If you dig through the archives on this blog, you’ll find a couple of entries where I have tried, for the most part to offer some thoughts for those who are looking to start training in a martial art. This time, I’d like to take a moment to talk about what it means to be a parent whose child is in a martial arts class. And, in case you’re wondering, my own child studies aikido, so I’m not exempt from a few of these recommendations.
Before we begin: I would say about 99% of the parents at our dojo recognize these ideas. We genuinely have a respectful dojo, where parents, kids, whole families are welcome and support each other as they learn self-defense. But no one is perfect, and a recent experience has inspired me to write a few of these thoughts down.
First, as a chief instructor of a dojo, I take the responsibility of teaching kids very seriously. I truly hope that no one in my class ever has to use what they’ve studied in a physical confrontation. That said, it is my goal to ensure that, should they need to defend themselves, they have the skills to do so. It is also my goal to support you in building your child’s mental and physical well-being; ultimately, I want to work with you to ensure that your child is getting the most out of their martial arts experience. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child go from wallflower to class leader, from being aggressive to being willing to work with others. These benefits transcend the more immediate concern of “self-defense” without diluting the importance of it.
This is not soccer. Or baseball. Or gymnastics. Or any other sport where it is acceptable for you to sit on the sidelines and project your own past experiences in sports as a child. Unless you have significant martial arts experience yourself (and most parents do not), you cannot sit on the sidelines and judge what is correct and incorrect on the mat. You can, however, ask the instructor (or me) what you should expect to see from your child. At our dojo, we try to communicate the skill progressions expected for kids, but if you need more information, we’re happy to provide it. My point is: you likely do not have the frame of reference to really understand what is happening on the mat. If it doesn’t make sense to you, please ask before you start passing judgement.
Martial arts training, like anything else, requires that the kids be engaged when they train. This is true for any activity, of course. My folks love to relate how, when I “played” soccer, I had more fun finding bugs on the ground than going after the ball. Did this mean my coach was terrible? No. It meant that I was 8 years old, and interested in bugs (or the occasional hotwheel car). On the mat, the kids that do best with a given technique are the ones that are engaged with what’s going on around them. We do our best to keep them engaged, but in our dojo we recognize that kids are kids–we don’t punish them if they occasionally act, well, like kids! That said, if your child constantly bounces off the walls, or constantly refuses to try the technique we’re studying, I’d recommend you seriously consider whether they’re in the right place at this point in their lives. I’m not offended when a parent tells me that they’re pulling their child from class because they’re just not into it or not ready for it. I pulled my own daughter from aikido when it was clear she was more interested in playing games than listening to the instructor–she came back when she was ready to really participate in class. This is part of being a kid–you try different things and see what happens. If you elect to stand your ground and keep them in class, that’s great too–but expect that there may be many classes where progress means they simply got on the mat and stayed there.
Remember that a single class is not always an accurate snapshot of your child’s progress. I understand that there’s usually one parent who can’t see their child in class very often. I certainly fall into that category. But often I have seen that when the other parent does make an appearance, they seem to have an inflated sense of what they think they should see on the mat. It’s as if parents are pre-disposed to think that, after 6 months or a year of training, their children should be well-disciplined ninja warriors. This is not a movie, nor is it a military academy. It is a dojo. Again, I highly recommend that you ask the instructor what’s going on and why, so you can get a good frame of reference. If you then disagree with that frame of reference, you’re welcome to leave–this is why we don’t have contracts at our dojo. If you don’t have time to ask, then I suggest you keep your drive-by criticism to yourself. Oh, and one other note: when the chief instructor attempts to introduce him or herself to you, I highly recommend you do not blow them off. It’s just…not a good idea.
I’m curious what other parents or martial artists think about the role of parents in the dojo. Feel free to comment–if I’m off-base, I’d like to know.