Teenage boys are not always the most eager audience for a self-defense class. Too often, gender expectations get in the way of learning. An important aspect of self-defense is refusing to let yourself be provoked—if an acquaintance or a stranger starts poking at your ego with insults, your instinct might be to defend your ego instead of your body. I know how that feels. It can be hard for me not to respond to a street harasser with something witty and pointed, but it’s impossible to know if my harasser is a real physical threat, so I restrain myself. That tension between wanting to bite back and knowing I should keep my mouth shut is something I have in common with the teenage boys I sometimes teach, but there’s also a lot we don’t have in common.

For example, I wasn’t raised to embody masculinity. Sure, I was raised to admire it, as we all are (I remember one childhood co-ed basketball game where a member of the opposing team warned his teammate that I played like a boy and I beamed with pride), but it didn’t contain me or control me. I may have wanted to play sports “like a boy,” but I was still allowed to express emotions like a girl, to love my friends like a girl, and to switch between masculine and feminine attire and activities without scrutiny from my parents or peers.

So when a boy in one of my classes struggles with the concept of saying nothing when someone hurls insults at you—of protecting your body over your ego—I have a hard time portraying myself as a relatable adult. I am forever grateful to my coworker Mike Perry in these moments (a tall, muscular guy with a wealth of self-defense expertise), who will often respond to the student’s skepticism with an analogy: What if instead of a bully it was a big dog barking at you, tugging at his chain to lunge out and bite you? Would you let your ego be provoked, and go prove your fighting strength to the dog, or would you stay the hell away from the dog, who is obviously a threat to your safety? Why is a person any different?

A recent IMPACT Chicago blog post talks about how empowerment self-defense classes can be healing and perspective-changing for men and boys, and how teaching men and boys self-defense improves community safety. From allowing them the space to share their fears and emotions without judgment, to giving them the opportunity to be coached by women/see women as leaders (surely another barrier for my male teenage students in relating to me as an authority figure), to giving them essential survival tools, ESD can be immensely beneficial for men and boys of all ages.

In my classes, I notice small things that boys do or don’t do. They sometimes prioritize entertaining their classmates over taking the material seriously. Like all students, they take cues from their peers—they engage when their peers are engaged and they withdraw when their peers are withdrawn. They tease each other, often for stepping out of gender roles. But my favorite thing to notice is the moment I see it click for them that masculinity doesn’t have to be about winning a fight; it can simply be about doing the harder thing—tapping into your self-control, ignoring, walking away. Sometimes masculinity is choosing to value yourself and your future over a temporary “win” that could actually potentially be a life-changing loss. If nothing else, I hope they leave the classroom with that.