Teaching my son to defend himself - with kindness and also headbutts

My nine-year-old son headbutted me the other day, and it hurt him more than it hurt me.

In fact, a goose egg emerged on his forehead within a minute, and when he realised what had happened, he began to cry.

Holding him in my arms, I dried his tears and congratulated him on a well-timed collision.

I taught him how to do that.

He is strong and tall, with large bones, like his father.

We have discussed the whole Spider-Man "with great power comes great responsibility" adage and my son understands if he is bigger than the other children, he has to be more careful when engaging in that puppy-like behaviour kids seem to get into at this age.

He and his classmates learn at school that they must respect one another and be helpful and nice.

At home, we have discussions daily about what it means to be a good friend and why it matters that we are open-minded and considerate to all.

He is kind and empathetic, a rule follower who wants to do the right thing. I am encouraging that because I want him to be kind.

I also want him to be able to protect himself and others fiercely when necessary.

And, perhaps, I want him to have the advantage of self-defence in the hope that he will be able to protect himself - and others - from assaults like the ones I have experienced.

My emotional scars affect both my son and my husband. I try to contain my anxiety for their safety; part of it manifests itself in practising self-defence with my son.

When he was much smaller, we started to wrestle and practise what to do if someone was trying to hurt him.

Gently and with age-appropriate words, I taught him about stranger danger, as well as how to scream and what to do when he is lost. We have talked about good touch, bad touch and how his body is his own.

As he got bigger and stronger, he wanted me to tackle him and he wanted to tackle me in return. I would pin him to the ground and talk him through how to fight back.

He knows if someone is actively trying to hurt him, he can bite, punch, scratch and headbutt to get away. (Not at school, however, I tell him. Getting expelled would not be a positive outcome.)

Maybe - probably - I am drilling him on self-defence as a way to cope with my own history as a sexual assault survivor.

Our rough-and-tumble practice gives me a small sort of comfort that maybe if he were in a compromising situation, muscle memory would take over and give him the tools he needs to escape.

"Having only one tool in your toolbox in any situation doesn't work," family doctor and parenting expert Deborah Gilboa says.

"Teach kids to interact with empathy and kindness first. Try to understand where someone is coming from.

"Give them the option to walk away from a touchy situation. And also, explain to them when it's acceptable to hit back."

My positive, rosy-outlook self wants to believe if my son is kind to everyone, life will be a bowl of cherries. The fearful, Mama Bear side wants him to know how to fend off a bully because we all know bullies will pop up.

Speak softly, but carry a big stick and all that.

My son is still learning the nuances of social situations and decision-making.

Ms Gilboa says he is in the process of understanding all the tools available to him and he will learn how to prioritise.

When he is in high school, for instance, if he sees someone taking advantage of a girl, expressing compassion and kindness should not be the first option. Nor, potentially, should using his fists.

But teaching him situational awareness and empowering him to understand the consequences of his reaction will benefit him and the people around him.

"There will be times in a kid's life when he will be so angry he wants to hit something," says Ms Gilboa.

"If you give kids context on how to handle those feelings and when fighting back is appropriate, they can avoid losing control, along with accompanying feelings of rage and shame.

"Talk through situations and consequences with him and make it clear that if an adult is trying to hurt him, all bets are off.

"He can use all the tools in his toolbox and go berserk if it means getting away from a bad guy."

I know. Fists and kindness do not go hand in hand. There is no part of me that wants my son to hit another child or an adult, ever.

But I also do not want him to be at the mercy of someone who wants to use hands or weapons to hurt him.

So I am arming him with words for beauty and diplomacy and intelligent conversation; compassion to help others; and the skills to know how to stop someone from hurting himself or others, when all else fails.

Maybe it is a lot to ask of him. But, hopefully, I am empowering him to feel self-confident and strong.


•Kristin VanderHey Shaw is a writer as well as a marketing and communications professional.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 05, 2019, with the headline 'Teaching my son to defend himself - with kindness and also headbutts'. Print Edition | Subscribe