Monday, 15 September 2014

Teaching Children #3 - Oxygen


e was a little fellow, between five and seven years old. He carried around all the culture of strength little boys have inside their imaginations – dinosaurs, tigers, Spiderman, Ironman. Images that would inspire awe and notice in bigger people. 

Those I-would-like-to-be-like-that kind of images. Images of power for the powerless.

His parents told him to bow at the door to the Dojo. I’m sure he understood right away that bowing wasn’t what anyone else did, that it was a special sign, and if he participated in the ritual, it would make him special too.

He looked at me from across the Dojo, a distance of light years separating age, size and experience. Much of the world isn’t designed for little people: door handles are somewhere up there to reach if you want to go outside to play;  cars get you to where you want to go only if you have a bigger person driving; bedtime and TV time and when you can eat are all organized from the outside.

Where you go, where you live, whom you live with…those things are all beyond your reach. A couple of angry weeks between Mom and Dad, and you’re gone, your hand in the hand of one or the other. To a new town, to a new school, to try to make new friends if the kids at the new school will let you.

And somewhere in between fear is bolted into you along with not caring anymore or anger which can’t be articulated well at all because you don’t have the language resources never mind the experience to make others listen, sincerely and over the long term.

I closed the distance by high-fiving him and pegging myself right down, somewhere in an ego-comfort zone just below his chin.

“How old are you?”
“I’m five.”
“We’ll I’m three, and I just got out of daycare!”

We don’t slam kids who misbehave in class with hostile yelling and a ton of push ups. Anyway, would it have helped in his case? He was mildly autistic and had some speech problems. I’m not a therapist but along the way I figured out that pushing a kid up against a wall isn’t going to make him a model citizen. Far from it.

Allow me to digress for a second. Several years ago, a little boy joined one of my kids’ classes. He ran ‘round and ‘round the floor as though his pants were on fire. Certainly his need for attention was incendiary. I called him over, leaned forward and whispered in his ear: “Some of the moms over there are starting to think you’re a diaper boy. You know, kind of silly. I know you’re not. I know you’re a fighter, a soldier. Here, stand straight like this with your chin up. Like a soldier.”

A few years later, he actually teaches in my classes. He teaches other kids to stand the same way. They see him as a role model.

Back to my new five year old friend. We created a caring atmosphere for him. We allowed his ego to flex a little, we made the Dojo his place, as well as a place to share with other little kids. His feelings were important to us which was why he needed to stand up straight and look people directly in their eyes. He was important. Without him, there couldn’t be a class.

We have three year olds who shout: “I never give up!” He was doing the same, and he was paying attention, and practising at home. In other words, he felt good about what he was doing.

When I told him that he was testing for his Yellow Belt, I added: “Do you want a hard test or a baby test?”

“I want a Superman test!”

Yellow…Yellow Stripe…Orange. After he earned his Orange Belt, I told him: “I’m giving you five White Belts. You go over there and show them how to punch.”

Speech? Autism? He was soon standing in front of the entire class showing them the mechanics of a kick, describing each move down to the finest detail.

Last week, I did the same with a four year old. She took charge of a two and a half year old. Of course, I monitored, providing the odd suggestion. Nevertheless, the four year old was teaching like a veteran, meticulously…and with a caring attitude.

Where do all these examples lead? Give a child the space, and provide her or him with the resources, let the child lead, and that child’s abilities will develop and grow.

I’m not a genius with kids’ classes. I just follow a simple line – martial arts training is oxygen for kids. That’s it. Let them breathe, out front where they belong. I tell my ten year old helpers that we’re in the business of changing lives for the better and no one looks at me cross-eyed. They’re familiar with that oxygen, and they understand that there’s enough to go around.

PS: the band Radiohead has a knack of bringing out  the sometimes floating realities that add up to being a child. Listen especially to the famous album KID A and the track "How To Disappear Completely". Don't forget Virginia Woolf and The Waves. For the cross-echoes of children's minds and voices, try the novels of Marie-Claire Blais


  1. Sensei you are a genius with kids' classes. I love watching your style and always take something away to use with my students. Thank you for be in touch with the needs of all children. I was touched by the way a timid 4 year old reached up took your hand and your encouraged the other students to give her a hug because "strong fighters have big hearts."

    1. A sincere thank you for your comment. We've got to give the kids a chance to practise empathy, and lots of it, and show them that empathy empowers, not brutality.


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