Some of my most uncomfortable and upsetting times as a parent have come in the area of extracurricular activities.
Like other parents we want to give our wee boy the chance to experience as many opportunities as possible. The range of classes available to children these days is quite dizzying in its scope – yoga, ballet, football, piano lessons, advanced welding.
We’ve tried quite a few of them and suffered the misery of watching our shy and sensitive boy fail at the social challenges. At junior rugby he insisted on holding my hand through the class, at tennis he refused to leave mummy’s side. I’ve written here before about the pain of our drama class experience (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/20/getting-into-character/https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/26/from-the-mouths-of-babes/).
To be clear I have absolutely no difficulty in taking part in the activities myself if I believe that that will help my son to enjoy them. But when it becomes clear that he is not having fun, that the structure of the activity seems to be causing him distress, then it is time to withdraw.
Both mummy and myself have been scarred by the process and occasionally reduced to tears. Guiltily I’ve found myself wondering ‘Why can’t he be like the other boys and girls? Why is he different?’
And so, about a year ago, we stopped trying to send our son to classes outside of school. We had to admit that he just wasn’t ready.
And that could have been the end of it. Except my wife refused to abandon the idea completely. My son was going through a ninja phase recently and mummy started to look around for a martial arts class that he could join.
When she told me in January that she had found an Aikido studio in Dromore my stomach filled with dread. While I was quite certain of the potential benefit of the class, I simply could not envisage any way that my son would be disciplined or focused enough to study a martial art. I feared the worst.
Undeterred my wife took him to his first class at Martin Acton’s Aikido Institute two months ago. I was out of the country at the time but when my wife phoned me late in the afternoon to say that he had loved the class I was surprised. Delighted, but surprised.
Soon I began to accompany my son to the classes and learnt a little about it. Aikido is a Japanese martial art that practitioners can use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.
I quite liked what I saw. As well as the self-defence techniques Sensei Martin Acton schooled the children in Japanese vocabulary and spent time talking to them about what to do if they found themselves being bullied. The exercises seem designed to help increase confidence.
Naturally, my son was shy at first, often silent and unable to make eye contact when directly addressed. But he seemed not to be intimidated by the structure and ethos of the activities. Indeed it was immediately clear to me that he was enjoying it.
While the classes demanded focus and discipline, it was never forgotten that the participants were young children and that they should be having fun.
As the weeks passed mummy and I kept taking him to the classes. Soon, I had to acknowledge, the most unlikely metamorphosis was taking place. From being silent, he found his voice and began to speak out. He laughed freely and without any sense of self-consciousness. He began to play jokes.
Sometimes I cringed at the back of the class when he encountered a new technique which he couldn’t immediately master. I had to fight the urge to jump off my seat and throw arms of comfort around him. Instead he merely tried it again and again, shaking off the mistakes until he got the move right.
But the most startling change was outside of the class. Our boy, who previously hid behind his mummy’s leg in every social situation, emerged from the shadows. I watched, stunned, as he began to speak out without apparent fear to adults he had never met before. I had got used to always answering on his behalf. Now I had to teach myself to shut up and let him speak for himself.
He became much braver in his play, losing much of his fear of climbing and jumping and began to mix with children who previously had intimidated him. We took him to a school disco, often a tricky encounter on previous occasions, and watched with admiration as he spent two hours dancing happily on the other side of the room. Other parents, who have known him since nursery, came to us and spoke about him being ‘a different child’.
Which brings me to the obvious question, is Aikido responsible for this seemingly miraculous transformation in the character and confidence of my child?
Probably the truth is a little more complicated. To use the cliché, it was in the right place at the right time. A year ago, I don’t think he would have been ready for it. In January he was ready and the aikido has helped to unlock the personality inside my little boy that was bursting to get out. Mummy and I witness it every day, but now he is showing it to the rest of the world.
But he is still our little boy. His teacher reports that he is still quiet and shy in the classroom and he still never travels too far without a nervous glance over his shoulder to see where we are. He still gets afraid when he sees geese.
But now the direction of travel has been set and there is an undeniable momentum to his development. I believe this is to a significant extent because of Aikido and because his mummy insisted on giving him the chance when I was too scared to do it.
It is Saturday morning and mummy and I are sitting among other parents at the back of the Aikido studio. I’m ridiculously nervous and keep taking my anorak off and then putting it on again.
After eight weeks of class my son is about to undergo his first test which will determine whether he obtains the green and white belt.
The green and white belt has been the main source of conversation in our house for several weeks as my son has practised the techniques over and over, showing previously undiscovered levels of persistence and determination.
But now that it’s here I feel a little sick. He’s too young, I find myself thinking over and over. What happens if he freezes? If it’s all too much for him? I have to fight off the urge to run and grab him up and flee the building.
The first test is to remember and recite eighteen words of Japanese vocabulary. But it is not the fact that he gets them all right which makes me almost choke with tears, it is the clarity and confidence in his expression. The absence of any fear or doubt in his voice.
He is similarly confident when discussing strategies for dealing with bullies, the second part of the test. Sensei is with him at all times, giving him words of encouragement and congratulation.
Which brings us to the three techniques he must perfect to obtain the belt. The first is known as 1,2,3,4,5,6 – a series of punches and raised knees. Each part of the move has to be delivered with the correct hand and with the feet in the right position. He does it without difficulty, both when delivering the blows and blocking them.
Then it is stopping a slap, a move which culminates with the student forcing the attacker to the floor. This has been the most difficult technique for my son. He struggled for several weeks to get the intricate hand and feet positioning correct. Several times, as we practised at home we thought we had mastered it, only for deficiencies in his technique to be exposed when he got back onto the Aikido mat. Sensei kept encouraging him to do better.
So my son kept going. Doing it again and again until the move became like a part of his consciousness, as natural as breathing. Sensei attacks him with slaps from both sides but my son holds the form that he has been taught to force his teacher onto his back.
The final part of the test is to stop a strangling attack. Again he executes the move with confidence, his face showing fierce concentration.
And then it is over. The Sensei announces that my son has passed the test and he is given a round of applause by everyone in the room. I can’t see his face at this moment, but I know from his posture and his dancing feet that he is glowing inside.
I’m not aware of it but, at the moment it is announced he passed the test, my wife later tells me, I emit a sound. Part gasp, part squeal, part cheer. It comes from somewhere deep inside.
We take our wee man for a celebratory lunch and ice cream. He’s clearly exhausted now, although he won’t admit it. He keeps saying ‘I’m a real ninja now, aren’t I mummy?’ We can’t give him enough cuddles today.
He did the work, passed the test and deserves his reward. The parenting test goes on every day for me. I hope I can meet it with the same composure, the same confidence and the same desire to learn and do better as my son.