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.