When I was growing up, my mom taught me that if someone hit me, I was supposed to fight back with all I had, and there was no such thing as fighting fair. "Don't stop until an adult pulls you off of them," she would say. Luckily, despite being a pretty nerdy and solitary creature, I never had an encounter with the "school bully" outside of words exchanged.

But since I was also pretty skinny and not particularly physically adept, this actually gave me a bit of confidence about a conflict actually happening; I might not be able to get someone to stop by punching them in the nose, but damned if I wasn't going to scratch, bite, jab, and gouge as much as I could muster to even the playing field.

Of course, I was also taught to ignore bullies in general and tell the teacher when possible.

Now that I'm older though, I'm wondering if there's a better, perhaps less violent lesson I could teach my kids one day. What are some people's opinions or personal experience about teaching children to defend themselves? I know Karate and such is a good extracurricular activity, but what about for kids that simply aren't interested?

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    Keep in mind that fights rarely start where the physical component starts. There is generally something which can be done well before the fight to make whether a fight will happen a moot point. Commented May 5, 2014 at 3:53
  • Show them cool martial arts movies, such as the matrix. See how the good guys beat the bad ones. That could help a little. Plus, you get to watch a movie together. Once they start learning martial arts, remind them to use "calculated" force only as a last resort, when someone is going to harm them physically and there is no way to avoid conflict. Commented May 31, 2014 at 6:00
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    Personal experience: best (and from my observation, only) real way of deterring a bully is making the bully dead sure that you will hurt them. Whether that requires actually exibiting that on bully's hide depends on a situation, bully, and your luck. Unfortunately, modern Westen culture keeps forgetting Orwell's maxim about pacifism.
    – user3143
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 2:20
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    Don't rely on the 'zero tolerance' policies of schools to protect you from bullies. While the policy exists, administrators have to admit that there was bullying for that to apply. They don't want to call parents in and confront them, so they will look to diffuse things whenever possible. Whatever you decide is appropriate, be prepared to deal with a bully on your own if one singles your child out.
    – user22041
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 21:45
  • I'm a very simple mom. I have only 1 son. He is 7 years old. But I'm very tense. He was badly hit by his friends/other boys. Because of that he's developed a very negative personality and is scared of kids. So I think parents should give proper training to fight back. Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 17:51

8 Answers 8


What we have always taught our kids is the following:

  • avoid fights where possible
  • if can't avoid it, try to ensure it happens in view of an adult/teacher and make sure it is obvious you were only defending yourself
  • try and avoid hurting the other person too much - focus on blocking and defence

Where we had problems with a bully at the kids school, after this had gone on for a while, and repeated complaints to the head had not reduced the bullying, I informed them that my child was no longer restricted to blocking, and would take the other child down hard. I pointed out that I had had my kids in Taekwon Do lessons for many years by this point, and I knew they could easily hurt others which is why I had asked them to go down the defence route first.

So to summarise:

Get them martial arts training - it's good for fitness and self defence, and they can roll out the attack when needed.

(you should see the pics I have of my daughter at 5 taking down a whole host of boys at a competition - much to their surprise)

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    " I informed them that my child was no longer restricted to blocking." Never tell the authorities that you told your child this ("you might tell your child this, but it might be dangerous to inform others").
    – user1873
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 1:52
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    @user1873 Self defense is legal in many areas, so I would do what Rory did. For Rory, I'd add that martial arts is good for morals, too, as they teach when to use physical skills versus mental skills. Commented May 5, 2014 at 3:52
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    @JeremyMiller, you are free to inform principals, cops, and whomever you want that you have "your child was no longer restricted to blocking." When your child hurts another child seriously, feel free to let me know how that worked out for you after the police interrogation.
    – user1873
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 4:57
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    It took that statement to make the head actually take action. Absolutely justified. And quite legal (even approved of by two police friends of mine)
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 14:21
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    @smci - Hahahaha, yes, that would be quite a lot stronger than I intended :-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 12:11

This is not an easy topic in the recent political climate. You have three concerns to balance: legal concerns, school rules, and practical considerations.

Legally, in the United States, you are justified in using force until a threat is ended and no further. That means it's okay to knock a bully down, but not to kick him when he's down, or chase after him if he's running away.

School rules are much more strict now, with zero tolerance policies in most school districts that allow for no justification or administrative discretion. Additionally, schools have asserted authority beyond school grounds, with cases of expulsions for incidents in children's own yards while waiting for the school bus. Your child can be kicked out of school for fighting back in self defense, even if your child showed discretion in not taking it too far, previously reported threats to the school that were unheeded, and the administrators acceded to those facts. Those consequences must be weighed into your decision.

Practical considerations mean even if your child followed the letter of the law and school rules and is eventually cleared of all wrongdoing, the ordeal may be expensive and harrowing, and those consequences may permanently affect his social standing in the school, his ability to not have to always look over his shoulder, and the academic consequences from whatever classes he misses while the mess is being sorted out. Take George Zimmerman for example. Whether he was justified or not in shooting Trayvon Martin, he will never be able to lead a normal life, not because of the legal consequences, but because of the social ones.

In summary, kids need to understand there are consequences beyond the immediate moment, and that adults don't always respond rationally in these circumstances. Discuss news stories like this one, where a girl got expelled for forgetting a pocket knife was in her purse.

Jeremy made a good point that events take a while to escalate to a fight. Take advantage of that. There's still the matter of what to do in the moment, though, and the best way I can think of to describe it to my children is "Do the minimum necessary to end a fight as quickly as possible." If it's possible to avoid contact with a bully in the first place, do it. If it requires running to get an adult, do it. If it requires a few blocking moves then walking away, do it. If it requires knocking a bully down until he stops coming after you, do it. Kids can exercise great discretion if they're aware of the consequences.

  • That last paragraph is actually good guidance all through life if confronted by an attacker.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 17:11
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    I know times change and it's been a while since I've been on the playground, but I'd guess that those types of news stories are in the news because they're exceptional. I usually see violence amongst kids as just being treated as "rough-housing" until it escalates to weapons or really chronic abuse, but this might vary between locales.
    – Dalton
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 19:10
  • That said, I really like the example you give at the end because it's a great compromise between parents and kids: if you just tell a child to ignore violence, you'll get an eye-roll and a "Yeah, sure..." for not being realistic in a kid's eyes. Your explanation allows children the right to defend themselves after they've stopped to think, and run through the logical options first, without precluding that they'll always have the peaceful option anyway.
    – Dalton
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 19:15
  • George Zimmerman may not be the best example. I'm pretty sure people avoid messing with Zimmerman if they know who he is.
    – Warren Dew
    Commented Sep 3, 2016 at 3:52
  • For a particularly nightmarish example of "practical considerations", see the facts of this case: ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/16/16-60231-CV0.pdf Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 19:28

I have a 8 year old boy and a 5 year old girl. I teach them that we don't start fights, we finish them. As long as they aren't the first to get physical I will defend them completely. I also explained that they need to remember that if they defend themselves there will always be consequences one way or the other (with school etc.,)but defending themselves is important.

  • Well, I feel like that is what the OP basically just said.
    – L.B.
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 20:43

Our school system has a "zero tolerance" policy that suspends both students who were in a fight. A child of mine was once standing in a schoolyard when someone ran up from the side and knocked him over, then started hitting him while he was down. He did not hit back. They were both suspended. That is what "zero tolerance" gets us.

That child was already in martial arts, and in fact "not realizing someone running up to me from the side is actually attacking me" became a discussion point in that week's lesson. What had already been covered in detail was how to avoid fights. Oh, how the older children loved acting out the chest-puffing, arm-waving, you-talkin-to-ME of a young man working up to a fight! In general, the training did work to prevent fights, to make them shorter if they started (the only thing better than a two-punch fight is a no-punch fight), and to reduce the chances my child was hurt in anything that did start.

When it comes to teaching your own child how to fight back I suggest one of these three:

  • "never fight back, never hit anyone even if they hit you. Run away, yell for help, cover your head, but never ever hit anyone." This may help keep a child out of trouble in a non zero tolerance school, and may fit your own philosophy better.
  • the advice you were given - no holds barred, they started it, you finish it
  • for anything more subtle, get someone who teaches fighting to make the subtle distinctions and teach the techniques, including spotting these things brewing. I think it's a very hard thing for parents to teach because we love our kids, don't want them to get hurt, don't like imagining bad situations, and either assume other kids are just like ours or other kids are all evil. Instructors of boxing, karate, kung fu, judo etc are freer to explore what-ifs.

I grew up in a time when teachers thought fighting was fine, and hated it. Today's world is better, but more complicated.

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    "Never fight back" is the worst advice you can possibly give.
    – hkBst
    Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 12:53
  • thanks for sharing, @hkBst, but without a little more elaboration it is hard to know why you think so. In the schools my children attended, nothing permanently bad has happened to a child who didn't fight back. Perhaps your experience is of a different environment.
    – Chrys
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 19:21
  • Perhaps you should include as part of your answer why these three wildly different suggestions each have merit and why you cannot say which one is the best. As for possible permanently bad consequences to any child attending the school of your children; you have no idea, unless each of these children has told you this. And even were that so, it does not help you conclude that "never fight back" is not the worst possible strategy. For that you need to compare it to other strategies.
    – hkBst
    Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 8:35
  • zero tolerance is the lazy way to discipline a large number. It means Admin takes no responsibility. In our school while zero tolerance was in play, one child broke another child's glasses. Both kids were suspended and broken-glasses parents took the school board to court. Voila -- no more zero tolerance. We ended up doing a better job when we started teaching kids what to do and rewarding anti-bullying actions. I had students who were bullies and I found that taking a step towards them was the single fastest and easiest way to say, "Go ahead. I'll fight back." Only one ever hit me.
    – WRX
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 14:54

Bullies tend to have more experience with fighting than other kids. The advice your mother gave you might just get you beaten up worse, unless you have martial arts training.

And that's probably the best advice: get martial arts training for your kid. Most martial arts also teach lessons about not starting fights.


In this day and age, the advice to "ignore the bully" and "don't get into fights" just doesn't work. In fact, it's outright dangerous, because all you're doing when you offer this "advice" is sweeping it under the rug. It is no wonder that suicides and school shootings are so common these days, and the blame is squarely placed on bullying.

On the other hand, martial arts isn't a quick fix, either. It takes years of good martial arts practice to be physically able to handle oneself against the typical school bully.

I have always taught my kids never to start fights, but you have my blessing if you end the fight. Of course, that will usually lead to detentions and suspensions, and so, this is where the adults need to finish the fighting. And when I mean adults, I'm referring to bullied's parents, bully's parents teachers, police, child protection services, and lawyers. School administration does not respond well to parents. You get their attention when lawyers get involved. So that's what you do. March into the administration's offices with a very loud mouth, and the will to back up any threat to bring in lawyers. Or have the lawyers do the talking.

I wrote an extensive how-to in this question: Martial arts to intimidate school bullies

Martial arts wasn't going to help the questioner then, it would take a long time to get proficient enough to be helpful. Nevertheless, you are stuck with "the system", so, use "the system". You're a taxpayer. Make your taxes work: you pay for the school, you pay for the police department, your child's rights to self-defense are usurped by the system.

If you ignore the problem, or let someone else deal with it, you are telling your child you just don't want to get involved, and that you don't care. That in itself will undo any self-confidence gains earned in martial arts (or sports or other avenues of building confidence). You are responsible for their safety, and if you hide the effects, but don't address the cause, then the effects will manifest in other ways: substance abuse, truancy, depression, running away, cutting, turning the victim into a bully, behavioral problems at home, suicide, and violent retaliation.

I have never subscribed to the edict that "fighting isn't the answer". That is too naive. It doesn't consider each situation. Fighting may not be THE answer, but it may be necessary. When a gang of kids (see countless YouTube videos) attack a victim, and the victim can't fight back, there could result YEARS of needed therapy, and if not tended to properly, then said side effects of substance abuse, truancy, depression, etc will likely result.


In our primary school we started an anti-bullying unit and repeated it the first week of every term. Play with a buddy was the premise. New kids were assigned experienced buddies and the experienced students were rewarded for being good buddies. If a buddy was absent, the teacher assigned the single person to another single or group. They went to the bathroom, to lunch and to recess together and were usually friends anyways. We were an inner-city school, so as it was public, it meant kids were not alone should someone enter the school. (Now the doors are locked -- but they were not then.)

At the first sign of bullying, the bullied child was to tell the bully, "You are trying to bully me. Stop it right now." Or, their buddy would say it. It was said loudly enough to let other kids or staff hear if possible. Then other buddies would join the bullied twosome until there would be a group. Bullies usually are not going to take on a group.

The bully's buddy should also have tried to stop it, and if they failed (not necessarily their fault), they would be reassigned. If no one would buddy with a kid because they bullied, that bully spent recess in the company of a staff on recess duty, or in the office.

We went from one extreme to the other -- a much safer and more pleasant school.

I do not like the idea that children have to fight to protect themselves, but I would never punish a student who was put into that position. I think Rory Alsop has the right idea. We don't want to fight. We will try not to fight. We will fight if we must. Zero tolerance is like no kid left behind -- the majority loses and the only winners are the bureaucrats.


Well the first & the foremost thing i taught my childrens, as never to hide anything which is insulting in school & the same if reported back to the teacher & no action is been taken then it is better to involve higher authorities or morale police to handle such problem.

  • An example might help to explain your thinking...
    – hkBst
    Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 12:58

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