TOWNSEND -- With talk of bullying on a steady rise, both in the headlines and in social commentary, Townsend Recreation is taking a proactive step to prepare kids for such circumstances. The department is partnering with Mike Pearce of Dynamic Martial Athletics in Townsend to hold a six-week anti-bullying and self-defense workshop for school-aged children.
"It's something that we see everyday," said Pearce, who has been instructing jiu jitsu for 20 years. "I hear from kids that come in here all the time who have encountered bully situations. It seems to be more extreme, especially with the suicides you hear about of kids who were bullied, and it's not getting any better."
In his classes offered at the gym, Pearce discusses bullying with his pupils on a regular basis.
"I usually try to address bullying once or twice a month," he said.
As part of the series, Pearce will be instructing students in jiu jitsu. However, said Pearce, martial arts is not about instigating a fight; it's to be able to defend oneself in the case of being physically assaulted.
"There has to be a physical threat on you. The bully has to put his hands on you, or you have to be in a situation where you feel like that's evident," said Pearce. Otherwise, he said, "It's like fighting fire with fire. We want to fight fire with water."
The applications of the craft are not merely about physical defense. They are just as much about emotional defense.
Each class will have both physical training and open dialogue regarding bullying.
"We'll talk about why a bully's a bully. We will talk about understanding the psychology of a bully on a level that children can understand," said Pearce. "We'll have discussions about how to talk to bullies, the proper protocol in dealing with them. It's very important to go through the proper channels."
The first channel, said Pearce, is to negotiate directly with the bully, telling him or her the behavior needs to stop.
"Then if it continues, talking to parents or teachers. Then if it still continues, you may need to take action on your own," said Pearce.
The action, though, is not to be violent, said Pearce. In fact, the term jiu jitsu literally translates into "the gentle way."
"It's more defensive based. There's no kicking or punching. It's more about gaining control over your opponent," said Pearce.
Learning to be in control is not necessarily about being able to physically overpower someone. It's about self-empowerment.
"It's to have confidence behind them to stand up to the bully," said Pearce. "It's easy for someone to say to a child, 'If someone is bullying you, stand up to them,' but if the child doesn't have confidence or the skills behind them, then it is like asking them to go surfing without knowing how to swim."
By learning self-confidence, he said, it's much more difficult for a bully to penetrate that surface; the less likely a person is to react to bullying, the less likely that person will be a looked at as a target. Pearce said he often uses the metaphor of a predator versus its prey.
"When a lion is on the hunt looking at a group of antelope, it will be looking for the weakest, smallest prey," he said. "You don't look like prey if you carry yourself confidently. That goes all the way up to adulthood."
Although bullying is a much discussed topic right now, in the 20 years that Pearce has been teaching, he said, bullying hasn't changed much. Bullying is bullying. The one major difference is the wave of cyber-bullying, which became prominent on the heels of social media. This topic will also be addressed in the workshop.
In the end, he said, it all boils down to a matter of self esteem, "of having the self confidence to be able to ignore it."
"One thing I try to instill in all the children here, and really anyone in my life is, if you are in control of your emotions, if you're a self-confident person, if you feel good about yourself, no one should be able to dictate how you feel," said Pearce.
In regards to cyber-bullying, Pearce advised parents to be aware of the sites their children are visiting and who they are interacting with.
"I hear of instances of kids involved in cyber-bullying and the parents had no idea," said Pearce.
Both bullies and spectators will have a thing or two to learn from the workshop as well, said Pearce.
"We'll be bully-proofing the victim, bully-proofing the bully and bully-proofing the audience," said Pearce. "Bullies try to empower themselves amongst their peers by making someone feel bad and making themselves feel better. It only counts to them if there's an audience."
In his time teaching, said Pearce, he has encountered people who want to sign up for jiu jitsu for all the wrong reasons.
"But when they come in and see our senior students, they see people really skilled in this art and how we use that skill, that power, in a positive way," said Pearce. "Power doesn't have to be about controlling people. You can use power to help enrich people, make them feel positive about themselves."
One thing Pearce wants to stress to parents; jiu jitsu is not about aggression.
"Some parents have a fear that if they do teach their kids martial arts, they may come aggressive and may in turn become bully, but that's really not a characteristic of the art itself," he said. "It comes back turning the other way. Kids can use power to help other people, not hurt them."
The workshop for 8- to 13-year-olds begins on Feb. 2 and will be held from 10 to 11 a.m. on Saturday mornings at the studio on 9 Center St. There is a $90 fee for all six classes that can be paid to Townsend Recreation. Preregistration is required through firstname.lastname@example.org.