on self-defense

My husband takes the kids to karate class twice a week. Early on in the class, perhaps the second time they went, our daughter, M, asked the Grand Master, “When can I learn to hurt people?”


She asked because in school, students often feel they have the right to pick her up. As in, put their arms around her and lift her off the ground and then say, “You’re so little!” like she’s a doll or pet.

Or inconsequential.

It makes her angry, and she’s learning how to express that feeling effectively. We went to a birthday party at the zoo last month, and several boys were holding her arms and pulling her along. She was smiling and saying “Stop!” But the kids didn’t stop. I made eye contact with her and she didn’t ask me for help, but laughed and said, “They won’t stop!” I asked my husband, “Does she need help? I honestly can’t tell. I want those kids to let her go, but are they playing?”

My husband walked over and with a playful tone, with a smile on his face, grabbed her in a bear hug and said, “I have her now!” And the boys dropped her arms instantly. So instantly, that I believe those boys knew what they were doing wasn’t okay. (If they had held on and continued the game, with my husband and daughter, it would have been clear to me that she was playing, too.)

Later at home, we talked about it. Our daughter was telling us that she was trying her release moves on the boys–the moves she had learned in karate–but it didn’t work when there were so many boys.

I asked her, “Did you really want them to stop or were you playing a game–were you playing ‘prisoner’ or something?” (They play this, and roles go back and forth between captor and prisoner–our kids play this all the time.)

“I wanted them to stop! They weren’t listening, though.”

I furrowed my brow: “But you were laughing when I saw you. I couldn’t tell that you really wanted them to stop. I looked at you and you didn’t ask me for help.”

“Well I didn’t want to not be friendly.”

My husband and I both said almost in unison, “You don’t have to be friendly if you want somebody to stop.” I elaborated, making my “Mom is unhappy” face. “There — make that face if you don’t like something. Look angry when you say ‘stop.’ That is always okay.”

“Yeah, and maybe I can ask the Grand Master what to do if you have three people attacking you.”


Two days ago, M said to me of her and her friend L: “We kind of wish we weren’t so nice. I don’t mean to sound like a big shot, but there are these girls who want to be friends and we don’t really like them, and we play with them and include them, but we wish we could just say “No, we don’t want to play.”

Given that information, I said, “Well, sometimes we spend time with the people we didn’t choose ourselves. It happens. It’s a good idea to be nice in these situations.”

Yesterday, she came home and told me about one of these girls, E. E likes to confirm with our daughter that they’re “best friends, right?” E sometimes pinches our daughter’s cheek, rather hard, for no apparent reason. I asked M what she did when E pinched her cheek. “I told her it hurt, but she did it to another girl too and that girl said ‘ow’ too but E just didn’t care.”

Then our daughter described how she was playing with her hair and making crazy pony tails on top of her head. She and her good friend L, who was sick that day, often do this. E, however, decided to tell our daughter, “Stop doing that. Take those out. You look ugly!” Our daughter said, “I don’t appreciate you saying that.” (??? Really?) And E said, “What? I’m just being honest.”

(Uh, is it just me, or is E a sociopath*?)

In reacting to this story, I probably did the worst thing a mother could do:

“Well, I will say that I do not like E. She seems to not understand what being honest is. She doesn’t seem to care about how she makes you feel.”

I told our daughter that the next time E made her feel badly by being “honest” or whatever, to respond with a “Whatever, E,” while shrugging her shoulders.

It’s no karate release move, but it’s the only thing I could think of that was age appropriate.

Today, E made up a song about our daughter, singing, “she’s so stupid, she’s so ugly.” (Again: SOCIOPATH.*)

Our daughter said, “Whatever, E.” E did something to L, our daughter’s good friend, too. L also said, “Whatever, E.”

“She got the message, Mom.” (And I am thrilled.)

E learns how to behave from somebody. I cannot wait to meet her mother.

Our girl is only in the fourth grade. I hope it’s not too late to teach her what I did this week: You don’t have to be nice. There is great power in expressing your discomfort or displeasure or complete disdain. A look. A shrug… A well-timed “Whatever.”

As long as she doesn’t use these moves on me…

*a friend has pointed out that E might instead be a psychopath. Calling her a sociopath is an insult to Sherlock, as played by Benedict Cumberpatch.

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