Many dojos have a couple of benches/chairs/rickety stools where parents can sit and watch their children train. There’s a spectrum of parental involvement: some will video every single class, and some never step foot into the dojo after that first meeting. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle, but it still helps to give parents and instructors some guidelines on where the dojo needs the support of parents, and where parents need to let go and trust our process.
One of the questions we get asked most is: Can I watch my child train?
Usually, this is a great thing, because it shows interest in the student’s progress and maybe the art itself. However, it is important for an instructor to decide how valuable it will be.
Case Study One: VALIDATE ME, MOMMY!
Some kids can’t train while parents are in the dojo. I have any number of students who cannot do anything except check if mommy/daddy/guardian/sibling is watching them. They’re punching in strange directions with their heads craned over their shoulders to make sure that they are being watched. They don’t listen to instructions, and will sometimes wander off the mat to go and cuddle. Sometimes it is entirely at the child’s instigation, but some parents encourage it too. In this case, it is better to encourage the parents to go wait in the car, or a nearby coffee shop, at least for the first month. There may be some tears, but it is important to establish the separation between dojo and home. (Here is an awesome guide on how to drop kids off with a minimum of tears and drama).Sensei is different to Mom and Dad, and the twain should not meet (unless biological parents happen to be teaching their kids in their own dojo.)
Once the student has settled into a dojo routine (using any number of focusing exercises), then parents can come back into the dojo and watch. If it’s still disruptive, rinse and repeat until they are no longer distracted.
Case Study 2: “I’ve never done karate, but…”
For the most part, it is important to give parents the benefit of the doubt that they are
interfering because they love their child and want only the best for them. Unless they have trained in a traditional dojo, they do not automatically understand the workings of our world. And even then, they’ll lead off with “that’s nice, but we did it differently in my dojo.”
Teaching martial arts is an intricate balance of didactics, leadership, expertise and experience. How we see the training, and how parents see the training, often have zero overlap. They either worry that their child is too slow (like a 5 year old not knowing a kata in a week) or that their child is gifted and we’re not seeing it (we are, but let’s not give ego a place on the mat). All martial arts are complicated, and often parents underestimate this. It is important for an instructor to make it clear that it takes YEARS, not months. (Party trick: ask parents to perform a mawashi-uke, and see how well they manage.)
Parents, you are always welcome to ask questions. Your curiosity and enthusiasm is always wonderful for us, because it means you are invested in what we do. But to challenge our decisions constantly, especially when the child has just started, is to remove the student’s autonomy and undermines our authority. It is in especially poor taste when parents want an accelerated journey to black belt. If a student wants a black belt in under 7 years, they’re more than welcome to go to a McDojo somewhere else. They can buy one online, if they want. Trying to bully an instructor into handing out undeserved grades or flashing money is the complete opposite of what a dojo needs or wants.
Case Study Three: Missing in Action
A lot of the time, instructors will be quite happy to get on and teach without any parents watching. It’s quieter, there are fewer interruptions and kids aren’t distracted. However, some students really do need that external motivation. It takes a long, long time to develop intrinsic motivation, which is the result of discipline. But there isn’t one of us who didn’t want our parents to watch our karate and approve and celebrate with us.
It is so important that once a month (or at least once a term), a parent tries to make it to the dojo to watch. Knowing that a parent is involved goes a very long way towards student retention. Also, instructors should invite the parent to come and see their child’s progress, and maybe find out why they haven’t stepped foot in the dojo. It may be that they are working two jobs, or can’t find someone to look after the really little ones. Finding out a bit about a student’s home life goes a very long way to helping a student thrive.
It is also important for instructors to be available to listen to parents (at the appropriate times, of course) and to accept constructive criticism. After all, though we might think we know their child, they may have some important context to add. I’ve learned so much from the parents in my dojo, even though sometimes it is uncomfortable to be reminded of my shortfalls.
Overall, this is my favourite way to sum it up:
“Sports is one of few places in a child’s life where a parent can say, ‘This is your thing,’ ” Miller says. “Athletics is one of the best ways for young people to take risks and deal with failure because the consequences aren’t fatal, they aren’t permanent. We’re talking about a game. So they usually don’t want or need a parent to rescue them when something goes wrong.
“Once you as a parent are assured the team is a safe environment, release your child to the coach and to the game. That way all successes are theirs, all failures are theirs.”
And discussion on the ride home can be about a song on the radio or where to stop for a bite to eat. By the time you pull into the driveway, the relationship ought to have transformed from keenly interested spectator and athlete back to parent and child:
“We loved watching you play. … Now, how about that homework?” – What Makes A Nightmare Sports Parent – And What Makes a Great One