Self Defense Belongs to Everyone

A student sent me this debate, on whether students should be punished for fighting in self-defense.

My answer was simple. Everyone is entitled to self-defense.

If the teenager did everything they reasonably could to de-escalate or escape and was still under physical attack, they have a right and an obligation to defend themselves physically.

I think punishing the teenager for doing the most natural thing possible is disgusting. If someone is being attacked, and they can’t get away by a less aggressive means, (calling for help, running away, pushing the person away) they have to fight back to the extent needed for them to get away safely.

This makes teenagers afraid to defend themselves, even when it’s warranted.

I’d tell any of my teenage students who came to me that if they are sure they have no other choice but to fight back, I would advise them to do it and take the punishment.

I can’t make that choice for others, but I’d rather sit in detention or be grounded or even be expelled if my other choice is to be beaten up by a bully.

I’m grateful my family would have taken my side, and not punished me for doing the right thing. My older brother was my first Krav Maga Instructor and he taught me to always try to de-escalate a fight and never initiate violence. But if someone was determined to physically attack me and I couldn’t escape the danger in another way, I had no obligation to be compliant and let them hurt me. If I had been the bullied teenager and I could look him and my parents in the eye and honestly say “I had no other choice but to defend myself,” they would have supported me and stood up for me.

One thing I’ve noticed is people are afraid to defend themselves even non-violently. Many of my students don’t even use their voices. “I don’t want to make a scene.” “I don’t want to be mean.” “I don’t want to seem crazy.” And that is before getting to be prepared to hit another human being in self-defense.

I tell them I would rather they be mean, look crazy, make a scene, and defend themselves even with warranted force but come home safely if they are in danger. Wouldn’t anyone?

So why is it different now?

I don’t think we take bullying seriously enough as a real danger. Bullying is not just “kids being kids” it’s very dangerous, both physically and mentally.

Physically, teenagers can be actually very badly injured by their bullies, (Texas boy, 8, rushed to hospital after bullies beat him unconscious in “unprovoked” school bathroom attack)

Mentally, it destroys self-esteem in teenagers. Almost one-fourth of 10th-grade kids who were bullied have attempted suicide. (Exploring the Connection Between Bullying and Suicide)

That statistic is very real to me. One of my students confided in me that they were a bullying victim in high school and they attempted suicide in the tenth grade. Luckily, they failed and got help. They’re fine now, but I still wish they had known self-defense back then, and I wish they had used it on their bullies. And if that would have meant them sitting in detention or getting thrown out of school, I think it’s still the right thing to do if there is no other option but to take the abuse.

Self-defense isn’t just about physical self-defense, but mental self-defense as well.

Me with some of my awesome teen students from my teaching in Israel.

I’m grateful to know each one of them was trained on how to handle bullies.

That’s why I really encourage parents to sign their teenagers up for self-defense. It will give them the confidence to not be an easy victim for bullies, who only pick on those who can’t fight back.

This is especially true for kids who don’t “fit in” with their peers. They need it the most, and it can really improve their quality of life.

I really encourage parents to listen to their kids, and make it clear, they are there for them and will support them if they are being bullied, and that it’s not shameful to ask for help and that you have their back.

It can save lives.

Raz Chen is a Expert Krav Maga and Self Defense Instructor based in New York City.