Teaching Children to Trust Their Intuition

By Damon O’Hanlon

Image Credit: thekaratekids.org
As a karate instructor, parents often come to me for help protecting their children. Many aren’t sure exactly what “self-defense for kids” should entail, and I could probably get away with spending the day teaching only chops and kicks. But the odds of a child needing to physically fight for their life are low. Other types of danger are more pressing, not least among which is the specter of child sexual abuse.
Now, when the topic of child sexual abuse comes up, I usually hear questions which point to a certain type of prevention. “How can we better screen the people who will be working with our kids?” and “How can we more strictly punish the predators in our community?” are two common examples.

While I would never call such avenues fruitless, over the years I’ve come to question whether they’re really the best starting place. As caretakers, it’s tempting to think we can mold a perfectly safe environment for children without the need to “scare kids” by involving them directly. We also tend to view our kids as utterly helpless in these situations.

While children are indeed more vulnerable than adults and may not know what to do in a situation like this, there are certain things we can teach them that will help them to protect themselves. The best tool, one I have been teaching in my karate program for years, is honing and learning to trust personal intuition. Here are five key insights to help you get started with your own kids.

Explain what intuition is.

Kids may never have heard the word before, but don’t overcomplicate it. For the purposes of your conversation, intuition is a feeling you get about a person, place, or situation that you can’t quite explain. One of most important things your intuition does is warn you about danger and help protect you from it.

Don’t hand kids the answers. Challenge kids to think hard.

As caring parents and educators, it’s only natural that we want to hand our children our wisdom, all neat and prepackaged. However, studies indicate that deep and lasting learning comes from cognitive engagement where the learner puzzles through things a bit. Instead of telling kids what to do, talk about and role play through various scenarios, asking questions and helping kids to recognize successful vs unsuccessful strategies.

Always trust your intuition, even if it’s only a whisper.

This is often phrased as, “If in doubt – get out.” Help your kids understand that, when intuition nudges, the sooner they take action, the better they protect themselves.

Don’t fall for the red herring of focusing on strangers.

I’ve been teaching karate since I was seventeen, and been in many martial arts schools where ‘stranger danger’ was handled as a substantial consideration. While admittedly terrorizing for parents to contemplate, the scenario of a stranger who abducts and sexually abuses a child is so rare that it’s a borderline myth. (The truth is that most sexual abuses are perpetrated by someone the child knows.)

Yet the stranger abduction scenario often gets the spotlight. A person might argue, “Well, it could happen, and it would be pretty awful, so doesn’t it deserve our attention?”

In response let me say this: Imagine that you and I were out in a forest, and I said to you, ‘We don’t have any food! This is very dangerous, potentially dire.’ Sounds reasonable, so you would probably agree, and the issue would seem worthy of our attention. But what if, in fact, the forest around us were on fire?

The point here is that identifying and obsessing over unlikely threats ultimately hinders our ability to address more realistic threats.

Your child’s intuition takes precedence over other peoples’ feelings.

The world can be a tough place for kids. There are a ton of people about, many of whom are much bigger than kids, and it takes practice to navigate these complex social waters. As a result, kids spend a lot of their time learning to appease the people around them.

But these considerations cannot be allowed to compete with our intuition, and here’s a kid-accessible explanation for why: Let’s say your kid is with a friend, and that friend says, “Hey! Let’s jump off this really high building.” Their intuition tells them that’s unsafe, so they decide to leave. Then later, the friend’s feelings are hurt and they ask, “Why’d you leave? That was just a joke.”

Can your kid say ‘I’m sorry’ and help to mend someone’s hurt feelings? Absolutely. But what if they had stayed, and something bad did end up happening. Does saying ‘I’m sorry’ undo the bad thing that happened? No.

To reinforce this, my old karate instructor used a wonderfully simple mantra, “My safety first, their feelings second.”

Shidōin Damon O’Hanlon began martial arts as part of a high school senior project. He became an assistant instructor, and then a program director, before finally receiving his head instructor certification in 2008. In 2010 and 2011, Damon earned two additional honors – a 2nd degree black belt and a degree in psychological anthropology from the University of California Santa Cruz.

Damon now teaches at the Koshozen Martial Institute, a martial arts school partnered with the Santa Cruz Boys & Girls Club. Together, Damon and his mom, Karen, began Mind Like Child in order to share their combined knowledge and expertise about children.

12 thoughts on “Teaching Children to Trust Their Intuition

  1. So many excellent points, Damon! You are so right about the focus too often being on strangers, which can be terribly dangerous, it seems. I also totally agree with trusting and listening to a children’s intuition, and teaching them to trust and listen to it as well. Our children need the tools to deal with whatever comes up when we aren’t right there to protect them, and this goes a long way towards that. Thank you for this!

  2. In my children’s picture book titled, What Does It Mean To Be Safe?, I describe intuition as “inner voice”. The take-away message of the book is to listen to your inner voice and when it tells you that you are not safe, to seek the help of a trustworthy adult. Thanks so much for the insightful and helpful post, Damon. We’re definitely on the same page/screen regarding this important topic.

  3. Agreed!

    Thankfully, generally speaking, adults are less vulnerable and more independent, so they’re more likely to listen to their intuition in those cases.

    Teaching kids makes my life a joy, and I would never want to hurt them. But it’s my impression that kids are so physically disadvantage compared to us “bigs” that they tend to be more anxious about upsetting people.

    And when it comes to any habit, It takes practice to make change.

  4. Thanks for reading, Melanie! I really like that quote from Albert Einstein.

    For my part, I like to think of rational and intuitive thinking as two different tools, kind of like a hammer and a saw. You wouldn’t use a hammer in a saw situation, and you wouldn’t use a saw in a hammer situation.

    Intuitive thinking is perfect for situations where the stakes are high (such as with potential danger) and you don’t have time to really get into deep thought about things.

    So in those situations, you better have the right tool (intuition) honed, trusted, and ready to go.

  5. Hi, Rana!

    I actually read your book – What Does It Mean To Be Safe? – when I first met the LPP team and it made a great impression. It’s actually at the top of my list of kids book to add to my dojo library.

    I particularly liked the bit of writing (and the picture) about not being terrified, but rather branching so that you are supported.

  6. Yes! The physical signs are very important. Whenever writing about such weighty topics, I always worry about including too much and overwhelming readers. I’m pleased somebody took the time to list a few key examples. It sounds like you guys run an awesome program!

    Thanks, Jodi. ^_^

  7. I totally agree, Khadijah! I guess one of the things that troubles me about the environmental approach is that we can’t always be right there with our kids.

    So my deep motivation is that we can influence our kids to exercise and improve their own judgment in ways that increasingly protects them as they grow older.

  8. Thanks for such a terrific post, Damon. Children really need to feel safe to express their concerns and where their intuition leads them. They need trusted adults around them to listen to them and take them seriously, and also to help them work through what their inner voices are telling them.

  9. My concern, as a great grandparent, is that for the past 30 years or more, children in the U.S have been taught not to talk or relate to strangers, and therefore receive so little experience in exercising their social intuition beyond family and peers. So how are they suddenly, when on their own, able to distinguish between fear based on inexperience from fear from danger?

  10. Children can feel when you are not present with them, and so your capacity to listen and be in their world without the need to impose an agenda serves their trust in us and their intuition.

  11. Hi. I’d like to know when my son is faced with a situation where he should be assertive be it at school or with his cousins. How do i equip him not to be a pushover or to think that his in the wrong. And be positive. And musnt feel his at fault when his certain he hasnt done anything wrong???

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