Should I Teach My Child to Defend Himself?

By Dr. Michelle Alvarez, Consulting Educator


My son just received three days in an alternative school for defending himself in a fight. What is upsetting me is that if he did not defend himself, he would be bullied. So what is a parent to do? What is right? Teach your child to defend himself or teach him to allow bullies to pick on him?


I would assume your son is in middle or high school. I will also assume that by using the term "alternative school" you are referring to a program within the home-school that is "in-school suspension." Regardless of the terminology and grade level, you bring up a legitimate issue as to what to tell our children about defending themselves when physically attacked.

In most cases a student is aware there is a problem before it gets physical. Did your student talk with his counselor, assistant principal, school social worker or another adult in the building prior to the incident to indicate there was a problem? Did you know about the disharmony ahead of time and inform the school?

Educators are trained to deal with bullying and other types of issues. Many schools have peer mediation, where concerns are addressed prior to escalating into a physical confrontation; however, an adult in the school must be notified there is a problem. Being proactive is always better than being reactive. Students have choices; they need to learn there are alternatives to violence in most cases.

As a parent I would want to know what really started the altercation in the first place? Did my child say something inappropriate or was he totally innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever? It takes two people to fight. Was there an adult witness to the fight?

Most schools provide a student handbook or a copy of student conduct rights, responsibilities, discipline policy and student rules at the beginning of each school year, or when a student enrolls in a new school. Violation of any rule can result in disciplinary action. Discipline helps to keep and ensure order and safety in schools. In most schools when students fight, they are suspended from school or placed in an alternative setting. This time is used not only as a "cooling off period" for those that fought but to also let all students know there are consequences to fighting, fighting is unacceptable, and fighting will not be tolerated.

You did not state your child had been bullied but "he would be bullied" if he did not fight. If your child is a victim of bullying, it is imperative that school officials be notified immediately. In some instances bullying is a cry for help. By notifying school officials, you may be affording him the counseling and help needed to change inappropriate behavior.

But we have to treat everyone equally, victim and aggressor alike.

What you can do is learn more about the discipline policy of your son's school and become active in advocating for any changes that need to be made. Some schools have committees that address school issues and this might be your opportunity to participate and provide parent input. A clear code of conduct that is consistently implemented among the school administrators is an important first step. A schoolwide bullying prevention program might be another step or you may want to talk with the administration about the procedures that are in effect in the school for bullying. You may also want to volunteer to serve on a committee to help initiate a policy if one is not in place. Make no mistake. Bullying is not a laughing matter and requires attention.

Editor's note: Because of the volume of comments we received about this article, we asked the authors to respond. Here's what they had to say:

Should I Teach My Child to Defend Himself? A Follow-Up Response

What is apparent in the responses to this question is that many parents are frustrated when they feel that they have contacted school personnel and "nothing is done about it." Bullying is very traumatic for the victim and it is essential that the bullying be addressed immediately. Many respondents felt that their children should have parental permission to defend themselves. However, this is not a recommended response in research published on bullying. In fact, the opposite is true. Teaching children to respond with calmness and confidence is suggested.

Early intervention is the first key to a good outcome for the student, parent and school. What was stated in the original response to this question was that, "Being proactive is always better than being reactive." The response also suggested the student tell an adult at school. To provide further resources on the topic of what the student can do in reaction to bullying, please see the following Web sites:

Stop Bullying Now

Pacer Center's Kids Against Bullying

Many Web sites provide ideas for what parents can do to help their children who are being bullied. Most sites advocate for empowering children and youth to learn to handle the bullying and put a stop to it early. In this way they learn the skills they need to prevent it from happening in the future, even if an adult doesn't listen to their report of bullying. Some of the resources include the following:

Back Off Bully

Mental Health

We noted a frustration with schools that do not respond to student/parent reports of bullying. The following two Web sites offer some good ideas about gathering data to present to the school to support your claims. Ideas included in these sites include learning about the chain of command and following it (teacher, principal, superintendent); identifying a reasonable response time to know when to move up the chain of command; contacting other parents to see if they have reported bullying and received a response; and when to get the police involved. These two resources, from the National Mental Health Information Center are:

What Can Parents Do?

How to Talk With Educators at Your Child's School About Bullying: Tips for Parents of Bullied Children

Prevention programs beginning in early childhood help create a school culture that does not tolerate violence and sets a standard for expectations when bullying occurs. Some examples of research-based programs include:

Second Step: A Violence Prevention Curriculum

Get Real About Violence

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program

Prevention programs can be funded by grants from local business (perhaps your employer) and local foundations. You can help the schools access programs for which they currently do not have funds. Much of education funding (as noted in the reader comments) is targeted to academic instruction due to increased accountability being placed on the schools. This does not mean that school districts do not address bullying nor does it mean they do not want to employ a research-based program to address bullying. With limited funds, schools must leverage all resources available to them.

Addressing bullying is the responsibility of the community, schools, parents and youth. Bullying occurs in many settings and must be addressed in an organized and purposeful manner.

Dr. Michelle Alvarez is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Indiana and project director of Safe Schools/Healthy Students for the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation. A former school social worker in Pinellas County, Florida, she is co-editor of School Social Work: Theory to Practice and chair of the National Association of Social Workers, School Social Work Section. She is also the parent of a special needs child.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.