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The Secret of the Upstander Kid

In the time I've spent teaching martial arts to kids since 1991, and I've been fortunate to not have had too many conversations like this one:

Parent: "Mr. Alonzo, thank you for your teaching my child and thank you for your positive influence on him/her. Grades are up, they're more respectful at home, etc.

Lately though, they're being bullied at school, and he or she isn't defending him or herself. Would you mind speaking to them?"*

Me: "Well that's because we teach them from the beginning to not use those skills to bully others, but I guess they don't realize that they have permission to defend themselves, and that it doesn't make them a bad person if they have to do so." I'd then proceed to identify what types of attacks their oppressor used on them, and match self-defense techniques to the attacks that they used. Furthermore, I'd emphasize the need to do everything in their power to avoid having to fight at school. (No shame in walking away.)

Since then, though, I've come to realize that although my students knew how to defend themselves, there was a gap in understanding exactly when or if they were allowed to use their skills at school. To be fair, bullying is a complicated issue that continues to baffle school administrators and teachers alike.

Bullying is an epidemic that's effected the learning experience for so many kids that we have to take it seriously. Gone are the days of seeing it as a possibility, as it's now an unfortunate eventuality. Relying on the empathy of bystanders to step up in numbers to defend a bullied classmate is a wonderful idea, and it's brought communities together in tolerance for differences and empathy for the outcast. But when a bullying victim is left to fend for him or herself alone, this becomes no more than wishful thinking.

Besides, what are we teaching kids if, whenever they're faced with an aggressive situation like that, they have to rely on others (even older siblings) to help them? No victim shaming intended here, but eventually, the need for self-reliance is inevitable. The next step in evolving through adolescence into adulthood is that sooner or later, society dictates--demands-- that we learn to stand up for ourselves. The value of advocating for ourselves cannot be overstated, and it becomes easier the younger we are when we learn to do so. Girls who learn to stand up for themselves at an early age grow into confident teenagers who, in turn, grow into strong women. Win/Win!

But what is it that makes some kids more resistant to bullying than others? It's Passion! The secret lies in helping kids to find an activity that they're passionate about. Not only do these extra-curricular activities give kids the kind of self-esteem that allows them to brush off the teasing & the gossip, but it also gives them a separate circle of friends to help buoy them up when they've endured a rough day of teasing at school. If a child hasn’t found theirs yet, just knowing how bullying works and knowing how to deal with it effectively is the best way to plant seeds of resistance in them...

Resistance to bullying is really about three things: personal space, self-esteem, and setting effective boundaries, with protocols in place to fall back on should a conflict escalate to the physical level. Cyber bullying reminds us that the most vulnerable and precious of personal spaces isn't in the physical realm (although it can certainly start there), but in the space between our ears. Kids nowadays almost have to prepare themselves emotionally to deal with the growing variety social adversities. Having their mind preoccupied with activities that they're passionate about can take their minds off of that negativity and keep the bullying off their mind.


An upstander is someone who Stands Up for themselves and for others when a bullying incident occurs. Upstanders are smart, compassionate, helpful and heroic. They possess empathy and the courage to take action, but many aren't equipped to handle the physical or emotional repercussions of their resistance.

At Upstander Kids Anti-Bullying Camp, kids learn about how bullying works, and why & how perpetrators choose their victims. We also empower them with verbal & nonverbal defenses to use at school. And since bullying isn't exclusive to school campuses, we prepare girls and boys for the possibility of escalated aggression by training them

in traditional martial arts and age-appropriate self-defense concepts. These activities give them the grit necessary to deal with bullying too.

In Camp, kids also learn that the size and disposition of one's personal space is often a reflection of their mood: When we're happy, our personal space expands to include friends & loved ones. Likewise, when we're sad, shy, or riddled with worry, we tend to want to be alone. But happiness isn't the only mood that expands personal space. When we get angry, our personal space can expand too, but instead of bringing people together, anger tends to make us want to push other people around. When someone close to us is angry, for example, sometimes we just need to give them more space.

I like to explain it to young students like this: Personal Space is the atmosphere of one's comfort zone, and boundaries are the force fields that serve to a) welcome friends & loved ones; b) warn against possible intrusion; or c) reinforce, defend or evade when necessary. The anti-bullying protocols that we teach requires kids to learn how to defend themselves first without having to strike or kick. Later, they'll learn how to protect themselves against strikes, kicks and grabs too. Bullying role play can make these reactions habitual, and to prepare them emotionally for such confrontations.


We're all familiar with the anxieties of being the last one chosen for team sports or games. It's no fun! To quote one of my heroes, Fred Rogers, though, "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood." In addition to providing a canvas for so much social learning, play also provides ample opportunities to understand the value one's own personal space as well as that of others. Furthermore, it allows kids to exercise setting different types of boundaries, and learn which boundaries are most effective for each situation.

It's been said that "you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." Invariably, personal space & comfort zones are challenged during play time, and when a child discovers that theirs has been challenged or compromised, our process at Camp reminds them (or they're reminded by other kids even!) that it's probably time to vocally apply their verbal boundaries in an assertive way.

The path of socialization for children who don't play sports can be challenging. Our team sports and games activities pair more experienced kids with rookies to an activity, and partners are switched at regular intervals to learn how to be good leaders and effective team players. The experienced kids become the ambassadors to new activities. And since kids have strengths & deficiencies in different sports or games, taking turns teaching one another about each allows kids to practice mindfulness and experience empathy.

During one of our very first summer camps, for example, one boy discovered that he not only enjoys playing soccer, but that he was actually quite good at it! The look on his face when he made this realization, and the look of pride on his friend's face for having taught him how to play? Priceless.

Childhood is supposed to be about such experiences, isn't it?

*It should be noted that none of these parents ever expressed a problem with their child getting sent to the principal's office for defending themselves from bullying after going through the customary channels and making sure that any and all teachers, principals, admins, janitors, etc. were of their situation so that there is at least a trail of disclosure before having to resort to violence.

#bullying #kids #school #empathy #martialarts #enrichment