Empowering Children Through Self-Defense

Purple! Dog! Underpants!

It’s a classroom, but children are being encouraged to shout random, silly words, and learn to love the power of their voices.

They’re also being encouraged to run around and play.

And, more often than not, the children are the ones calling the shots. You’ll likely see them standing in assertive positions, across from the adults, controlling their every move.

In other words, the kids are doing pretty much everything they’re not allowed to do during the regular school day.

This is what a children’s self-defense class looks like, and is a scene we’d love to become more common in classrooms all over the world.

Why Do Kids Need Self-Defense?

“Children need to learn to self-empower as soon as they understand they have a ‘self’ to empower and protect. Developmentally, that is very young. Then it's just a matter of teaching the right skills at the right time.”

~ Sheila Watson, Sandalwood Martial Arts

It is our firm belief that learning to prevent and cope with sexual violence, bullying, and peer pressure is one of the most basic and crucial skills a society must teach its children.

And the younger the better, especially for girls, who often become disconnected from their voices at around age twelve.

Helping girls reconnect to and reclaim their voices is no easy task, which is why keeping the connection intact is so important.

No child gets through life without having their cheeks pinched, being forced to give somebody a hug, or being picked up without permission. All children are vulnerable to abuse, and studies have shown that one in four children will experience some form of abuse or neglect in their lifetime.

Which is why they all deserve to learn skills that will help them learn to protect their emotional and physical well-being.

Why Are Classes CoEd?

"We work with our girls to realize their inner and outer strength and with our boys to understand the strength that lives in vulnerability. We have seen a huge sustainable difference in our students over the years as a result."

~ Liz Cat Fitzgerald, Assert Empowerment and Self-Defense

Erin Morrison-Fortunato, a blogger at “Scary Mommy,” tells a story about a four year old boy who went up to girls and forcibly hugged and kissed them. The boy’s intentions were good. He was full of love and truly wanted to show affection. His behavior was also reinforced when adults oohed and ahhed and told him how cute he was.

Then, one day, one of his female classmates, who had had enough, punched him in the nose.

Had these children learned boundary setting skills, the boy would have known how to ask for consent, and the girl might have been able to stop the kiss without needing to use any physical moves.

Children, regardless of gender, need to be taught that no means no. They need to learn to respect the word when they hear it, and they need to learn to demand respect when they say it.

In addition, girls need to see that they are just as physically capable as the boys, and boys need to have opportunities to see girls embracing their physical power.

Most importantly, all children, regardless of gender, deserve to learn to protect their emotional and physical well-being.

Why Are Parents Invited to Participate?

"The shared experience with my child gave us both a sense of strength and empowerment, and left us an with an understanding of what we will and will not tolerate.”

~ Parent Participant

Having their parents with them helps children open up and feel more relaxed.

But the biggest reason it’s important for parents to be involved is that children’s self-defense classes are only temporary, but they provide the building blocks for a whole new way of life that parents and children need to create together.

To help parents learn how to build this new way of life, many children’s self-defense workshops begin with a session just for parents.

The parent sessions are an opportunity for parents to ask questions, to get to know the instructors, and to get rid of any wild misconceptions they might have about what children’s self-defense might look like.

Doesn’t It Terrify Them?

“What makes you think they’re not already frightened?”

~ Irene van de Zande, KIDPOWER

In her book, Beauty Bites Beast, Ellen Snortland recounts asking Irene van der Zande, an instructor with KIDPOWER, that very question, adding, “But isn’t it awful, isn’t it sad, for kids to have to confront violence so early?”

Ms. van der Zande responded that kids are already frightened, and then provided some logic from her young daughter:

“If we lived in dinosaur days, we’d have to worry about being eaten.”

Part of growing up is learning how to deal with life’s risks and coping with danger as well as we can. If taught correctly, children’s self defense classes don’t instill fear. They teach children how to handle the fears they already have.

We teach children to be safe around water, but they can still have fun swimming. We teach children to be careful with electricity, but they don’t think twice before charging their phones. We teach them to put their seatbelts on, but they don’t panic about accidents every time they get into a car.

Through fun, games, and honest communication, children can be taught to set healthy verbal, emotional, and physical boundaries and guard their emotional and physical well-being.

In fact, we believe that learning safety skills gives children a sense of security.

What Do Children Do In a Self-Defense Class?

"Self-defense training provides survival skills… short, sweet, and effective. The more you know and the more skills you have, the less 'violent' your defense can be. Children deserve to have these skills, too.

~ Wendi Dragonfire, Self-Defense and Martial Arts Instructor

It’s easy to imagine a children’s self-defense class being similar to a martial arts class, with a lot of punching and kicking.

However, we limit the physical skills we teach and do whatever we can to make sure that children don’t misuse them on the playground. And while we do want children to feel empowered, we don’t want them to develop a false sense of “I can do this myself” and not think to ask for help when they need it.

Classes are fun and high-energy, and are tailored to children’s mental, emotional, and physical capabilities.

So what do we teach?

  • Setting healthy verbal, emotional, and physical boundaries.

  • Assessing situations of risk and boundary violation.

  • Differentiating between strangers and people we know.

  • Using voice and assertive body language as a deterrent, a display of confidence and power.

  • Simple, effective physical techniques specially developed for children.

All activities are designed to enhance self-image and self-worth.

Here's Master Arlene Limas, TaeKwonDo practitioner, multiple international gold medalist, and ESD Camp 2018 participant, adapting one of our favorite boundary setting activities for a group of young girls:

What Are Some of the Challenges Of Teaching Children?

"Learning to work with children requires learning a whole new language."

~ Esti Lifschitz, self-defense and Karate Instructor

Because teaching children involves such specific skills and facing a unique set of challenges, children are often the last group instructors learn to teach.

​​Besides dealing with short attention spans and high energy, instructors need to meet the children’s need for repetition while keeping activities new and fresh.

They also need to learn a new way of speaking.

Instead of using big, scary words, we need to find simple and easy terminology that’s easy for children to understand. One of the most common terms is “bikini parts.”

Another challenge for instructors is the emotional toll. While classes are fun and create a sense of change and hope, it’s sad to think of the trauma so many children face.

However, as challenging as working with children may be, the job is also extremely gratifying. Ilana Gamliel, an instructor who regularly works with kids, told us that, "The best part about teaching children in how much energy and enthusiasm they have. Teaching really young children is especially wonderful because of how much love they show for the classes and the teacher."

Do Children’s Self-Defense Classes Actually Work?

“Because the sooner they learn about healthy boundaries, the healthier they’ll be as they grow up.

Stronger selves, stronger relationships, stronger everybody.”

~ Matthew O’Brien, IMPACT Safety, Ohio

​​We hear success stories all the time.

One parent told us about how her daughter held her hands up to a seemingly scary dog and yelled, “NO!” The dog backed off.

Another parent told us about a well-meaning soldier at a playground who was playing a bit too roughly with her son. Her son didn’t hesitate to tell the soldier to back off, and the soldier did.

But after a few minutes, the two worked it out and started having fun together.

That right there is the core of empowerment self-defense for any age. Everyone has a right to set boundaries that will allow them to create healthy, meaningful relationships.

Here's one more success story:

Final Thoughts

“I truly believe that children who are taught to respect and protect their own bodies will grow into adults who will respect and protect the bodies of others as well.”

~ Yehudit Zicklin-Sidikman, ESD Global President

The time has come to create a shift in education, and give children opportunities their parents and grandparents most likely didn’t have.

Yes, we want children to learn to read, get involved in STEM and maybe learn a sport. All of those skills, of course, will help them succeed in life.

But in order for children to truly grow up and become successful adults, they need to get through childhood in one piece.

Which is why in addition to everything else we do to teach our children about safety, we need to give them the tools they need to be safe around people.

Children deserve to be taught how to protect their autonomy and their souls, and their bodies - the greatest gift they’re given.

We believe that children who are taught to respect themselves, their bodies, and their right to say “good for me” or “not good for me” will grow into adults who will have that respect for others also.

And that really will change the world.

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