Karate Kids

There is, to quote the dojo that teaches our kids, "so much more to karate than learning to kick and punch."
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My son came out of the womb high on life and has been bouncing off the walls ever since. My daughter fell in love with Optimus Prime when she was about 2 years old and has been steadfast in her devotion ever since. Given his energy and her superhero proclivities, enrolling them both in karate classes a little short of a year ago seemed like a good idea.

Turns out, it was a great idea.

More than just a great sporting activity, these karate classes have become life lessons for our kids that transcend the thirty minute sessions every Saturday afternoon and root themselves in our home as well as their classrooms.

There is, to quote the dojo that teaches our kids, "so much more to karate than learning to kick and punch."

Naturally, our kids are thrilled that they are being taught to throw awesome punches and kick like a ninja. Essentially, they are being given permission to do what we tell them not to, over and over again, at home: fight!

But, to also quote Uncle Ben to the young Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility."

One of the first things the kids at karate learn is not to use their newfound physical skills outside of class. Not on their parents, siblings, pets, friends, teachers and so on. What they are actually learning is self-confidence and the ability to defend themselves, should need arise. It's also teaching them to work towards a goal: achieving the next stripe or colored belt is a huge motivation.

And while I value these important qualities, what I have come to appreciate most are the three core rules of karate, which are reviewed and discussed every week in class, with homework assignments doled out by the sensei.

  • Respect: Treating others the way you would want to be treated.
  • Self-discipline: Doing the things you know you should do, without having to be told.
  • Self-control: Controlling your behavior to fit the situation.

Blimey, I thought, when I first heard these. They are brilliant! And, in a stroke of genius (thought I say so myself), we decided to adopt them as a framework for parenting and our daily household routines. Naturally, with a 6-year-old wannabe Transformer/Power Ranger and an 8-year-old bundle of ebullience, not a day goes by without the need to reinforce the three rules. Here are some examples:

Calling your sister a [insert childish insult] is not treating her the way you'd like to be treated. Nor is kicking your brother in the face. Saying please and thank you on a regular basis is a mandate of respect, as is acknowledging and demonstrating kindness to all, whether it's a sibling, a friend, the cat, your neighbor. And let's not forget losing the 'tude when speaking to grown-ups.

We try to not give multiple reminders about every little thing the kids need to do every day ("please brush your teeth, get dressed, do your homework, set the table"... etc.) just to see if they can exercise self-discipline without excessive prompts. (So far the success rate is less than 50 percent, but it's better than it was.)

Reinforcing the need for self-control is a daily battle; especially when these little people really really want to poke each other in the back seat of the car, streak across the parking lot, fly from their bunk beds, or stick dirty fingers up their noses.

A few weeks ago, we received a call from the principal at our children's school. Our son had been in a fight. I was spitting mad. He had basically broken all three rules. Turns out it was a play fight that had gotten a bit wild but, nonetheless, he knew better. Following a conversation with his teacher, we also learned that, while his academics were great, he was still clowning around in class, a distraction to himself as well as to the other students. I told her about how we were trying to rein in his goofiness by applying the three rules of karate classes at home. And so she skillfully created a daily behavior charting system for him at school, similarly mirroring the rules. Now, he uses it throughout the day at school to help remember what's expected of him and to self-monitor and assess his behavior. It's brilliant and it's working.

At home, we've also created a behavior board so the kids have a visual reminder of the three rules with a token reward system for when they handle situations without fighting, rudeness or reminders. Each token earned can be redeemed for five minutes of screen time (hello Skylanders!) or 50 cents (hello Legos!) Needless to say, they are suitably motivated.

So thank you, karate classes for the inspiration. Right now the token jar is half empty (or half full, depending on your perspective.) This parenting thing is, after all, a journey.