somehow evil in principle. Obviously, we would prefer not to in a situation where it is necessary…but that is the point…sometimes there are situations where it is not only a necessity but a responsibility. The scaling and scope of the situation might vary but the principle doesn’t

The devil in the details to be sure. But that is yet another point. The details should be looked into.

Feel good slogans  such “Zero Tolerance for Bullying” and well-intended, but poorly thought out, policies are at worst a major contribution to the problem. Even if one is inclined to give the most charitable interpretation possible of these policies: one would state that they are, even if not contributing, at least ineffective at dealing with the issue. Especially ineffective in the critical moment when one is faced with a choice: allow oneself to fight the survival (and ethical) instinct of self-preservation and do nothing or alternatively to defend oneself from unnecessary physical harm. The slogan sounds right! Without much critical analysis it is easy to proudly proclaim, “I’m so glad my kid’s school has a Zero Tolerance for bullying. It makes me feel safer.” Well, it shouldn’t.

Although an oversimplification, there is an undercurrent of cowardice to the policy. Not wanting to make a call. Not wanting to tell a parent who believes their child can’t do any wrong, “After reviewing the situation thoroughly, your child is in the wrong and this child is clearly in the right.” It is easier to not take sides and just state that, “I understand you are upset ma’am but BY POLICY we suspend everyone if there is a physical altercation.” It isn’t that I’m making a call based on the specifics of the situation but rather “the policy” predetermining that everyone is equally guilty.  Of course, it isn’t the only factor, but one can’t help wonder how these these issues connect to the epidemic of mental health that sees younger and younger kids depressed, suicidal, or homicidal.

In my position teaching children jujitsu for self-defense, I’ve had many intense telephone and in-person conversations with parents who are looking to either proactively prevent their child from being bullied or, as increasingly the case, are looking to stop the bullying their son or daughter is currently encountering. Many parents feel as if they have followed all of the administrative steps encouraged by their schools with no real results and see their children’s confidence (and safety) tanking.

I encourage loving adults to give their children permission to defend themselves. They, obviously, shouldn’t give children permission to get into “fights.” This distinction needs to be made very clear (just as our civilian self-defense laws do). Nonetheless, kids hearing from their parents, teachers, etc. that whether it is a child abductor, an active shooter (Run, Hide, Fight), or a bully – we always have the right to protect ourselves from unwarranted violence if no other clear options are available. We need to ensure our children that they do NOT need to and SHOULD NOT negotiate with a bully who is in the middle of physically assaulting them. Children need to hear and know that their parents are not only OK with them standing up for themselves but that parents expect them to physically defend themselves. Kids need to know that they will NOT in be “in trouble” for defending themselves! Unfortunately, and unintentionally, kids get the message from adults that they will “get in trouble” for “fighting.” It is considered one of the biggest No-No’s! “You better not get into fights!” or they hear vague messages about “just ignore” the bully or “just walk away.” Another is the message to “find an adult” if a bully is giving you trouble. Behind all of this well-intended advice is the underlying message that you shouldn’t ever have to get physically involved with a bully.

Most of the time, that is right. But most of the time isn’t every single time without exception! Most of the time police officers don’t need to use their firearm. But most of the time isn’t every time. Sometimes when all other options have been exhausted or the danger is overwhelming and upon us right now, we do what needs to be done to ensure safety. We need common sense and courage to prevail in these matters.

The combination of this so-called Zero Tolerance policy and the adult advice that strongly encourages kids to “walk away” and “not fight” comes to a breaking point when the child is at that critical moment where, despite his best efforts to put all the advice he has been given into practice, he is now a few seconds away from being physically assaulted by a bully with no help insight. It causes physical and psychological hesitation! He is at the crossroads of what he should do “in theory” versus the practical options he has right now – in reality! If he fights, he’ll get “in trouble” with school and parents. If he doesn’t fight – he’ll get in trouble anyway (zero tolerance policy) because he was involved in a “physical altercation” and didn’t “just walk away” — but at the same time if he does nothing he’ll risk his physically safety. What is the young child supposed to do in this situation?

If you get a call telling you to pick up your kid from school because he was attacked and defended himself…but due to “zero tolerance” was suspended along with the bully. I would encourage you to pick up your kid and take him out for ice cream and let him know how proud of him you are for having the courage to follow through on his responsibility to keep himself safe from physical harm.

When kids know that they have permission to assert themselves and they won’t be in trouble, we instantly make major gains in kids confidence. Any self-defense expert will tell you that carrying oneself with confidence is an important factor in preventing attacks to begin with. It isn’t the type of coddling or pacification model of the so called “safe space” but rather a model encourages people to legitimately be safer through concrete words and actions in the world. Validating to themselves they can take action and that there is no virtue in neglecting responsibility to assert yourself when justified. This creates a situation where kids are legitimately safer through courage, confidence, and education.

All of us, kids or adults, need to be infused with the ethos that states that you stand up to bulling when it happens. Not ignore it. Standing up rarely means physical altercation. It doesn’t even mean provoking a situation. It isn’t a “fight fire with fire” model. Most of the time it is a fight “fire with water” model. Sometimes not letting a bully get away with it means ending a relationship with someone you thought of as a friend if they continuously treat you poorly. Tell them to quit or quit the relationship. Other times it might mean asking someone to “lay off” picking on someone else. Sometimes it means telling a bully, “Don’t touch me again!” Another time it means discreetly telling someone about what is going on if the person being bullied hasn’t found the courage to assert themselves in word or action.  Bottom line, in the words of clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordan Peterson, “Don’t Let Bullies Get Away with It.” 

“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack…May the Force be with you.” — Yoda