Karate Kids

Two Saturdays ago was my daughter’s first day at karate class. I couldn’t believe it when I saw her standing in front of me, wearing the Gi that my old Sensei had given to her at her birth, six years ago. The moment was bittersweet, since my Sensei, who retired last year, wasn’t there to see her wear his gift, or witness her first tentative punches and kicks.

I have mixed feelings about involving my kids in karate. On one hand, I agree with the things people usually say about kids and karate. It’s great for strength and confidence building, spirituality, and discipline. As an adult who started karate in my twenties, I wish I had been able to draw on karate’s resources to cope with childhood bullying. I also think that karate is great for girls in particular, because, like many sports, it lets them experience their bodies in a way that is socially undervalued, encouraging them to be proud of their physical strength.

So karate is great for kids.  On the other hand, I believe that kids should not be pushed into doing extracurriculars they hate. My kids are not an extension of me; just because I love karate, doesn’t mean they should (okay, maybe they should, just a teeny bit).

I decided to aim for simple exposure. If she liked it, great. If she didn’t, I would make a huge effort not to weep with disappointment, and we would try again another time. I told my daughter that we would give karate a try, but that I was okay if she decided she wanted to quit and try again later, when she was older.

When we arrived at the dojo, she bowed at the door and gave the required greeting, “Good Morning Sensei.” This was a relief because back home, when we’d told her to practice the greeting at her bedroom door, my spirited child had stormed off and, stomping her foot, declared that she had “changed her mind,” and that she was “not going to karate.” It had taken us a few minutes to persuade her otherwise.

People in the dojo smiled, and I beamed back at them. I was already imagining my daughter at the front of the class, demonstrating a complicated kata under the approving glances of my fellow karate-ka. In an effort to dampen my expectations, I drew hard on my limited mindfulness practice. She might not get it, I thought. She might not even listen. She might, like other perfectionists in my family with whom I’m intimately acquainted, become easily discouraged. I leaned over and whispered to her, “just do your best.”

She joined a group of beginners. A tall woman with long, grey hair taught them basic punches and kicks. She tried to get the kids to bend their knees before and after each front kick. My daughter kicked, but didn’t bend her leg back properly. The leader, who has grown kids and infinite patience, tried again. Still, my daughter didn’t bend her leg properly. She kicked with gusto, though, and even managed to insert one or two ki-a into the mix.

After one hour, she’d had enough. Glancing around at other people’s kids, who were rigourously training, I shamefacedly sat her down on a bench and set her up to watch some you-tube sesame street episodes on my phone, since I’d forgotten to bring alternate activities. Later, as we walked out the door, she declared to me, “I love karate!”

That night, when we visited my parents, my daughter taught my dad some karate. He stood in front of her, an intellectual in his seventies who’s more comfortable in front of a computer screen than in a gym, and did a few wobbly kicks.

My daughter giggled. “Grandpère!” she said. “Not like that.” She did the kick in slow motion. “You have to bend your leg on the way back.”

Then she executed a series of perfectly formed front kicks.


On Big Biceps

Last week I went to my five-year-old daughter’s first grade-school concert. The concert was held on stage, in a community centre theatre that looks exactly like a real theatre, complete with galleries and spotlights. Kids of all ages sang out of tune and, more surprisingly, in tune. Some of the expressions on these kids’ faces were terrified, others earnest. I made a great effort not to weep.

A twelve-year-old girl stood out. Like her classmates, she wore all-black. What distinguished her from the others was how much skin she showed. She wore clingy leggings and a black tank top, highlighting a hefty musculature. Because although she was skinny, this girl was strong. From halfway up the audience, you could see each arm’s tough little bicep, the swell of each tricep. You couldn’t see, but you could imagine, the sinewy strength of each forearm.

Because the school community is small, I know this girl informally. She’s a gymnast and, at twelve, she trains a minimum of four times a week, after school and on weekends. She’s dedicated. So, on one hand, she wanted to show off her hard work. What was clear from her body language was her lack of self-consciousness. On the other hand, she had that awkward tilt of the head, the small, unevenness of the shoulders typically affected by adolescent girls, which showed that she was still wrestling with her body image.

After thirteen years of practicing karate, running, swimming, and doing yoga, I’m blessed with a pretty strong figure.  And, until a few years ago, I was proud of my musculature. It symbolized my hard work. I considered it half sexy, half tough. (When I was twenty, my favourite film character was Sarah Connor, the Terminator’s toned nemesis in the movies by the same name). Then, two years ago, I started training for my black belt. My quads grew. This was okay: I could hide them under a pair of jeans. I was worried about my arms, though: they swelled until I looked like a mini sumo wrestler in drag. Now, I was more tough than sexy.

I asked my husband, “do you think my arms look big?”

He looked at me. “Are you crazy? They look good.”

I continued to worry. I perused women’s fashion magazines: their arms were matchsticks. If women in the fashion world worked out, they kept it in check. I considered my closet and wondered whether I should replace all tank tops with quarter-length-sleeve shirts.

Then I saw this girl on stage. Clearly she was struggling with uncertainties that were also mine: what to do when one is strong, in a culture that undervalues women’s physical strength and the mark it leaves on our bodies. Her smile, though, showed me that her regard for her body — not for itself, but for what she could do with it as a gymnast — was winning over other doubts.

I still worry about the size of my arms. But seeing this gymnast reminded me of what I like about my body, which is that it practices karate, and a lot of it. It made me happy, seeing that tough young girl on stage, her head up, her face flitting from tentative joy to all-out, radiant, red-cheeked pride.