Defending Your Family

Dear Mr. Dad: Every day there’s a story in the news about violence—whether it’s a terrorist, a mass shooter, or some other nut job. I feel bad for the victims of this violence, but I’m also feeling extremely helpless. I’m thinking about signing all of us up for some kind of martial arts lessons but I don’t want to teach my kids to be violent. I read in one of your columns that you have a background in martial arts. Do you recommend a particular style?

A: I completely understand your feelings of helplessness. Every time I hear one of the stories you’re talking about, I experience exactly the same thing.

Martial arts are wonderful for many reasons: they’re often a great workout, help build coordination and balance, increase self-confidence and self-esteem, improve memory, instill discipline and respect, and, of course, teach you how to defend yourself. But martial arts—particularly traditional styles—aren’t magic. First, no amount of martial arts training will protect you from a bomb or a sniper. Second, most martial arts are a sport, which means they emphasize safety and fair fighting (more on that below). You’ll need to practice for a very long time before the techniques you learn will be useful on the street.

The one exception—the skill you can learn right away—is perhaps the most important one of all: “situational awareness.” Like it sounds, situational awareness is being aware of your surroundings, observing other people’s behaviors, recognizing potential threats, and identifying potential escape routes. Situational awareness (which includes keeping your cell phone in your pocket when you’re walking around) will help you avoid many dangerous situations before they even happen.

My frustration with the lack of practical skills in traditional martial arts is what led me, after years of experience with Tae Kwon Do, to Krav Maga, an Israeli style that’s essentially street fighting—no choreographed forms (kata) or metaphysical discussions. I think I learned more practical techniques in my first month of Krav than in a decade of TKD.

As great as it is, Krav Maga focuses on defense—reacting after someone has started to attack you. The problem with that is that if you’re being attacked, chances are the stress will make you forget all those fancy weapon takeaways, joint locks, and other multi-step techniques. So I became interested in a new approach that’s becoming more common: a totally streamlined system that’s designed to do as much damage to your attacker as possible.

I had a chance to experience two of these, and they were both great. Damian Ross’s Self Defense Training System ( teaches a small number of brutal strikes (including punches to the throat and eye gouging) that are easy to learn, can be used in almost any situation, and are absolutely devastating.

Tim Larkin’s Target Focus Training ( has a similar philosophy: “Violence is rarely the answer. But when it is, it’s the only answer.” The goal is to reduce your attacker to a “nonfunctional” state by methodically and viciously attacking vital targets.

One thing you’ll have to overcome if you’re opting for Ross’s or Larkin’s approach is your natural aversion to hurting other people. In martial arts, when you’re sparring, you land a blow, score a point, and then back out. The idea of gouging eyes and breaking knees seems unfair. In the ring, that’s true, but in a real-life attack, your attacker won’t be playing by the rules and you can’t either. So you’ll have to get comfortable with the idea that to protect your family from violence, you (and they) may have to do severe, possibly life-threatening violence, to someone else.



Photo credit: Martin Kníže

She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Sister

Dear Mr. Dad: This may seem like a very basic question, but what can I do to help my overweight 13-year-old twin daughters lose weight? It’s not that they eat a lot of junk food—they actually eat pretty well. The problem is that they consume huge portions and then have seconds and thirds. I’ve talked to them about how many calories and how much fat are in each serving, but they don’t seem to be paying any attention. Is there some other way I can get them to see what they’re doing?

As you’ve discovered, despite all the talk about the “epidemic of obesity” and the constant barrage of information about calories and fat, most people have no clue how much of either they should be eating, and, more important, how much is too much.

Just so you know, depending on their age and how active they are, teen girls and adult women need 1,600-2,200 calories per day; teen boys and adult men should get 1,800-3,100 per day. But rather than talk about fat and calories, I suggest you do two other things, both of which will help your daughters eat less.

First, un-supersize everything. Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell University just did a study and found that we eat 92% of what’s on our plate. In theory, that’s not a bad thing. The problem is that that percentage stays the same regardless of the size of the plate. A number of studies have found that people eat more when they’re serving themselves (or being served) from larger serving containers, putting that food onto large plates or bowls, or eating with large utensils. The larger those items, the more we eat. As Wansink puts it, “If you put it on your plate, it’s going in your stomach.”

Getting smaller platters, plates, and silverware will definitely help your daughters. But it won’t be easy. Over the last 20 years, “normal” serving sizes have ballooned. For example, back then, a typical bagel was about three inches in diameter, today it’s six inches; a blueberry muffin weighed about 1.5 ounces, today it’s four ounces; an order of fries at a fast food restaurant weighed 2.4 ounces, today it’s 6.9 ounces.

The same thing is happening in our homes. Twenty years ago, the average dinner plate was about 10 inches in diameter; today it’s about 12. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually an increase of 44 percent.

Second, stop talking about fat and calories. Instead, put things in terms of how much exercise you’d have to do to burn off what you just ate. For example, if your daughters take a second helping of spaghetti and meatballs, they’ll have to spend an hour running at a 9-minute-mile pace to burn that off. Swimming backstroke for 80 minutes would offset an order of fries. And an hour of Zumba would take care of that piece of cheesecake.

This approach can be extremely successful. A few years ago, researchers at the University of North Carolina randomly gave 800 people one of four nearly identical menus. One menu had just the names of the food; one had the food plus calorie info; one had calories plus the number of minutes the customer would have to walk to burn off the food; and the last had calories plus how far the customer would have to walk to burn those calories. The differences were eye-opening.

As you might expect, the people with the regular menu ordered the most food. Those with calorie info ordered about five percent less. But those with the minutes-of-walking and miles-of-walking information ordered 15-20 percent less.


Photo credit: Inay

Preventing Concussions is a Real No-Brainer

Dear Mr. Dad:  My kids (7, 10, and 12) are excited to sign up for sports in a few weeks, but with all the talk about concussions, I’m more than a little concerned. Plus, I just saw the new Will Smith movie, Concussion, which scared me even more. Short of not allowing them to play at all, is there anything I can do to lower the risk that my kids will get a concussion?

You’re absolutely right to be concerned about concussions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2009, nearly 250,000 children under 19 were treated in hospital emergency departments for a sports-related concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI). There’s no question that many, many more young athletes suffered concussions but didn’t seek medical treatment.

Not all that long ago, people—especially coaches and athletes—didn’t take concussions very seriously. Athletes (mostly male) who “got their bell rung” were often encouraged to get back in the game as soon as possible. Today, scientists know that concussions are far more serious than just a bump on the head, and only about 10 percent of concussions involve a loss or consciousness (which includes “seeing stars”). Concussions are actually a type of brain injury that happens when the brain gets banged against the inside of the skull due to a sudden impact. They can cause a variety of short- and long-term damage, including memory, language, and concentration problems; irritability, moodiness, and other personality changes; difficulty making decisions; and more.
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It’s All a Matter of Religion

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m Jewish but my wife, who is seven months pregnant, isn’t, which I know means that, technically, our baby won’t be either. We’ve agreed to raise our child as a Jew, but will we have to convert her?

Wow, you’ve certainly hit on a complicated topic. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Whether you have to convert your child or not depends mostly on whether you’re Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox (there are other movements within Judaism, but these are the big three).

You’re absolutely correct that because your wife isn’t Jewish, your baby won’t be considered Jewish either—but that’s only true for the Orthodox and Conservative movements. If you’re Reform, the fact that you are Jewish will be good enough—as long as Judaism is the child’s only religion and he or she makes some kind of public demonstration of Jewishness later in life (having a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah, for example).

Interestingly, the one area where all three movements are pretty much in agreement (a very, very rare occurrence) is when it comes to adoption. If you were adopting a child you knew was born to a non-Jewish mother, the baby would have to be converted to be considered Jewish—even if both you and your wife were Jewish.

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Maybe I’m Just Not Cut Out to Be a Dad

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a new dad—my son was born two months ago—and although I hate to admit it, I’m not feeling much like a parent. My wife wants me to be as involved as she is, playing with, feeding, talking to, and changing the baby. But I’m honestly not that interested. I was perfectly happy with the way my life was before. As you can imagine, my wife is rather annoyed with me. So I’ve got two questions for you: Aside from making my wife happy, why should I be involved? And is there something I can do to get more interested in fatherhood?

Those are two great questions—ones plenty of new parents struggle with but are afraid to admit they have. After all, we live in an egalitarian time and men and women are supposed to be equal partners in parenting, and we’re all supposed to fall head-over-feet in love with our babies from the second they’re born, right? Reality—as you’ve discovered—doesn’t always work out that way. The truth is that not everyone is born with the desire—or is cut out to be—an involved parent. And political correctness aside, not every couple is fully egalitarian. That said, there’s another facet of reality that you have to confront: Yes, you may have been happy with your pre-baby life, but you’re in a very different place now, and things will never be the same.
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Sorry, When It Comes to Parenting, Orange Isn’t the New Black

Dear Mr. Dad: My girlfriend has had a drug problem since I’ve known her. She was clean while pregnant with our daughter, but started up again right after the birth. She was in and out of our daughter’s life for the first two years, disappearing for long stretches of time, and spent the past two years in jail. Because of my ex’s drug problem, I was given sole legal and physical custody. A few weeks ago, she got out of jail and suddenly wants to be super mom. Given her history, I’m skeptical. I’m also torn. On one hand, I think our daughter, who’s now four, and her mother have a right to a relationship with each other and I want to support that. On the other hand, I’m afraid that she’ll start using again and will land back in jail, leaving our daughter disappointed and confused again. I wonder whether making a clean break would be the best thing for everyone. What do you suggest?

If your daughter’s mother is drug-free and doesn’t pose a danger to your daughter or herself, I think that making a clean break would be a big mistake. Your daughter, like most children, sees herself as equal parts you and her mother. And she’s probably worrying that one day she’ll end up like her mom, doing bad things, getting arrested, and spending time in prison. I’m guessing she’s a very frightened little girl. In her mind, it doesn’t matter what her mom has done; she loves her very much. Keeping her from seeing her mom will make things worse.
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