Lessons From My Students

There’s a lot to be said for the wise Sensei motif, but any teacher worth their classroom will tell you that the exchange of knowledge goes both ways. I have heard wisdom from the mouths of toddlers, and utter tedium from boring-ass grown-ups. This list is open to future edits as my teaching career continues.

Still knowing what’s cool (without even trying)

How do I even know what a dab is? After all, Vine is dead, I deleted instagram off my phone and Snapchat is just a charming waste of time. (Also, I get it – people are really into filters, but not even anime girls look cute with dog ears.)

People who pay taxes and recycle tend not to be up to date on the memes and fads that have all the use and lifespan of a mayfly. All I know, usually, is that once a meme makes it onto a t-shirt you can buy at Mr Price, it has completed its life cycle. Man-child t-shirts are the graveyard of funny ideas.

But when you’re trying to demonstrate a move and one of the kids shrieks “Oh my god, that’s like a dab!” and then proceeds to ruin a kata with it, it becomes unforgettable.

Homework can wait – there’s a world out there to explore

As a child, I was the polar opposite of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame. I was Suzie – dutiful, patient and mostly indoors and clean. And despite the fact that the schools are trying to crush the kids with hours and hours of homework, they are still rebellious. Sure, homework has its place, but why do third graders have several hours of homework now? Of course they should be angry that they’re being kept indoors on a beautiful day to do unnecessary work that should have been covered in class. (Sorry, school teachers – I know it’s not your fault, the system is broken and we are all suffering for it.)

I may have been one of those kids that always did my homework, and always got my work in on time, but you know, I wish I had maybe had more adventures along the way, especially in high school and university.

This is why we don’t assign homework in the dojo. The kids get plenty of that at school, and when they’re older, they’ll want to do that little bit extra. But until then, we’ll train outside and take group pictures under the dojo’s cherry blossoms.

How to make and keep friends

I feel like adults are really, really shitty about friendships in a way that kids just aren’t. Kids don’t bail on each other at the last minute with the tired old phrase “Hey, something’s come up, can I take a rain check?” Or that most bullshit of excuses “I’m tired.”

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I get it – I’m tired, you’re tired, we’re all tired, but as adults, it’s the equivalent of saying “the dog ate my homework.” 

Kids will nag their parents for sleepovers. They’ll want to spend all their time with their new friends. They will do the randomest shit together, and be happy to muck around doing nothing. But trying to get some grown-ups to sit around a table for coffee? It’s like herding cats on meth. Kids are so, so excited to see their friends. and to spend time with them. When did we lose that? As adults, we have our own transport, and money, and maybe time. And we are the first to complain that “we never see each other” but no one makes the damned effort. “It’s been so long!” we cry, when we finally, finally grab lunch with someone, but kids? Seeing each other at school every day isn’t enough. They need weekends and holidays too.

When did we stop being happy to see our friends? Is it because we’re jealous when their lives hit a great trajectory? Is it because it’s so easy not to make the effort? Is it because real friendship requires vulnerability and investment? And then when the midden hits the windmill, we realise that we haven’t got the same connections we used to have.

Kids live for friendship, and once upon a time, we did too. If that’s one thing I take from them and implement into my life, then I consider it a beautiful lesson.

Five Reasons Why Kids Need Karate

Or any martial art, for that matter, but I admit my bias.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that children and teens aged 8-18 years old are spending 85% of their time sitting. Childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, not only in developed countries but in developing countries.

According to the International Obesity Taskforce one out of every 10 children is overweight. This means there are 155 million overweight children worldwide, with about 30 to 45 million of these classified as obese. In South Africa, almost two out of every 10 children are either overweight or obese. – Overweight Children: Puppy Fat or Predisposition to Obesity? 

Even worse, childhood depression is on the rise. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, one in four teens attempts suicide, and the rate of suicides for kids aged 10-14 has doubled in the last 15 years.

Our kids are struggling with their weight and their self-esteem. Of course, there are no easy solutions to these problems, but we may have some answers and a way forward.

As a partner piece to my perennial classic Eight Reasons Why Women Should Do a Martial Art, read on to see all the benefits a martial art can bring your kids.

1. Exercise (Duh)

Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first. While training in a martial art might not have the quick gains of something like running, it builds a different kind of fitness. Karate, for example, builds endurance and stamina, with an emphasis on core and leg strength. Aikido builds flexibility and speed. Other martial artists are welcome to weigh in below, but overall, we need to get kids moving. The couch is killing them, and I’m not being facetious: sitting is the new smoking.

2. Building Discipline 

Even people who don’t train know that doing a martial art develops discipline, but aren’t entirely sure how. Sure, it is obviously honed in the discipline of just showing up (sometimes, showing up is enough), or finishing a thousand punches, but it is in the tiny things that carry over. It is respect for space (the dojo), respect for presentation (the neatness of a gi), the small rituals of respect that allow the teaching process to flow. By teaching kids to be still, to listen and when to step forward and when to step back, they learn discipline through tiny habits. Never forget the power of tiny habits to build life-long pillars of discipline.

3. Socialising

All martial arts are by their nature more gender-inclusive than other sports. Nearly all school sports are split along gender lines, with girls and boys teams training separately. In the dojo, boys, girls and everyone between trains together. It is in the dojo that many lifelong friendships are formed, and kids get an opportunity to meet people outside of their school and home environments, giving them the chance to make new friends. What can be more precious to the shy child? Or more fun for the extroverted?

4. Confidence 

When I was in primary school, I was hopelessly bullied. I spent every break reading in the library. How could I not be a target? My teeth alone generated a thousand insults. (They’re better now. Braces are best.) But then I found out that judo was on offer in the school hall every Tuesday and Thursday. I signed up, because I thought that if I got big and strong (hah!) then they would all leave me alone. So, I started judo and took to it like a stoner to cereal. Within weeks, the bullies left me alone. I hadn’t threatened them, but as soon as they found out I was doing judo, they backed off. I call this the Hollywood Ninja effect: the minute anyone starts a martial art, other people are intimidated.

But that aside, in the dojo kids will often have to demonstrate their technique in front of the class, and while initially they may struggle to perform, eventually they get used to it. In a world where extroversion is so prized, this is a great way for shy kids to build their confidence.

5. Play

No, console gaming doesn’t count. I enjoy gaming, sure, but there’s a limit. It isn’t supposed to encompass the entirety of play. I cannot overemphasize the importance of play in childhood development. Suffice to say, this quote covers it:

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. – The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (American Academy of Pediatrics)

A good dojo builds play into teaching – kids aren’t adults, and they aren’t meant to learn everything like little automatons.By encouraging play when schools are squeezing it out, we leave a place in the day for this important tool. Whether it’s a game using karate techniques or letting them do cartwheels from one end of the dojo to another, play is built into karate for young kids. And you know, sometimes adults need a chance to play too (except we get too competitive, and it ends poorly. This is why we can’t have nice things.)

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How to choose a dojo:

When picking a dojo, try a few classes first before making any decisions. If your gut says no, then look for another dojo. If something seems off, it probably is. There are plenty of great dojos to choose from (like mine!) but sadly, there are a few terrible ones that give the rest of us a bad name.

Let your kid try different styles, and see which one works for them. You’ll know when you find the right dojo for your kid, and with your support and encouragement, it could change their life. They will need your support on this: making it to class consistently and on time depends on you as the parent, and it hurts their training when they miss class for avoidable reasons. By being a good karate parent, you are giving them many gifts that will last them a lifetime.