A former police officer, Melanie Beckler of Bluffton knew all too well about kids being bullied, and she wanted to make sure her son knew how to protect himself should he ever find himself in a dangerous situation.
So she signed him up for martial arts classes.
Now 8 years old, Liam Beckler has four years of kung fu under his belt. And Beckler said despite being bullied a little bit at school, Liam is not afraid.
"He's been able to stop situations from being worse by using verbal commands," Beckler said. "It's really built a lot of confidence for him."
Liam's instructor, Tim Quickmire of Sun & Moon Martial Arts Studio in Bluffton, said parents come in every week to sign up their kids for classes because they've been bullied.
"It's almost like an epidemic right now," he said.
Other local martial arts instructors agree. Bullying is a real problem. While it might seem counterintuitive to train kids to fight back, there's some merit to this strategy. And preparing kids for the worst, while teaching them how to avoid a fight, might be the best plan of attack.
FIGHT BACK WITH CONFIDENCE
Tim Snyder of Beaufort Family Karate said the kids with low self-esteem are usually the ones who get picked on.
"They've come in with their heads down," Snyder said. "They take class with their heads down, their shoulders slumped over. By taking the tae kwon do ... their heads go up, their shoulders go back; they become confident. And honestly, I tell the kids that's how to keep the bullies away."
He said martial arts and sports in general can do that for people. Once you get good at something, you gain confidence. Once you have confidence, you can stand up for yourself.
FIGHT BACK NONVIOLENTLY
Rick McElroy of McElroy's Martial Arts Academy has been teaching martial arts to adults and children for more than 35 years.
He said he gets calls every day about kids being bullied.
"Kids can be cruel," he said.
McElroy wants to teach children how to stand up against those bullies. He's devoting a week of his summer to just that.
He will offer a weeklong summer camp aimed at teaching kids how to defend themselves without violence. He said the kids will hear stories about bullies, learn why they pick on others and what to do in a threatening situation.
McElroy said he uses a program called "Twelve Ways to Walk Away With Confidence." Some of the techniques he will teach include: becoming friends with the bully, walking away, screaming or using trickery. In other words, if a bully approaches you, scare him off. Say you are going to throw up. Say you have poison ivy and it's contagious. Tell the bully someone is meeting you there any minute. Pretend to faint.
"I get the kids to where they understand who and what a bully is," McElroy said. "And then they can understand how to deal with it."
McElroy said he also stresses to his students that they should never bully others around. He said kids don't learn to be bullies by taking martial arts classes; they learn it from their parents.
"I've never had anyone go through the program and then become a bully," McElroy said.
Chuck Elias also offers an anti-bullying program at Club Karate in Beaufort. This program is built in to his regular classes.
"We teach people how to learn signals with their body," Elias said. "Bullies want to pick on easy targets."
Elias teaches kids to use their smile as a weapon. He said if you smile at people, their tendency is to smile back, and that might even deter a bully.
He said another important part of his program is teaching kids to be aware of their surroundings. If they know, for example, that the mean kid is hanging out in the hallway, he tells them not to walk down that hallway by themselves.
"And, of course, we teach them how to kick butt if they have to," Elias said. "I like to teach martial arts so you never have to use it."