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Your child, self-defense and bullies

J.D. Rifkin leads a kids' karate class at his Columbia studio. Rifkin is one of many martial arts instructors in Missouri who teach lessons geared toward children (Garrett Bergquist/KRCG 13)

The children sit with their backs against the railing, eyes closed.

J.D. Rifkin surveys the students, about 30 in all. He barks a command and snaps his fingers, and the children rush to form lines, yelling "Sir!" in near-unison. Another Wednesday night karate class is underway.

Rifkin, who owns Rifkin Professional Karate in Columbia, said he teaches students ranging from ages 5-6 to adulthood. He said about half of his younger students sign up because they want to stand up to bullies.

When children tell him they're getting picked on, Rifkin said he first asks how they're being victimized. He said children get picked on in many different ways, verbally or physically, in person or online, by one child or several. Bullying statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services show 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 experienced bullying. Students who were bullied usually reported name-calling or spreading rumors. A little more than 32 percent reported getting pushed or shoved, while slightly more than 29 percent reported getting punched, slapped or kicked.

"A lot of times, it has to do with confidence," Rifkin said. "Maybe they're not making friends very easily or they're not into sports."


The threat of bullying was enough for Obiarra Ukah to sign up her son, Kaeden Bailey, for classes. She said she was concerned Kaeden's small size would not only preclude him from school sports but also make him a target for bullies. Kaeden, 9, said he doesn't have any problems with bullies but he's glad he's able to stand up to them. Ukah said her whole family is relieved Kaeden can stand up for himself and his little brother if necessary.

"He always has that in the back of his mind, and he's really, really proud of that," she said.

Many martial arts studios offer classes for children. Karate isn't the only fighting style offered. Hockman's ATA, which operates two studios in Columbia, teaches both karate and basic self-defense tactics for children. Columbia Training Academy, a mixed martial-arts training facility, offers kids' kickboxing classes. Other studios throughout the country teach children styles including krav maga, an Israeli fighting style developed in the mid-20th Century, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a style frequently employed by mixed martial-arts competitors.

Rifkin said standing up to bullies is as much psychological as it is physical. He said he teaches his students various striking and grappling techniques that can help them escape if a bully grabs them. But Rifkin said the biggest thing is giving children the confidence to tell their bully to leave them alone.

"You can't look at a child and say, boom, have confidence," he said. "It's got to come from somewhere. It's got to come from inside, and the only way it comes from in here is if they have the physical skills to back it up."

Kaeden Bailey hasn't needed his training to fight back against a bully, but Ukah said it has helped him in another way. She said Kaeden has ADHD, and the class has taught him focus.

"I'm so proud of the progress he's made," she said. "Every stripe he gets, he's jumping around, and he's like, 'Yes, yes, I did it! I did it!'"

Kaeden said he now wants to enter a karate tournament and win a medal. As for Rifkin, he said if children stand up not only for themselves but also on behalf of other children they see getting picked on, America's bullying problem would be greatly lessened.

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