Martial-arts isn’t about making your children more macho, but instilling the confidence that lets them be who they want to be.
“Lookit! I made a heart with my belt because I LOVE karate!” squeals my four-year-old Emile, dressed in a white robe like a miniature Jedi as he shows off his karate belt lying in a heart shape on the kitchen floor.
That image pretty much sums up my son. Emile has always been an amalgam of sweet and tough—traits too often segregated into gender categories, especially with small children.
Emile’s never been one for separating his interests and attitudes, though. He demanded a doll and stroller when he was two, was often dressed as a fairy princess when my wife and I picked him up from daycare at three, and still loves him some My Little Pony. He adores superheroes and Ninja Turtles even more, but it was all part of a balance that perfectly represented his personality.
That balance, however, has faded somewhat after a year of junior kindergarten, during which peer pressure has made him suddenly see a difference between girl toys and boy toys, girl colours and boy colours. And so we hoped to nip that in the bud by enrolling him in karate. (On his request, of course. He really loves Ninja Turtles.)
Now, that might seem counterintuitive, but we’re hoping that by, increasing Emile’s toughness, we can preserve his sweetness. Our logic is that, by teaching him self-defence, he can feel more secure in standing up for himself and his interests and, by instilling confidence, he will be less inclined to be influenced by others and remain true to himself.
It’s all theory, of course, but so is the rest of parenting—even those with multiple children are still experimenting, because every kid is so unique.
But, in practical terms, karate is working out amazingly. Emile puts on his triple-0 uniform and is dropped off at the dojo for an hour-long class every Saturday morning, with no parents allowed in sight to distract, a rule that has already made him more independent.
He emerges with new words in a new language (“Taisho!”) and new ways to use his body: punches, kicks, and blocks, but also push-ups, running in place, and jumping jacks. This all may seem minor, but he’s only four and every week I’m increasingly impressed with the motor skills he’s acquired. And, of course, the most important lesson in martial arts is discipline and respect, which, needless to say, make life as a parent considerably easier.
Karate may also make Emile’s life a lot easier in the near future, too, because, at some point in his schooling, subtle peer pressure could escalate to bullying. My wife and I worry about this particularly because Emile is small and sensitive. When shoved on the playground, he’s less hurt than offended at the idea that someone would do that and not immediately apologize so that he can say, “It’s OK!” and everyone can move on. Our concern that he could one day become a target for bullies is not an idle one, either.
There’s a reason why bullying gets so much attention, especially the cyber variation—though the in-person kind has hardly gone away. The Toronto Star reported that the Red Cross found that one in five Canadian youths are bullied regularly, while a University of Guelph study discovered that 45 per cent of children don’t feel safe going to school. These are frightening statistics.
All parents want to do is protect their children, but since bullying occurs when your kids aren’t with you, it makes sense to teach them how to protect themselves. But martial arts do far more than teach self-defence, they also instill traits like self-esteem and self-confidence that are way more likely to keep bullies away. These same traits are also more likely to prevent your child from becoming a bully.
A few months in and our karate experience has been extremely positive. Emile is more coordinated but no more aggressive; his self-confidence and self-control have improved; it provides great exercise; and, most of all, he loves it. Oh, and he’s less scared, because simply learning karate makes him feel safe.
It’s far too early to tell if our long-term plan to help Emile resist peer pressure and avoid bullies will work—though when we asked him if he’d rather join a soccer team this summer or take music classes, he chose music. So he’s definitely pursuing his own interests rather than simply falling in line with his classmates.
But however it all turns out, right now we’ve got a karate kid who loves Twilight Sparkle and playing his ukulele, and that’s worth putting a heart around.