Kindling Kindness

A martial arts teacher explains how bullies grow—or don’t.

By Goeroe Louise Rafkin who runs Studio Naga, our sister school in Oakland, CA.

At the end of every one of my martial arts classes, the kids shake hands with each other. It’s my favorite moment, and one that not every child is comfortable with, initially. As I watch them pumping their arms—some, eventually, with the enthusiasm of puppies—I think, this is why I teach. The training is about learning to get along, about respecting each other, about being connected.

But in 25 years of teaching martial arts, I’ve noticed a gradual slippage in the ways kids relate to other kids—and to adults—a sad trend away from kindness.

The news is everywhere: Bullying is epidemic. In the current frenzy about bullying at school, fingers are pointing every which way. Mostly they’re aimed at school administrators, who toss cash at the situation, both out of genuine concern and to guard against lawsuits.

Mandates for safe schools mean action, and there’s interesting work being done. Yet remedies to bullying have generally focused on the victim—“Learn to fight back,” or “Just walk away,” or, more popular these days, “Stand up to the bully.” All of these strategies can work, at times, and I support—and teach—them all; I’m especially committed to self-defense.

But since when has the best solution to a problem been the correction of the victim? As if the bully is an immutable object, when, in fact, the bully is another kid (or adult) with hopes and fears and insecurities, seeking a way to belong and get by. The popular assumption that bullies are misfits with rotten self-images is challenged by major studies, at U.C.L.A. and elsewhere, showing that bullies are actually considered “cool.” Bullies are often popular, wield power in their peer groups, have friends, and even possess a fair shake of self-esteem. What they lack is impulse control, empathy for others, and respect for authority.

So what is our responsibility? What can we do as parents, teachers, and neighbors, to teach a more inclusive and compassionate way of relating?

Because anyone with a toddler knows behavior is monkey-see, monkey-do from the get-go, the first thing we all can do is look at our own behavior. When is the last time you cursed a bad driver (modeling poor impulse control)? Called a coworker or family member an idiot (exhibiting a lack of empathy)? Undermined your child’s teacher or coach (showing lack of respect for authority)?

Was any of this in front of kids, yours or others? We’ve all done it, and worse. And these days, our kids bear witness to a lot more of our questionable behavior than in yesteryear. The imaginary wall between kids and parents has been all but erased; they’re listening to our telephone conversations, watching us work at home. Monkeys are seeing and monkeys are doing.

Since the 16th century, when fight-to-the-death life skills were eclipsed by the age of weaponry, martial arts training has focused on teaching a way of life, about how to live without fear, gain confidence, and be better people. We’ve got centuries-old traditions shaping our community. Yet martial arts philosophy is adaptable to both home and school. Away from my studio, I (too often!) have a salty mouth and can be as catty and demanding as the best, or worst. But around my students, both in class and out, I know I’m the “highest rank” and both my kicks—and my behavior—will be copied.

Running a school with zero tolerance for bullying, I’ve had to think deeply about our community values. We have slogans: “Cliquey is icky”; “You can’t say you can’t play.” But the most central tenets of martial arts are civility and respect—not always culturally lauded these days. Last fall, when the president of the United States was called a liar by an elected representative during a congressional address, I felt we’d reached a new low. “You can disagree without being disagreeable” is a phrase easily understood by kids, though it takes guts to use it with adults.

As the head of my school, I am often on the receiving end of what I’ll politely call “disagreeable behavior” by parents. There are those that challenge my school policies (no, there is no exception, not even for you), and those who strongly question our rules (children must wear uniforms, even if they don’t feel like it that day). Last week, a parent was outraged that his child, underage for the school yet “gifted,” was not allowed in. In each of these cases, parents tried to verbally bully me into their way of thinking; in two instances, I was criticized personally.

In martial arts, our code of conduct doesn’t depend on context but is applicable to everyone—parents and kids—all the time. This challenges those who want special treatment or who think the rules shouldn’t apply to their kids, for whatever reason. But a single set of rules creates a safe container for everyone. We don’t put up with disrespectful behavior on the training floor, nor is it okay for kids to bow respectfully in class and then treat their parents like servants.

Decades of martial arts experience have shown me that compassion can be taught. Last year, at our Tilden overnight camp, a young boy new to our school brandished a pocketknife at another threateningly. We set up an apology session where each talked about what they felt. It went . . . okay. But that night, during the great game, “Five Minutes of Fame,” in which kids talk about their lives, the new boy spoke: 27 foster placements before a forever home. The next day the bully and the bullied became buddies; compassion and understanding won out over fear and anger.

When kids come to Studio Naga, they are taught to say hello, to ask about my day, and to respond when I ask them about theirs. They are required to mentor newer students, to clean bathrooms, to empty trash. And at the close of every class, the last thing we do is exchange the Indonesian phrase gotong-royong. Roughly translated, it means, “I learn from you, and you learn from me,” or, more formally, “We share a goal.”

In martial arts, we bow an awful lot, but it goes both ways: I to them, them to me. We share the responsibility of what we create. It comes back to all of us, really. Those fingers are pointing right at me.

Published in The Monthly, East Bay’s Premier Magazine of culture and Commerce

For information about our upcoming Anti-Bullying Training Seminars:

For information about summer camps with Goeroe Louise:


The Rose

The symbol of Poekoelan is a red rose lying on a black background with bamboo on either side. The rose is beautiful yet if you grab it, it has thorns. The bamboo symbolizes the flexibility we strive for in body, mind and spirit. In a heavy windstorm, the oak tree may fall over or break, while bamboo bends, and then snaps back. The black background shows the mystery of this art. There is always more to learn!

We have all sorts of kids training at our school. Big kids, small kids, kids who do well in school, kids who struggle with academics. We have kids who can stay focused for a whole class and kids who are easily distracted. We have kids from all walks of life and from all possible points on any given spectrum. There is a place for each and every one of them in this art.

Our Teacher, Mas Goeroe Agoeng Willy Wetzel, said that as his students, each of us is like the rose. We are all different and yet we are all beautiful.

As an instructor, we get to learn just as much from our students as they learn from us. Say I have a student on my mat that has trouble focusing. If I find myself getting irritated, I am encouraged to look inside myself and figure out why that bothers me. Maybe there is something about myself that needs changing, some way in which I could be more understanding or set boundaries more clearly or compassionately. If I am working with a student who interrupts me or other students, or talks out of turn, I get to find joy in their enthusiasm. As I teach them how to protect themself, I also get to guide them to find and harness their own self-control.

When we bow onto the floor to instruct, we are taught to open our hearts. If I look for the beauty in each student, then that is what I find! This principle holds true even when I work with students who challenge me in some way. As I dig deeper to find more patience, this gives our students breathing room to be who they are, and at the same time, it makes me a better teacher.

As instructors we are reminded to let go of our ego and to focus on reaching the student who is right in front of us. I might discover a new way to explain or demonstrate a particular move or strike. One of our instructors might see a special glimmer of strength or speed we can nurture as the student develops. A shy student is accepted exactly as she is and begins to feel safe speaking up. She finds strength in her voice and a new confidence with friends, family and in school.

We are taught to practice compassion as a primary principle in our lives and on the floor as we teach. All of this makes us stronger instructors, and what joy it brings to us as well!

One of the many gifts of the rose is that it teaches us to look for beauty in each and every person that walks through the door of our school and onto the training floor. Some days, I think I am the luckiest soul alive, to be surrounded by so much vast beauty! My heart is full to overflowing almost every single day, and for this I thank my Teachers and that amazing flower, the rose.

The Joy of Selfless Service

Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen is a traditional martial art. One of the things we learn as students is how important it is to be able to put our own ego and needs aside and focus our loving energy on others. In practicing this, we receive incredible gifts, many that we could never have imagined possible!

We are a Poekoelan family. My husband and I have both been training for years and years. Both our kids, who are now 11 and 13, have grown up in a home very influenced by what practitioners call the “Golden Principles of Tulen.” One such principle is selfless service: the art of giving of oneself and putting one’s ego aside.

Some family friends were moving last weekend. Both the mom and dad work full time. They are busy people, so you can imagine that this move has been stressful in a number of ways. As a family, we commited to helping them on Sunday. My kids love our friends, but there were the usual grumbles and “do we really have tos?” you might expect from an 11 and 13 year old on an early Sunday morning. “We said we’d be there so of course we’ll be there! Remember, this is about love. Our friends need us and we are going to help them. This is about giving of ourselves when it really counts. Let’s go!” And off we went.

Our friends who were moving also train Poekoelan, and some other Tulen practitioners were there that day helping as well. This is what we do as a community. We help one another. In a time when it seems so many people are selfishly looking out only for themselves, it is a blessing to be part of a community of people who care about one another and are willing and present when it matters.

We spent the day hauling boxes, furniture and all sorts of odds and ends. We emptied the old house, drove across town to the new house in cars and trucks and unloaded. The new house has 45 steps up to the front door! We chuckled all day long giving one another the “Golden Bootie” award. By the end of the day, we were all tired!

The four of us got home, took care of final weekend wrap up: laundry, finishing touches on homework, showers, and other chores, and met up an hour or so later for dinner. We were discussing the day when both my kids let out incredibly satisfied sighs and said, almost in unison, “I had so much fun today!”

As a mom and a Poekoelan practitioner, this was a beautiful moment for me, when it all came together. Did we have other things we could have done that day? Of course! The house was a mess, our to-do list is always exhaustingly long, and there were bazillions of things left undone. But that day, joy was our gift. The joy of having worked hard and put our energy toward someone else’s goal to help them reach it. There was love around all of us that day. This love will continue to surround us as we move forward in life, and it will continue to bless us long after any item left on our family’s to-do list. Garanteed.

Gatong Rajong

Pendekkar Silvia