My seven-year old daughter, Small, follows me into the basement as I’m doing the laundry. She’s prattling on about her new recess activity—kick-ball—when the conversation takes a turn into self-defense:
Mama, Laurie said that she won’t be my BFF anymore if I keep playing kick-ball at recess! But I was the first first-grade girl to start playing kick-ball with the boys. It’s because of me that the other girls are playing now. I’m the head of the kick-ball crew and I feel really proud of that! But Laurie says she hates kick-ball and she won’t even try it. And now she says we can’t be BFFs anymore unless I stop playing.
If you think that self defense means hitting and kicking people you’re probably appalled that some first grade playground peer pressure has me counseling my kid to slug someone.
“Stay away from that kid,” you might think. “Her mama packs mace in her lunch-box.”
But that’s not what self defense means to me. Because I train in the Feminist Empowerment Model, and because I understand self defense as a spiritual, physical and community practice that begins with compassion for self and others, hitting and kicking people is but a single piece of the pie. Since Small was born I’ve been parenting with a mind towards the core skills I believe she’ll need to keep herself safe in this world.
One of those skills is intuition. When Small tells me about Laurie’s threat, she is noticing that coercion doesn’t feel good. As a mama, I want my girl to have a fool-proof coercion detector. I want her to know when someone’s trying to wheedle her out of her own best interest. So I stop with the laundry and look at her, ask her some questions to draw out her own insight about Laurie’s behavior:
- How does it feel that Laurie’s asking you to stop doing something that’s really important to you?
- Does it seem fair that she’ll only be your friend if you do what she says?
- Is it fun for you to have a friend like that?
- Why do you think Laurie acts like that?
Having detected coercion is one thing; having the guts and skill to handle it appropriately is another. So we have another go-round in the realm of strong voice. We’ve been working on strong voice for so long that Small’s an old pro—she asks right away, “Mama, can we do a role-play?”
We go back and forth with the roles, practicing different approaches. I remind Small of the elements of strong voice: use a firm, loud voice; make eye contact; stand in a confident stance. It turns out that the component that needs practice is this one: Use a statement, not a question. Small practices saying “I prefer kickball. I want to be your friend, but I don’t want to stop playing.” I think it’s an improvement over her first attempt: “Why don’t you like kickball? You’ve never even tried it!” She also thinks of a compromise she’d like to offer Laurie: she’ll play with her at one recess if Laurie will let her play kick-ball without harassment during the other.
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some part of me that wanted to slug Laurie by now--this bossy bossy bossy girl! Why is she messing with my baby, the Queen of the Kick-ball Crew? But I am grateful for this opportunity to practice while the stakes are small. I know that Laurie is a sweet, polite girl who always greets Small with a hug. She has an older sister, and Small has confided that she thinks that’s why Laurie is so bossy. “Her sister is always bossing her, so she bosses her friends.”
It’s a few days later that Small notifies me that she’s creating distance in her relationship with Laurie. “I’m getting to be better friends with Emma, Ana and Kathy,” she tells me as she stows her backpack into its cubby. “That’s good because I’m kind of breaking up with Laurie. As my friendship with Laurie is going down, my friendship with the other girls is going up. I think Laurie is just too bossy.”
I’ve had parents tell me that they don’t want their young daughters to learn self defense because they don’t want to expose them to the ugly scenarios where a woman might need to use intuition, a strong voice, or the ability to create distance—let alone those where she might need to use her hitting and kicking. I get that. My Small lives in a world where the worst thing that could happen is that your BFF tries to make you stop playing kickball. I want to keep her in that rose-colored world as long as I can.
But I want her to grow her self protection muscles early, and practice her self defense skills often. Because when someone tries to coerce her into drinking, or riding in a car with someone who’s been drinking, or doing something sexually that she doesn’t want to do--I want her to know in her bones that coercion doesn’t feel good. If she doesn’t feel good about something that’s about to happen—cheating, shoplifting, drinking, bullying, sexual behavior—I don’t want her to stare at her feet and mumble, not sure of how to say what needs to be said. I want her to use a loud strong voice and a statement, not a question. When she notices that a situation is not safe for her, I want her to be able to distance herself from it, whether it’s a party or a hang-out or a friendship or a love interest.
My kid isn’t in charge of her own schedule yet, but I’ve started teaching her how to read the clock. She isn’t fully responsible for her own dental hygiene, but she’s had her own toothbrush as long as she’s had teeth. I still cook all of her meals, but she can crack an egg and make a salad. Long before she needs any of these life skills I make sure she practices them.
We live in a world that is not yet safe for girls and women. I cannot wait to teach her how to protect herself. We have to practice now.
The Five Fingers of Self Defense