We recently got involved in a huge facebook debate about what should happen to Joe Paterno and others at Penn State who did not do more to stop the child abuse that was happening at the school. That is turning into a philosophical debate but i do not think that we should forget the bigger issue, protecting our kids and making sure this sort of thing does not happen to them.
I taught martial arts to kids for many years and learned a lot about children's self defense and i think there are some things you can do with your kids that are more help to them than any martial arts program can be. Some times, a karate class can actually become a problem if you are not careful of several things that get overlooked as we teach our children how to kick and punch.
1. Avoid giving your kids a false sense of their skills. It was essentially important for me that the kids in my classes knew that just because they know martial arts, they can not win in a stand up fist fight with an adult that outweighs them by 50 to 100 pounds. I would usually start lessons about self defense versus grown ups by asking the kids a question like this: "Ok who would win, a grown up who has never studied karate or you?" Many, many times the kids would say that they would. Understand that for a child, especially if they are under 10 or so, to train in martial arts kind of makes you a super hero. They even have a super hero uniform. You must let them know that this is not true. One of the worst things that can happen is for a kid to get grabbed by a predator and to try and stand there and fight with them. When it comes to actual physical contact and abduction prevention, children have to strike quick and surprise and then get away. There are weight classes for a reason and if your 50 pound child feels like they can beat a 200 pound man, they are going to lose and maybe disappear God forbid they are ever in that situation.
Talk to your kids about this whether or not they train in martial arts. Let them know to be aware of their surroundings and that they will not win against someone that is that much bigger than them. I would illustrate this by explaining that even though i have been training for well over 20 years, i am not going to win in a fight against a silver back gorilla. They are too big and too strong. Awareness is the key. Let your kids know to keep their eyes and ears open and if they see someone in the distance they are unsure of, avoid that person.
2. Give your kids the confidence to scream and make a ruckus. When we would do self defense training sometimes a drill we would do was to set up an area of the gym that was the attacker's car, and then the students had to avoid getting dragged or carried there. This was a painful drill for me because i would pad up and encourage them to do whatever they had to to keep me from getting them to my car, if they ended up there they would lose the drill. We tried to encourage them to yell and scream things like "this is not my dad, help me! I am being taken!" Etc. It is really hard for kids to do this. There is a sense of embarrassment at yelling out and being loud that probably has to do with encouraging our kids to be quiet at the right times. Go outside with your kids and be loud with them. Let them know that there are times when it is appropriate to scream at the top of your lungs.
3. Be aware of your surrounding. I reiterate this because it is very important, for kids and adults really. We tend to get inside ourselves as we travel around our daily lives. Lots of people look down at the ground as they walk about and try to be unaware of what is going on around them. Looking down at the ground has two bad effects, 1) you are unaware of potential threats until they are right on you and 2) you look like prey. Predators in nature and among humans do not want to work any harder than they have to. They will pick the weakest member of the society to prey on. Be aware of what is going on around you, take note of people you see on the streets from a distance. Encourage your kids to not walk within grabbing range of adults they do not know and be aware of alleys or cover that people could hide behind. Do this with your kids, take a walk and make it an adventure. Work together to figure out places that could be dangerous and learn about staying out of range where somebody could grab you. If there is a stranger by a van on your side of the street, cross to the other side or pick a different route. If someone is following, tell your kids that they can go into a public place and let them know about adults they can ask for help. That is not just police and firemen but could be managers at a crowded grocery store, a waiter in a restaurant with other people in it, etc. Getting your kids to be smart will help them much more than teaching them how to do a roundhouse kick (which i am not discouraging, i think every one should know how to do a good roundhouse kick.)
4. Expand on the notion of strangers. We used to teach the kids in our classes that there were two kinds of strangers, bad ones and those that you thought were good ones. Strangers that you think are good strangers are your teachers, parents of your friends, martial arts teachers, etc. I would ask in class if the kids thought that i was a stranger and many times they would say no. I would then ask if they knew where i lived? What kind of car do i drive? Do i have brothers and sisters? Etc. If they did not know these things i would let them know that i was indeed a stranger. Now they think that i am a good stranger and they should treat me with that respect as they should with their teachers at school, police officers, etc. but these people do not have the right to do certain things. A really big one is to ask the kids to be alone with them. No adult has a right to ask your kids this. I would ask things of them such as, "If your math teacher says, hey we are going to go to my house after school to work on math problems. Should you go? If i asked you to come with me to the gym to practice your karate should you go? Etc." Make your children aware of the things that are allowed of adults and when adults are crossing the line. Even if your child knows someone very well, that person has no right to ask your child to come home with them. This seems obvious to us as adults, but it is not with small kids, especially when someone has won their trust or is in a hero type role.
5. Let your kids know when it is all right to say no to an adult. This is a really really big one. We give mixed messages to kids. Don't talk back to adults contradicts in a child's brain with respect your elders and listen to adults. This also goes along with 4 above. A stranger a child does not know can stun them into submission with a demanding statement like, "Get in the car!" Your child's mind can have a moment of pause while reconciling the two commands in their head. They know they should not talk to strangers, but they also usually are supposed to listen to adults, and they are presented with one giving an order. This is even more needed when the child is confronted by an authority figure in their life. This is the case with the allegations at Penn State. Children were brought into the showers by someone they trusted and respected. In some way, they are following what they have been taught by listening to what their coach said. You have to give your kids permission to say no to adults at some times and you have to have some hard conversations about the kinds of things that they are allowed to say no to. Let kids know that adults have no right to ask them to go places with them unless they have your explicit permission. Also teach children that no one has a right to violate the privacy of their own bodies.
6. Remember why we want to keep our kids safe in the first place. These conversations can be scary for kids so i would always end the classes on self defense by explaining why we teach them these things. Really, the great majority of kids are not going to have to go through the really ugly awful things that we hear about in the news. They are so shocking partially because they are so unusual and beyond the norm. We teach our kids to be safe because we want them to enjoy their lives. I would tell the kids, "i am not teaching you these things because i want you to be afraid, but because i want you to not have to live in fear." That to me is one of the greatest things the martial arts has ever given to me. I do not live in fear. I feel that i am armed with a knowledge that can allow me to go confidently through my life. Tell your kids that too. We teach them these things so that they can be brave in the world, a world that can be dangerous, but can also be wonderful. Give your kids this confidence so that they can avoid being victims, but also so that they can have the confidence and power to help others as well. For example, let your kids know that they should tell you or authorities when something happens like they are approached by a stranger outside of the school or if someone is asking them inappropriate things.
In all of the talk about Penn State, no matter what your views are, remember that the ultimate goal of all of ours should be to make sure that these things happen to no one. Educated kids can help to make this a reality and to keep them safe from the hideous among us who would prey on the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society. The conversations may be difficult, but have them with your kids, you might just save their life and the lives of others at the same time.