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Self defense and kids — how-to for parents

teaching kids karate

Kids and karate are a blast. They love discovering the power of their mind and bodies. Teaching them to be street smart and cunning, however, takes more work, mainly from parents.

Here are some basic tips to help you get started on teaching younger kids about personal safety and self defense:

1) Rate their level
Get inside their heads and rate their understanding of personal safety, trust, awareness, actions bad guys might take, and their own sense of self. One young girl was molested in a superstore’s bathroom and went silent because she was taught to be quiet in public. Discuss self defense – just call it “safety” if you want — with your children and see where they are mentally and emotionally. For younger kids ask questions like:

  • What do “safe” and “unsafe” mean?
  • Who is safe for you to talk with?
  • What does “be confident and strong” mean to you?
  • What is “trust” and how do you know who to trust?
  • If you thought you were in danger, what would you do?

2) Rational delivery
As they grow up, kids learn

  • not to play with matches,
  • to look both ways when crossing the street
  • to buckle up in the car
  • don’t eat the gum from under tables
  • wash their hands before eating

Usually, these lessons come with a fairly matter-of-fact tone of voice. There’s no reason to dwell on the horror of not doing these things. (My older brothers had that role.) Healthy fear is a good thing; worry and anxiety are not. Self defense is best taught as a common, everyday awareness and skill.

3) Rules
Basic rules for safety or self defense can become as much a part of the family culture as “Don’t play with matches.”  Here are a few:

  • Have a safety password. This is an easy-to-remember word or phrase like “popcorn” everyone in the family secretly knows. A child should never leave with a person claiming to be “someone who knows your parents” but who doesn’t know the password, unless approved of by a teacher or coach.
  • Teach children that adults don’t ask kids, especially little kids, for help, directions, or the time. Tell them to run from them and report it.
  • Let children know that if they are being chased or followed:
  1. Start yelling “Fire! Fire! Fire!”
  2. Run toward more people and more light
  3. Get attention from store clerks
  4. Find help from moms with children, security people, or police officers
  5. Once they get attention, stop yelling “Fire” and ask for help

4) Role playing
Put together different scenarios you, friends, and your children can act out. Keep it simple, but serious enough so it doesn’t become a comedy or laughing fest for the child:

Bad Stranger: Oh, please, can you help me? I’ve lost my poor, little puppy. Here’s a photo; let me show you. (Tries to get close enough to grab or intimidate)
Child: (Running away)  Fire! Fire! Fire! (Deep, loud, and obnoxiously repetitive)
Second Adult: What is it kid?
Child: Call 9-1-1! Stranger attack! (Points in direction of attacker)

5) Repetition
It’s tough for younger kids, ages 4-5, to ignore the attention of a stranger wanting them to save the day and find the lost puppy or rabbit. It’s also hard for them to not want a shiny gift or candy. It’s even harder to run from a person who threatens them or their family. Helping kids think through their own safety, giving them plans of action in case of danger, and covering the material frequently, but not frantically, will help them develop stronger self defense skills.


My free ebook Think Like A Black Belt: Take Charge of Your Own Safety is written for parents to help their kids develop street smarts. Over 100 discussion questions help both parents and teens expand their awareness and inner strength in self defense thinking.

Thank you for visiting and learning about self defense.
If you think others can benefit, please pass it on!

Lori Hoeck

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Barbara Swafford June 15, 2009, 1:10 am

    Hi Lori,

    I love how you’re adding this category about teaching children the importance of being safe and how to act in certain situations. Not being prepared for the unknown is often what puts children in precarious situations.

    Great post with superb ideas.

  • Lori Hoeck June 15, 2009, 8:06 am

    Hi Barbara,
    Thank you for noticing my first post in this category. Just yesterday, I asked a department of corrections counselor who works with inmates to write up some safety and prevention information for parents to teach their kids. Should be quite eye-opening.

  • janice June 16, 2009, 5:52 am

    I love your blog, Lori. It keeps getting better and better. There are so many blogs I enjoy that some days I overwhelm myself, but this one is a clear cut no-anxiety always learn something and feel better about myself blog. Thank you.

    When my kids were small, they were never allowed to go to the toilets in big stores by themselves. Their friends teased them, other parents ridiculed me but then one day a story hit the headlines of a girl my daughter’s age who was raped in the toilets of a superstore by a young guy who obviously got caught afterwards but it was too late for her. No-one ridiculed us after that.

    These are all great nuggets of advice and we used all of them when the kids were smaller. My problem now, though, is that my daughter looks much older than she is and has started getting looks from men and gangs of boys. It terrifies me but I want her to walk confidently, not like a victim, but not inviting attention either. I’m looking forward to all of your posts to come! (Please do some on what to do if someone grabbs long hair; we both have long hair. I’ve told her how powerful empi and uraken are but I’m sure you’ll have streetwise techniques, too.)

    Thank you, Lori. You’re doing a good thing here.
    PS Please could you get a subscribe to comments widget so we can follow your replies to people.

  • Tricia June 16, 2009, 8:54 am

    Great post with wonderfully practical advice. It’s very difficult to strike a balance for very young children between feeling empowered and safe and creating anxiety. When I started having these kind of conversations with my son, he kept asking why someone would want to do anything bad and he’d internalize it and ask why a stranger wouldn’t like him. He automatically assumed that if a person posed a threat it had to be because he, my son, had done something for the person not to like him. Horrible realization on my part and worrisome. Yes, we’ve been working on ways to feel empowered. Unfortunately, though, we talk so much with our children about “stranger danger” types of scenarios, we tend to neglect an even more menacing threat, which is that the overwhelming majority of crimes against children are committed by family members or close family friends…people our children trust…people we trust. We have to include in our conversations to help empower and teach our children, not just the idea of the man with the candy or puppy, but appropriate responses to people close to them.

  • Lori Hoeck June 16, 2009, 11:51 am

    Hi Janice,
    “…but this one is a clear cut no-anxiety always learn something and feel better about myself blog.” Wow. Every blogger’s dream to read those kind of words! Thank you!

    Good idea on comments, Thanks. I’ll get the “subscribe to comments” ASAP. (OK, when my husband gets home to help me with it!)

    The trick in the hair pull defense is not to freak out from feeling off balance or seemingly under control of another and realize the scalp pain is the least of your worries. Ever tried to give a cat a pill by holding it by the scruff of its neck? Somehow it can twist around and suddenly it has many weapons all ripping your arms to shreds. Be the cat. I’ll write more on this in a future post.

    Hi Tricia,
    By treating self defense as an everyday learning process, including a strong sense of personal boundaries (yet another future post I will get to!), children will spot those family friends more quickly. Kids have to know they have rights and parents will back them up on them, even when they make a few mistakes as they learn.

    I realize what I’m writing on is not commonly taught even for adults, so teaching kids in a matter-of-fact, empowering way is tough. Hopefully together we can make this kind of knowledge and process more accessible and widespread.

  • Melissa June 29, 2009, 10:08 am

    I love your ability to put sometimes difficult thoughts and actions into words that we can understand. I look forward (as usual) to reading more on this subject.
    By the way, Logan still knows that move you taught him. And was trying to explain it to one of his friends. It was interesting.

  • Lori Hoeck June 30, 2009, 10:52 am

    Hi Melie,

    Welcome! And thank you for your kind words.

    Thanks also for letting me know Logan still knows the move. Knowing how to break out of a wrist grab is a great skill for kids. I’ll have to cover it here soon!

  • Kathryn July 26, 2009, 7:20 pm

    Hi, Lori!

    I like your article, especially the “don’t terrify the kids” part. But I do have one comment on the strangers looking for a pet part.

    Recently, someone in a nearby neighborhood called the police because a couple in an SUV was driving down the street, and stopped to ask some kids if they had seen the couple’s dog. The parents assumed that the couple was trying to snatch the kids. Actually, they were looking for a dog.

    Last year, a mother called the police because a minivan with Hispanic men was slowly following her daughter’s school bus, in a low speed limit area. Turns out, they were just following the speed limit, and not zooming around the school bus like other drivers sometimes do.

    Sometimes, strangers looking for a pet really are just doing that. And sometimes a car following the bus might just be caught behind the bus.
    I hope that you can get that across to parents, that not all strangers are dangerous, even if the stranger is of a different ethnicity.

    I think that too many parents are so scared of strangers, that they overreact and end up teaching their kids to be afraid of the world – afraid to be outside, afraid to be alone, afraid to even talk to other people.

    While I do teach my kids how not to be a victim, I also try to teach them to trust themselves, and not be afraid.

    Thanks for listening.

  • Lori Hoeck July 27, 2009, 7:55 am

    Hi Kathryn,
    Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

    When I was 6 or 7, I was taught how to tell “good snakes” from “bad snakes.” Until then, I was taught to avoid ALL snakes so an adult could check it out. I lived where rattlesnakes and water moccasins (both deadly snakes) thrived, so a healthy dose of fear about the potential danger of snakes was a way to keep us kids safe. (I could say the same thing about the family guns, matches, poison ivy, going out too far in the lake.) I did not grow up afraid of snakes, and my family later allowed one or two small ones to roam the house at will.

    Unfortunately, kidnappers and predators aren’t as easily identified as a deadly snake. That means self defense must boil down to understanding the behaviors and tactics of the bad guys. The people in your stories who called the cops were wise to pick up on a red-flag behavior and call police. What if those people in the vehicles had been predators and no one called the police and something horrible happened? Better safe than sorry, and also better that it all could turn into a calm, but impacting learning lesson for kids about the reality of our world.