I recently hosted a Girl’s Self-Defense and Anti-Bullying camp at my gym in the West Loop. This topic has been on our docket for a long time, but it wasn’t until a friend reached out to me about 5 days after the Presidential election that I expedited its creation. Without inciting a political discussion, he expressed serious concern over his children’s overall safety. Within a week after the 45Th Presidential election there were nationwide reports of increased bullying and harassment of children who appeared to be part of a religious or ethic minority, as well as gay/lesbian or disabled. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, 430 reports of bullying and harassment were received within the first week after the Presidential election. They admit they have not all been verified or investigated; but I believe it is relevant that it is the highest volume they have received in decades with the exception of post-911.
I want to share the amazing experience I had with this all-day camp for girls between the ages of 8-14 years old earlier this month. I feel I must reveal that my friend who asked if I could create this program is a fellow Latino. His children were already experiencing hurtful and thoughtless comments by their peers. As with any young person who experiences cruel and unwanted negative comments, it leaves them feeling confused and sad. Truth is, we could all use a class on coping with ignorant comments. The state of America is particularly hypersensitive right now. We could use some guidance in growing a thicker skin and properly responding to all commentary with poise, confidence and respect.
Staffing our Girl’s Self-Defense and Ant-Bullying Camp
The first goal of the Girl’s Self-Defense and Anti-Bullying camp was to take the doom and gloom out of the conversation about being bullied and why young people need self-defense skills. So I created a non-threatening setting for a day filled with serious conversations, art assignments, exercises and training. I staffed it with 4 women of different ages from my staff. The camp was co-led by Susan Shen, a martial arts instructor who has a Masters in Sports Psychology and myself. The assistant instructors were two outgoing young women; Lizzie Denvirs, our high-energy Assistant Youth Program Director and 14-year veteran gymnast/cheerleader; and Tiarra McGee, a recent college graduate, POW! Gym’s Office Administrator, and a Track and Field athlete.
Goals of our Girl’s Self-Defense and Anti-Bullying Camp
The camp began with a short introduction of our goals for the day. I wanted to make sure that all the girls knew why they were there. Our first class was a self-defense class focused on handling aggressive and violent actions by someone their own age. The priorities of this camp included giving the girls relevant self-defense skills and healthy coping skills when faced with mean comments.
Our first scenario focused on what to do when you are knocked down. Training began with the skill of getting up off the ground when shoved from behind. We emphasized the importance of getting up off the ground, getting into a fighting stance and using their words immediately. We never advocated for these younglings to respond with violence, but rather the need to bring as much attention to the initial aggressive act. We practiced confident reactions, a defensive position and the words ‘STOP!’
Differentiating between Rude, Mean and Bullying
Our second session focused on the difference between rude, mean and bullying. The girls were very receptive to understanding that rude is generally a person who acts without the intention of hurting someone, mean has a clear intention to hurt another and bullying is an accumulation of mean and aggressive acts that demean and/or intentionally hurt someone. I felt that once we established the simple definitions, along with a little role-playing using tone of voice to differentiate between the three, we would later circle back to discuss all of it in more detail. The girls were honest about themselves during this discussion admitting they have exhibited rude or/and mean behavior.
Kindness is Still Key
By lunchtime, the girls seemed very comfortable and they had also completed one art project focused on the dreams they have for themselves. Shen and I felt it was mandatory to also discuss the type of woman they want to become and how kindness, confidence and speaking up about right and wrong is critical. We had them describe their adult persona and then turn these characteristics into dreams. They built a dream catcher, where each strand represented the dreams they had for their future self.
3 Basic Principles we Offered the Girls
We never lost sight that we were still teaching a group of kids. We broke our day up with a game of kickball, running drills and dancing. There is no better way to make any group of people feel more cohesive and trusting than to have fun together. The rest of the day continued to circle back to our conversation about being bullied and how it affects another person. We wanted to make sure our group of girls felt sympathy and empathy for others. We placed some of this power into their hands. We gave them a few principles to guide them:
1.) you can only control yourself and not what others do,
2.) you can make responsible decisions that effect others which are grounded in kindness,
3.) you must rely on your support system to communicate wrong-doings that you witness and when you feel sad, scared, worried, afraid and isolated.
I believe the girls felt comfort in knowing these principles also steer adults. For example, I think about my actions and how I can positively impact others. I make decisions daily that are framed in kindness. I rely on my father, brothers, husband and close friends to help me work through the best and worst moments of my day and week.
Difference Between Being Bullied and Attacked
The day continued to be successful. We then moved on to dealing with a more frightening level of self-defense. My staff painted a very clear picture that differentiated between an aggressive kid one grade older, an aggressive person that might look like a kid, but is clearly the size of an adult, and an adult. We practiced some of the same skills, because they apply to a wide range of self-defense situations. But it was finally time to give the girls some skills to fight back! I was surprised by the girl’s response to the best strategy when being attacked. We circled back to the situation where they might be shoved to the ground (a possibility when surprised or even running away). As a group, they proposed that ‘playing dead’ would work. I was shocked by this answer because they have all grown up in a time where most female idols today are strong, independent and know martial arts.
I was grateful for this unexpected comment. It forced Shen and I to pivot the conversation quickly to ‘why’ they thought ‘playing possum’ was the correct action. The most consist response was, if the attacker thought you were already dead or hurt, they would leave you alone. What we realized is, the girls didn’t really understand what violence looked like. I state this without passing judgment, part of our job was to carefully communicate a simplified version of reality -based violence. I think I was personally so surprised because these were all city girls and the violence in Chicago is plastered everywhere. I am proud that successfully corrected their perception without instilling fear or over-exposure. We focused mostly on a better set of actions to ensure their safety and that violence is unpredictable. Once again, we circled back to one of our principles. You can control only yourself; therefore do not count on someone else’s actions (namely the attacker). Fighting back is the safer strategy.
4 Takeaways to Share with Parents
- I think leadership exercises are of value both at home and in our next camp. I would like to create an exercise where the older girls (10-12yrs) need to advise the younger girls (8-9 yrs) on how to handle an uncomfortable situation where rude and mean words are used.
- A conversation about feeling insecure and how those feelings sometimes shape our decisions and actions would benefit children. I plan on including a conversation about insecurity in my next camp. Since so many mean things kids say stem from insecurity, I think we should include it in our next camp dialog.
- The kids were not aware of the different forms of bullying. I believe kids would benefit from learning these definitions at home and school. It would help to reinforce the wide range of behaviors that hurt others. I personally witness relationship aggression bullying (using a friendship to manipulate, hurt or exclude another).the most in elementary aged kids.
- The program would work great for boys. I would include different kinds of art projects and use different examples throughout the camp. I am eager to see when we teach a group of boys, how they will respond when asked,’ what do you think is the best strategy to use when someone is attacking you?’