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posted: 3/6/2014 10:17 AM

For some kids, self-defense can become offensive

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A minister friend of mine tells the following story.

Seems he and his wife were out running some errands and passed a storefront martial arts academy. They were rather surprised to see the class consisted almost entirely of small children, many of whom seemed barely old enough to be in school.

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Small as they were, though, they kicked, punched and chopped with skill and enthusiasm. They were downright cute, if you didn't think too much about what they were really doing.

My friend and his wife did think about it. And they became a bit concerned.

We probably all remember the playground "fights" we witnessed or were involved in when we were children. They consisted primarily of a lot of angry looks and words, some pushing, shoving and grappling, and an occasional slap or punch. Seldom did anyone really get hurt. We would have been scared to death if they had.

Such fights are a normal part of growing up and learning about things like dealing with conflict, expressing emotions, and the difference between assertiveness and aggression.

As we get older, we usually learn more constructive, nonviolent ways of behaving. Fortunately, as we aren't all that deadly in our childhood violence, this learning process is fairly safe for everyone involved.

Or maybe we should say "was." That's the point of my friend's story. Here were all these young children learning to be much more efficient in being violent. And they were learning these lessons long before they would have the cognitive or emotional maturity to really control their violent behavior.

It is rather like giving a 5-year-old a loaded gun. That's not something most parents would do. We realize there is no way a 5-year-old is grown up enough to handle such a responsibility.

Yet, at least some of us are comfortable with giving our children access to "weapons" -- martial arts skills -- which are almost as lethal. And more insidious: we can recognize when someone points a gun at us and can try to get out of the way, yet when our children wind up in a playground fight they have no way of knowing if the other child is just waiting for a chance to "kung fu your head off" (as I heard a first-grader put it the other day).

Now, it's not that I'm opposed to martial arts training. I studied martial arts in college and I'm glad I did.

I just think we parents have to consider what is age-appropriate for our children and choose their activities accordingly. And as a family therapist, I've got some real problems with a first-grader knowing how to "kung fu your head off."

OK, so what's the alternative? Well, for starters, I'd spend some time teaching our children about how to deal with conflict in non‑violent ways like talking things out, walking away, calling in an adult authority, etc.

However, knowing that kids can get pretty rough, we are probably also going to have to teach our children some limited self-defense (which is different than simple martial arts). And, in the process, we might remember the first lesson my martial arts instructor -- a 6-foot, 4-inch, 220 pound black belt -- taught us: "Sometimes the best defense is just running away; hey, man, there's no shame in being smart!"

The bottom line? There is a lot of violence out there. Let's raise kids who know how to deal with it, not add to it.

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