I was driving home from Denver recently when I looked over at the car passing me when I noticed the bumper sticker on the back that read, “my kid can choke out your honor student,” right next to a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school sticker.   Now, I’m sure that this person is very proud of his martial arts school and how tough it makes him and/or his child feel, but something immediately struck me as wrong about that bumper sticker.

First, an image immediately popped to my mind: a rough and tough kid bullying the skinny smart kid in class. That image took me back to my own days in school when I began self-defense training because I wasn’t the biggest, toughest kid in class (but I was an honor student). This bumper sticker and its attendant philosophy seemed a distortion of everything I’ve learned martial arts.  Instead of humility and only using martial arts in self-defense, now someone is using his martial arts training to lord it over the smart kids, the successful kids. It seemed very low-class to me, as if this child has nothing else going for him other than the fact that he can beat up other kids.

That mentality is really sad especially to me, a martial arts instructor.

The US has gone from a place where we were proud to show off our children’s accomplishments in school by letting people know that he or she is an Honors Student — it’s an honor — to a place where others might feel bad because someone else is doing better in school than they are so everyone is honored.  Now, parents can just teach their children to beat up other kids who out-perform them in school.  For a time, it seemed that the US was moving away from being a barbaric society but signs such as these make me wonder.

This whole “my kid can choke out your honor student” mentality reminds me of a proposed sequel of sorts to the movie Revenge of the Nerds.  In the original the nerds were tired of being picked on by the jocks and got their revenge in increasingly humorous ways.  The sequel idea was that the nerds are all grown up and control everything because of the rise of technology & the internet and their mastery of both. The former jocks are left out in the cold so these washed up athletes plot their revenge.

Let’s leave aside clique warfare for a second and turn our eyes to the martial arts technique in question: choking or strangling another person until he passes out. Learning to close off the airways and/or blood flow to the brain of another child is serious business. There are 2 factors to consider here: one is the child learning the technique at all/whether or not a child can display correct judgment in its application and, two, is the judgment of the adult teaching this technique to a child.

Consider teaching children how to wrestle. Of course they do so naturally and boys often enjoy wrestling with each other. The goal in wrestling is to pin your opponent’s shoulders to the mat. Of course there are takedowns and throws but there are no chokes or manipulations of an opponent’s neck. After all wrestling is a sport and no one wants to be injured while playing. Sport is on the other end of the spectrum from self-defense.  Martial arts are exactly that, for war and combat, hence the “martial.” The martial arts contains thousands of techniques and ways to injure an attacker including choking, not all of which should be taught to children.

There are many things the children cannot do because they lack maturity and responsibility. We do not allow our children to drink alcohol, they must be a certain age to be able to drive a car, they cannot enter into binding contracts, they cannot be prosecuted as adults for crimes, etc. Society and our legal system make distinctions between the privileges of adults versus the restrictions placed on minors.

The question is, it ethical and necessary to teach children how to literally choke the life out of each other? What purpose does it serve? Is there some pressing need for children to have the knowledge take the life of a child? Or is this something that should be, like handguns, reserved for use only by adults? Are there other alternative martial art techniques that children could learn to keep themselves equally safe? Would they be equally served by learning every technique just shy of the killing techniques?

When I was a child learning martial arts myself I learned a technique that contain a full-power strike to the opponent’s throat. My teacher told me to be very careful because the strike had the ability to kill the person if enough damage was done to his larynx. Now, when I teach this technique to children I change the target to make it non-lethal; that is my responsibility as their teacher.

I remember thinking to myself that I now had the power to take someone’s life with one strike. Far from being exhilarating, it was scary. Perhaps I had the insight to realize the power I was given and the responsibility not to use it unless absolutely necessary, however, that realization stuck with me for a long time, holding the power of life and death in my hands, literally. Even so, I was a teenager at the time and older than most children who are learning how to choke others out, honor student or not.

Years ago, I heard a story from Small Circle Ju-Jitsu Grandmaster Wally Jay about a martial arts instructor who was teaching a class how to choke each other out. To make sure they were performing the technique correctly he had them all choke him out. Due to being choked over and over by the students in a short time-span he eventually blacked out.  A tragic thing occurred next. No one knew how to help him because he failed to teach any students how to revive someone who had been choked out. The result? He died.

Professor Jay said that if you learn how to hurt someone you must also know how to heal him or her. I cannot begin to count the number of adults I’ve come across who have learned how to choke someone out and do not know how to revive him or her. They all sing the same refrain, “it just never occurred to me (that I needed to know that).”

Jiu-Jitsu, like most martial arts, contains enough techniques to keep children busy and learning self-defense until they grow up to the point when they are emotionally and mentally ready to learn choking or lethal techniques.

When I teach my students ground-fighting I teach them the underlying structure and framework of fighting on the ground.  Later they can build their choking techniques upon that framework and add it to their existing skills when they are older and more mature.

There is absolutely no need for a child to learn how to choke another child into unconsciousness. I’ve heard the arguments for teaching kids chokes and not one has convinced me otherwise.  And bringing out exceptions to the rule (the son of a martial arts teacher usually), children learning chokes and just never being put into a position to hurt someone, or children just being lucky enough not to inflict permanent injury on someone are not valid arguments that we should teach kids how to choke others to unconsciousness or death.

A martial arts instructor who teaches minors how to potentially kill another person retains personal responsibility and culpability for that child’s actions. Teaching martial arts is like giving a child a loaded gun, only this deadly knowledge cannot be taken away as easily as a gun can be.  A child who learns how to shoot can be disarmed by denying him access to guns, but a child cannot “unlearn” how to choke another child out if he abuses his skill.

We have laws to prosecute bartenders who over-serve overtly drunk people who then drink-and-drive and injure other people.  The same is true of adults teaching children how to choke each other out.  If your student chokes another child to death, the authorities will be knocking on your door.

Your judgment of an adult who would teach a child how to choke another child to death must be suspect.  If you heard an adult say to you, “I’m going to teach your child how to potentially kill another child and, by the way, here’s a bumper sticker to slap on your car to brag about his ability,” how would you react?  I doubt the word “trust” would ever come to mind.

I guess it’s time to teach all my honor students how to escape being choked out by some Jiu-Jitsu bully…