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A Different Set of Rules

On Tuesday mornings I teach a group of 2 and 3 year olds. The class, which we call Jump, Kick, MOVE!, is meant to be an intro to structured sports instruction. We do a little bit of karate, a little bit of tumbling, some yoga moves and a lot of dancing around. The kids are young, yet even the smallest of the 2 year olds is able to accurately copy a series of movements, follow an obstacle course, and control a specific part of his body so it does basically what he wants it to. We use all kinds of props; hoops, ribbons, scarves, a mini-trampoline, tunnels, beanbags, basically anything that can be manipulated by small fingers and feet.

Despite all this entertainment (we even have a few toys around for the kids to use when they first arrive) there is inevitability at least one kid who comes into the room, picks up a round object and starts running around in a giant circle, wailing like a fire truck. (Or a train, or a police car) And why? Because they can. Large rectangular room, wide open space, 3 year old mind. And no one to tell them to sit down and be quiet.

A dojo has a lot of rules. You have to take your shoes off before stepping on the floor. There is a right place to stand in line and a right way to sit. There is all this bowing. And these funny Japanese words. And of course you are expected to do what the teacher says, all the time, without comment. ("Just say Osu", a phrase that has been uttered in dojos since the beginning of time, really just means do what I say and shut up about it.) But there is also another set of rules here and they are awesome! Is your mom always telling you not to yell? Not here. Yell all you want, we want you to, the louder the better. See that pad in front of you? You get to punch it. As hard as you want. And if you attend sparring class you even get to punch someone else.

And jiu-jitsu, forget it! You are allowed to sit on people, choke them, and maneuver their arms into positions as complex as calculus. Remember when you were a kid and you always would get in trouble for putting your brother in a headlock. Not here. Here, such behavior is encouraged!

The thing that a lot of people (and parents in particular) do not understand until they join the dojo themselves is that the reason we can allow all this punching and yelling and choking is that there is a serious, nonnegotiable set of rules behind it. It is because of this that most of the kids who train with us do not in fact go to school and "do karate" on their buddies. (And those who do are given a severe talking to). The idea is that your training is a privilege, one that can be quickly taken away. So yes you can hit people in sparring class. But the minute you start doing it without control (and without a proper conscience) you are no longer allowed to spar. And yes you can scream at the top of your lungs but only when I say so.

The reason that most kids who study karate do not get in more fights at school is the same reason that Maya, who grew up in a dojo and has seen sparring since she was a newborn, knows not to ever hit one of her classmates. (Is she perfect at this? No. But for a kid who has been throwing punches since she was two, I can count on one hand the amount of times she has ever tried to hit anyone, and most of the targets were me) Kids who train learn to respect the tools of their trade as something to be taken seriously. Also, for the boys especially, if they have a place where they are allowed to punch and kick pads with abandon (which is all that five year old boys want to do) they will do it less elsewhere.

Back to my Tuesday morning class. Upon entering the room, two of my boys immediately picked up two hula hoops each and began to fly around the room at top speed. Dylan was "a spaceship." Luke was "Superman." The hoops, who knows? Solid rocket boosters? Steering wheels? Superman's super arms? Once the class begins the kids will have to actually sit down and listen to me. (They even, those poor souls, have to suffer through my barely mediocre singing voice) But until then they can just run. And jump. And yell. And throw their bodies onto the mats. (Just not onto each other) The harder, the faster, the louder, the better.

Yes, we have a lot of rules here in the dojo. All that structure is great for kids, it is the reason most parents sign them up for karate to begin with. But sometimes, it is those unscripted moments barely hovering on the edge of chaos, that are the best. And to get both, in one 45 minute class, that is pure gold. It is what all teachers, no matter what they teach, are striving for.

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