My son, 11, loves when I sit on the wooden bleachers in the corner of the karate studio and watch while he sweats, grunts, kicks, punches and spars his way through his one-hour, three-times-a-week class. A move well done by our children is perfected by our witnessing it, and by our smiles.
I want to tell you why I love karate for children. I love karate for children because the entire experience makes them better human beings.Here's what I mean: Last night, when the lower-belt class was finishing, the sabunim (head instructor and master) talked to the kids about respect and self-discipline. He asked about homework and reminded them not to watch television on a school night. He asked if anyone had fought with a classmate, neighbor or sibling. He reminded them to answer a request from a parent with a "Yes, ma'am" or "Yes, sir."
He then awarded to one smaller student in the front row a martial-arts patch (very cool-looking) for his uniform. The reason? The boy's teacher and mother had reported that he'd shown improvement in paying attention and completing his schoolwork.
All the students applauded spontaneously. And that was the part that impressed me the most.
What is the typical response of a bunch of kids (or grown-ups, for that matter) when one gets singled out for a reward or compliment? The accolade is generally met with begrudging acknowledgment, grunts, snipes, jokes, razzing, insults or even threats, followed by bad-mouthing gossip.
Why is that? It is a product of selfishness and a lazy kind of competitiveness - i.e., "If I cut you down, then I don't have to feel bad about myself and I don't have to work harder or do better."
I must tell you that there is no superficial "stroking" going on in the karate studio, and there is immediate feedback when a child's attitude, behavior or effort is not what it should and can be. The teacher knows the ability of each student and expects uniformity of effort, not uniformity of outcome.
Thus each student is unique. This brings me to the next example of what is special about children in martial arts.
There is one boy, about 12, who has been studying at this studio for at least four years. He clearly has problems, the most obvious of which are his compromised motor skills.
I've watched him grow in other important areas over the years. This is due to his own grit, of course, but it's also a result of the physical challenges karate presents him with and the way the other students treat him.
When it's his turn to kick or punch or perform some other special exercise or skill, and he's clearly struggling, you hear no giggles, taunts or snickers. Instead, you hear cheers of support. He smiles when his labored attempts are met with " `Attaway!"
It's not that these kids aren't competitive. If you watch them fight on sparring night or at tournaments it's clear they are there to do their best to win. It's just that they haven't given up their humanity in the process.
When the other student gets a "righteous kick on the mark," there isn't rage and recrimination. There is respect for a good move, evidenced by a congratulatory word and a high-five. And then they get back into the fray.
At the end of the class last night, the children were on their backs on the floor, doing sit-ups. They were tired and were probably starting to think of dinner and bedtime. Some of them weren't putting their all into the exercise.
The teacher went over to the first "slacker" and challenged, "Don't you respect yourself, sir?"
The student shouted, "Yes, sir!"
"Well," the teacher continued, "show me how you respect yourself, sir. Let me see you doing your best."
"Yes, sir!" the child shouted again.
And suddenly the whole class was performing sit-ups as though the evening had just started. Amazing, this respect thing.