In Which I Teach Kids Self-Defense

I’ve had a lot of noise in my head lately about how to protect children, especially after writing two articles for the Gazette on Penn State, and viewing this awesome clip of my friend Lynne Marie speaking at an anti-violence rally.

One of the things that bothered me the most was my son worrying about being left at basketball practice because of “that coach who molested that kid and no one called the police.”

So I’m trying to take my own advice and give my kids some real power over their bodies. This morning we opened the super fun box of Christmas delights so we could start working on some Christmas crafts.

Miss M and Miss G were fighting over a little baggie full of foam Christmas beads. I was busy cleaning up the remnants of the exploded box, so I told them to walk away, use their words, etc. (You know, all the things you yell at them from across the room when you can’t get there fast enough to break it up.)

But it wasn’t working, and Mr. R decided he was going to get in on the action. He went over and started slapping at the two girls who were already slapping at each other. Miss G just took it as a challenge and started slapping both Miss M and Mr. R. But Miss M started to cry.

I pulled them all apart and looked right in Miss M’s eyes. I said, “I want you to practice this with me. ‘NO!!!'” and I put my hand out like stop-in-the-name-of-love. At first she just looked at me with the tears still coming, like, are you yelling at me? What’s going on here?

I said, “I want you to practice your strong voice. When you cry and scream it only makes him want to hit you more. You have to make him want to stop. So, do this. ‘NO!!!'” The other girls started practicing.

“That’s great! Miss C, let me hear your strong voice!” She did it again, and the other girls took a turn.

I said, “Now try to make your voice really low,” because they still sounded like 3-year-old-girl squeaky toys. I showed them again but just sounded like a bear with indigestion. They knew it. “Ha ha Amy you sound like a bear!”

I said, “You’re right, I do. Now growl and say ‘NO!!!'”

We kept it up for a while and laughed at our silly voices. I told them that it was always OK to do this, and that I wanted to see growling bears instead of crying.

Then it was time to make lunch so I put out their drinks and snuck into the kitchen. Right after I disappeared, I finally heard a very loud “NO!!!” from Miss M. I winked at her but didn’t say anything (she likes to work stuff out on her own – you’re not really supposed to know about it).

The kids will sometimes sit at the table and wait while I make lunch. During this time, Mr. R likes to touch Miss G’s cup and make her cry (for a 2-year-old boy, this is a very interesting cause and effect toy). So after about thirty seconds in the kitchen I heard four girls yell “NO!” I glanced through the doorway and saw four stop-sign hands aimed at Mr. R.

It was lovely to see this, but it’s something I have to keep practicing. I’ve taught kids this from the start and like everything else, I have to teach it over and over. Like yesterday when we had to pull out the old “If you’re angry and you know it” song sheet and review what we should do when we’re angry.

But I do hope this will stick with them. I might start using it myself, in fact, when I’m surrounded by children who are hanging on my body or whining for me to do something for them. And most importantly, I have to work it into the conversation while my own boys are home. They’re getting some damn good fighting skills just from wrestling with each other, but I want them to feel that powerful in case they’re ever in a situation where the person is someone who isn’t just playing around.

Time to Walk the Walk

My brain has been totally occupied with the idea of social justice lately. Just taught a class with my brilliant friend Lynne Marie about self-protection skills for kids and adults. It is an intense, amazing experience to take simple concepts and put them to work in order to make yourself a more effective person in general.

It’s something that, for those of us who don’t have it, seems so brilliant and enviable when we see someone who does. The ability to just tell someone “These are my boundaries, this is how it is, don’t mess with me,” with utter conviction, confidence, and no regret.

I want it!!

Today one of my kids who likes to be the boss plowed right into another one and knocked him down. She’s been having a hard time lately with big emotions so I’ll admit I’ve been taking it easy on her. But when I see a take-down for no reason than “You’re in my way,” I naturally spring into action. There’s no way I’m going to tolerate anyone doing something like that, I don’t care how bad you’re PMSing.

I immediately looked her in the eye and said “Hey! We do NOT do that to people!” She got a little upset and ran away but I expected that. What I didn’t expect was my Younger Son cheering,

“Yeay for Mommy!!”

OK, yea, I was just REALLY happy that one of my kids approved of something I did. I’ll own that.

But it hit me, while my brain has been occupied with social justice, that what kids want is for adults to take care of business. They see everything that’s going on. They hear adults talking the talk – about being fair and respectful to everybody, and expecting kids to behave in the same way. But how often do they see us walk it?

And how often do the big-talking adults respond when they see an injustice happening?

This is where half of all teenage angst comes from, I’m sure of it.

Kids see the unfairness that sometimes happens in life and they want us to see it too (and ideally, DO SOMETHING about it). One of life’s hardest lessons is finding out that sometimes we can’t do anything about those injustices. But how do they feel when there’s an easy one and they see an adult choose to ignore it rather than do the right thing?

I know there are times in my child care when somebody gets away with something. I may be doing something else and not see it happen, or too busy or tired or just not interested in doling out consequences that very moment. A lot of the time the littles don’t know or care, or they’ve already moved on and I don’t have to worry about it.

(Don’t freak, I would never leave a hurt child crying but sometimes they really don’t care, and why should I undermine their brilliant self-confidence and incredible ability to move on by stepping in and informing them that they should be really offended and hurt?)

It was Martin Luther King day a few weeks ago and I read in the newspaper about a man who, when he saw another man being beaten during a protest, laid his body down on top of that man to protect him.


Would I be willing to do the same? Sadly, I probably wouldn’t because, as we’ve already covered, I’m a big chicken. But I would at least call for help. And I hope that as I move through the world, especially when my kids are with me and watching, that I will have the strength to stand for what is right.

Disgruntled Dad and the Playground Incident

Well it happened again. We made a spectacle of ourselves. And my poor mother was there so I have to say Mom – you did a hell of a job of riding it out with me.

We were at another “journey into history” museum (we just couldn’t get enough of them this summer). The playground had a tunnel slide and for some reason (because they’re both monkeys? Young and energetic boys? Rulebreakers?) my boys always have to climb to the top of these slides. On the outside.

Well the security guard (why? In case someone tries to steal an earthen pot?) didn’t like that at all and came over to tell them to get down. The dad who was standing nearby seemed pleased.

Oh yeah, I’d seen him giving my boys the eye. He didn’t like that they were up there and he was making no bones about letting us know with his squinty-eyed glares.

There are two types of parents: those who always follow the “we go up the ladder and down the slide” rule, and those who just give up and let their kids walk up the slides because, well, isn’t that what they really want to do?

I guess you know which camp I’m in.

And honestly, I was in no mood to go and deal with the boys to make this guy feel better. We’d been walking for hours, I was resting on a shady bench, and my mother and I were actually having an uninterrupted conversation. I wasn’t going to rush to this guy’s aid. I knew the boys were fine and I wasn’t going to yell at them to make him feel better.

So after my boys were properly chastened by the guard, Disgruntled Dad came over to where Mom and I were sitting, grabbed his stroller, and stomped off without a word. I could almost hear him go “Hmph!” as he turned on his heel and flounced away. Mom said, “Maybe he thinks we’re stealing stuff out of it?”


In all fairness, I’ve been that parent. Taking my toddler and baby to a playground and worrying for their safety when there were some big-loud-wild kid bodies flailing around. I remember being terrified that my own would get knocked off the edge of the climber and plummet to their death, and hating those big kids. “Will you BE CAREFUL!?” I wanted to scream at them.

But I kept that inside. Let it play Mama, just wait and see what happens. And you know what happens most of the time? The kids are all fine. And they’re relieved that you’re not embarassing them by interfering.

Plus I have the advantage of knowing my boys. To the untrained eye they may seem terrifying, but they are also so kind and caring to little kids that it could break your heart. It probably comes from growing up in a day care and living under threat of bodily harm – from your own mother – if any of her other ducklings are hurt.

I’m exagerrating of course, but my sons have learned that I will not tolerate meanness, and I give them lots of love when they are kind. (And hopefully they’ve learned from my example? Yes? A little bit?)

I have also worked with kids for seven years now. I can see their intentions, how they’re feeling, if they’re interacting well, and when somebody’s really upset. If there’s no problem according to the kids, I’m usually going to hang back and let them have at it.

So back to Disgruntled Dad. No matter what he did, his toddler daughter kept hanging around my boys (because they’re fun?). After three minutes of chastened quiet, the guys had resumed their usual level of play and were now inside the tunnel slide, screaming and yelling at each other.

What? It makes a cool noise.

The little girl was standing at the top of the slide watching them. I could tell she had no intention of going down, but was fascinated by the animals who had taken up residence there. Dad must have thought she was trying to go down, or was just uncomfortable having his child’s body in such close proximity to beasts, so he kept urging her to come down. Nothin doin. She was being entertained.

After a few minutes and three or four tries to get her to come down, Dad decided to take another tack. “GUYS! Knock it off!” he roared into the slide. My boys, stunned and embarassed, rolled out the bottom of the slide, Younger’s dejected little face coming first.

Of course Mama Bear wanted to go over and slap that guy. Actually, my first response was the same thing I do with the day care kids – Do you see the look on his face? Look at how you made him feel! (Are you proud that you just made a seven-year-old boy almost cry?)

What did this dad teach his daughter? To be afraid? To run away from anything that seems too fun scary? Or that if you don’t know what else to do in a situation, just start yelling at people.

I was pondering all this as Dad gathered up his troops and walked back past my mother and I on the bench. I was steeling myself, trying to come up with a rational response if he confronted me. I spend my whole life talking and writing about bullying and child development – I had a lot to live up to in this moment. I had to maintain my cool and say something rational. Plus my mom was right there! I couldn’t fail.

But Disgruntled didn’t say anything, he just disappeared with his very well-protected children. My mother waited a moment before commenting. “Well. We cleared this place out!”

I love you, Mom.

It made me think of a story my friend Lynne Marie tells in this awesome post. When she was uncomfortable with something her child was doing, she checked in to see if she was OK with it, rather than imposing her own discomfort on her daughter’s play. Now that’s some fine parenting. I wish Disgruntled had tried it.

Here’s the bottom line: I wouldn’t let him push me around so he pushed my kids around instead. I was being selfish and unfortunately they got caught in the crossfire. It definitely wasn’t right for this guy to bully my kids no matter what, but in the big picture, am I making too much of it? I guess I just can’t get over the guilt that I should have stopped it, even if it was just a little barking. But in the end, I let him get away with it.

So I ask you, Moms and Dads (grandparents, caretakers, teachers, etc.). Am I overreacting because some guy yelled at my kids? Should I have stepped in? What would you have done in this situation if you were me? (And don’t say “act like a grownup.” I already know I didn’t do that!)

I Get an Editorial Shout-out

I’ve been a busy, busy girl lately, and haven’t been putting up as many posts as I would like (sorry – and there’s just so much to say! Back to school! New day care kids! Old ones graduating! Change, change, change!). Part of the reason is that I’ve been doing a lot of work for the Gazette, and my friend and inspiration Lynne Marie and I are working on a bullying prevention class for parents.

So, segue please, Amy, if you would – our editor at the Gazette, the very thoughtful Larry Parnass, gave us and our class a nice mention in Monday’s paper. And here it is:

Maintain resolve on bullying
Monday, September 13, 2010

Now that school is under way again, administrators are working to make sure a project all school committees are tackling isn’t only a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic affair. Ensuring students treat one another with respect demands a public and steady campaign.

No reasonable person thinks passage of the state’s anti-bullying law is the end of the story. When school began at Amherst Regional High School this year, Principal Mark Jackson met with entire grades to make clear that the school is paying attention not only to bullying that might take place in school, but through computer connections and social networking at home or anywhere.

Anything that interferes with a student’s ability to learn is the school’s business, he told juniors who gathered in the auditorium on the first day.

As a new year begins, members of the Aspire Project, created after an April community forum at the First Churches in Northampton, continue to work to keep the issue of disrespectful interpersonal behavior before the public. On Page 1 today, an Aspire Project story describes how the year is beginning at South Hadley High School, the educational community that faced the tragedy last January of Phoebe Prince’s suicide.

South Hadley Principal Daniel Smith notes that his school starts the year with better procedures to document and respond to bullying, but acknowledges that with 664 students, his institution must get the word out to many people through consistent and repeated messages.

He said students were informed on the second day that the school has adopted new anti-bullying procedures.

Even so, Smith acknowledges there is a difference between informing students about new rules – and changing their behavior.

“You will be talking to a student and you can see by their face that they understand and agree,” Smith told Kira Choate, author of today’s Aspire Project story. “But minutes later you see them in the hallway acting contrary to what they just agreed to. It’s something that happens with teenagers. By providing constant guidance and awareness I think we will see a change.”

We think Smith has it right. If bullying were an easy problem to confront and correct, it wouldn’t have produced so much anguish for so many people, here and everywhere. It is as real and durable as the worst aspects of human nature.

Now that a new school year is upon us, this is the time for our schools, and the community at large, to gather the strength and resolve needed to reach those people still inclined to demean others. They need to be convinced, not just told, that if they try to exercise power over others, they will be called out.

Throughout the fall, school districts will be working to conform to requirements laid out in the state’s new anti-bullying law. One of them is that schools develop clear ways to handle reports of misbehavior.

A new online reporting system for suspected incidents of bullying is being readied and may go online in South Hadley in October. That system seems promising, but presents its own challenges.

Administrators must be careful to screen reports and not allow students whose names turn up in reports of bullying to be accused unfairly.

It isn’t only families with school-age children who are taking these issues to heart. Two members of the Aspire Project, Amy Pybus and Lynne Marie Wanamaker, both of Easthampton, have been offering suggestions on ways to help younger children grow up with a strength of spirit and a self-possession that help protect them from being made victims of hostility.

Later this month, Pybus and Wanamaker will lead a free workshop in Florence. In a recent Aspire Project article, they described their approach to teaching children these skills.

“Our kids are watching us, constantly, with hawk eyes, to learn how to relate to the world,” they wrote. “Our job is to show them that each and every one of us is a valuable being who deserves respect. We must be ready to model this in every aspect of family life.”

On Sept. 28, they will gather with interested parents to talk about ways that young children can learn how to live in ways that leave them prepared to deal with people who might overstep boundaries.

The session is free and open to all from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Lilly Library Community Room. Pre-registration is required, however. To sign up, send an email message to or call Lynne Marie Wanamaker at 527-8317.

We appreciate the time and talent the two women are investing in this effort. And over the coming year, we applaud all those in our schools who keep in mind that a community that allows even one of its members to be mistreated doesn’t deserve to be called a community.

It’s me again. I agree with the sentiments, and Principal Smith’s quote is actually the basis for my next piece: why do teens look like they understand you, and then go out and do the exact opposite of what they agreed to do? More on that coming soon…