Self-Defense Skills in the Family Environment
When I say “self-defense” do you imagine that you should train your 18-month-old to be the next Bruce Lee? Holistic self-defense means more than physically fighting back. The core mental, verbal and relationship skills can be taught in developmentally appropriate ways throughout your child’s life, starting at a very young age.
We teach our kids lots of skills before they are really expected to use them. My daughter “brushed her teeth” for many years before we entrusted her with her own dental care. Self-defense is the same. We don’t expect our littlest ones to keep themselves safe; that’s a job for grown-ups. But we can embed violence-prevention behaviors into our family cultures in the same way we cultivate health-promoting (“eat your broccoli”), pro-social (“say ‘thank you’”) or ethical (“tell the truth”) conduct.
Parents wish that we could ensure a safe world for our kids. But we are raising our children in a world where interpersonal violence is epidemic. CDC research indicates that one in two women and one in five men will experience sexual violence other than rape during their lifetime. Among adult survivors of intimate partner violence, many “first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.” Bullying is a major concern in our schools. Experts estimate that one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused in their childhoods. Wishing for a safer world won’t make it so. But there are steps we can take to increase our kids’ safety:
Reject the myth of “Stranger Danger.” The majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by people known to their victims. Instead of succumbing to fear of strangers, learn adult behaviors that provide opportunities for, or suggest indications of violation. StopitNow.org offers resources for concerned adults about how to prevent child sexual abuse, including behaviors to watch for when adults are with children.
Install an internal alert system. This does not mean terrifying your children with worst-case scenarios. It means establishing a common set of behaviors to which the adults in your kids’ world consistently adhere. In my family there are three major themes: 1) safe grown-ups honor children’s boundaries and body autonomy within appropriate expectations; 2) safe grown-ups never ask children to keep secrets; and 3) safe grown-ups uphold the family and community rules.
These behaviors are essentially incompatible with perpetration. An adult who maintains appropriate limits with kids—asking before giving a hug or providing privacy for a child to change clothes, for example—eliminates opportunities for sexual perpetration. An adult whose behavior with kids is transparent to other adults and who consistently follows the rules cannot establish the “grooming” relationship that leads to sexual victimization.
Moreover, when those of us who are not perpetrators agree to adhere to these common behaviors, the outliers who might present a risk to our children stand out. In other words, having a common template of what a “safe grown up” acts like makes it possible to notice if an adult’s behavior might be “unsafe” before a child is harmed.
Honor boundaries. Nothing squicks me out more than watching a family coerce a kid into unwanted physical affection. That teaches kids to accept other people steamrolling their bodily integrity. Worried that your child will be rude or anti-social? Make it clear that you expect politeness. Plan how they’ll offer greetings and goodbyes; handshakes and fist-bumps are great low-contact options.
Empower your kids with body-knowledge. Teach your kids the names of their parts: ear, nose, vulva, penis, buttocks. Be clear about who gets to touch which ones and why. This is not a one-time talk: the rules shift as kids can toilet and wash themselves, and again as they mature into their sexualities.
Adopt a no-secrets policy. In our family surprises are okay but secrets are not. That means that kiddo and I might something have up our sleeves as we prepare for my wife’s 50th birthday, but my daughter knows that a safe grown-up will never ask her to keep something from her parents.
Nobody is above the rules. One strategy perpetrators use is establishing a special relationship with a child, outside of normal interactions between kids and grownups. Shut this possibility down by making it clear that no one is above the rules in your family and community.
Embed an earworm of consent and cultivate their inner OK-meter. When grandpa wants a hug, when a sweet lady pinches Junior’s cheeks, or when your kid’s friend tackles when she could have said “hi,” ask: “does that feel okay to your body?” Extensive use of this phrase sends the message that everybody’s body is their own. Down the road it encourages young people to ask themselves: “is this okay with me?”
Trusting one’s instincts and being able to respond early if a situation feels unsafe is a key skill for self-protection. That might mean noticing a pattern of meanness in a youthful friendship, being alert to social tension that signals a fight is about to break out, or rejecting as a potential sweetheart someone who demonstrates controlling, manipulating, or coercive behaviors.
Show them how it’s done. When you state and maintain a limit with your kids—“you can play one more video game, then it’s time for a bath”—you’re not being cruel or unreasonable. You’re modeling an essential skill: boundary-setting. In practical self-defense, strong boundaries are our first expression to would-be perpetrators that we will be lousy victims. It’s a hugely versatile skill, effective against bullying, and incidents of sexual harassment or violation. Boundary-setting can even de-escalate physical altercations. My favorite boundary-setting story came from a nice lady who used her very best “mom voice” to tell a young man preparing to clobber someone, “you put that chair down right now!” He did.
Don’t crumble when your kids resist your boundaries. You’ll want them to have your strong example to follow when they need it.
Nurture assertive communication. When we value compliance over confidence, we sacrifice opportunities for our children to practice the assertiveness essential to self-defense. Researchers have found that kids who argue with their parents are more capable of standing up to peer pressure. There’s no doubt that raising a child capable of disagreement brings a special flavor of hell to their parents. But if some of my parental suffering is in service of delivering skills that could save my daughter’s life, I say bring it on.