Moms attended free at my martial arts school this month. Moms of active students, that is. When I heard the news, a laugh escaped me, which is dangerous because it could easily have resulted in my doing extra burpees. Kickboxing is very far down the list of things my mom is likely to do. Organize a blanket drive for the homeless? Sure. Give someone a ride to the airport? Gotcha covered. Roundhouse kick? Not so much her department. That’s probably true of most women of her generation, because there were a lot of things girls simply were not allowed to do back then. I’d love to have the opportunity to train with my mom and her sisters, to show them how fun it is and give them something they never had.
I’ve seen four sets of parent and child at my gym: two moms with daughters, one mom with a son, and one dad with a son. There are probably a lot more, but the kids’ classes are in the middle of the day and most parents go to the night classes. My guess would have been that a lot of dads would enroll their teen daughters, since my husband put my stepdaughter in tae kwan do.
The first parent I met was a mom who has two teenage sons enrolled in the school; it may have been their idea. One kid apparently has ADHD. I identify with that myself; I wish I’d discovered athletics when I was younger, because it’s such a huge help in taming that inner restlessness. This mom is very petite and very serious about training. She often goes to class twice a day. For her it seems to be a mixture of alone time, stress relief, walking her talk with her kids, sharing an experience with them, and maintaining her ability to show who’s boss. Outsized, outnumbered, out-testosteroned, she’s not going to let teenage boys intimidate her.
The second parent I met was a dad who brought his college-aged son to class. This dad is an advanced student, and he came to the beginner class for the occasion. The son was clearly very reluctant, overwhelmed by the warmup, and looking for any reason to escape. He left the room twice in an hour. It’s none of my business, of course, although what could possibly be more fun than judging other people’s parenting? But if this dad genuinely wanted his son to pursue martial arts, it didn’t seem to be working. Why? Maybe because Dad was in the room, observing and giving out instructions? Maybe because Dad isn’t exactly in peak physical condition? The truth is that what we do is extremely physically challenging even without an audience. Taking an attitude that “I can do it, it’s not so hard, what the heck is wrong with you?” doesn’t seem to work very well. [I could probably goad one of my brothers into training with me through this tactic, but not the other, and certainly nobody else].
The third parent I met was the mom of one of the instructors. Like the dad with his son, she came to the beginner class. The mom reminded me very strongly of my own mother: strikingly similar build, coloring, hairstyle, and gentle demeanor. She would do palm strikes with about the intensity you would use to make cookies or give a massage, pat pat. She smiled and laughed softly, nervous and out of her element, but willing. Clearly she was only there to show how proud she was of her daughter’s strength and hard work.
The fourth parent I met was a woman who works in the building. She brought her teen daughter, which I figured out because I could hear them arguing in the hallway while I was in the changing room. Stage mom with aspiring actress daughter decides that daughter is going to learn martial arts; daughter wants nothing to do with it but Mom always wins. The mom peered owlishly at us through the window through almost the entire class, her mouth so pinched that I almost laughed out loud. The daughter was like a Greek chorus, questioning and complaining about every single warmup and training exercise. She declined to tie back her long, thick hair, which was perhaps the only free individual choice she was ever allowed in her young life. She utterly refused to jump rope. I mean, she’s right, warmups suck and they’re uncomfortable and sweaty and they make you look dumb. They work, though! We don’t do it because we want to or because we enjoy it; we do it because we want the results.
Krav Maga is considered the world’s number-one deadliest martial art. Can I just say that it isn’t something to force, coax, goad, or compel someone else to study?
Many of the guests who come to class once or twice are never seen again. This is so far true of all of the guests I’ve described here. The reluctant son of the overbearing dad never came back; if I recall correctly, he didn’t actually finish his first class. The instructor’s proud mama never came back, but she has the distinction of a daughter with enough agency, initiative, grit, and self-discipline to not just train, but teach as well. The daughter of the stage mom never came back, and my guess is that an unconstructive rebellion will quickly arise within her. The only parent-child relationship I’ve seen endure at this school seems to be the one in which the sons asked to join, and the mom wholeheartedly jumped in with them. She has rapidly become one of the fittest and strongest humans I’ve ever seen.
I came to martial arts in midlife because I wanted something that would bring me humility and self-discipline. Probably any form or any school will deliver if these traits are the goal. Having been the step-parent of a teenager, my opinion is that these traits are challenging to inculcate in a child through any means other than personal example. Initiative is not developed by ordering a kid around. Agency is not developed by making decisions for a kid. Of course we want to raise kids who take total personal accountability, kids who are responsible and decisive, kids who are closers and finishers, kids who are doers and makers, kids who keep their commitments. Then we try to stuff these values into their spines by authoritarian methods, external input, and strict rule-setting. I grew into an independent, powerful individual partly through challenging my parents and giving them a lot of trouble!
One day, when my stepdaughter was a young teenager, we went to a party in a park. She wandered off without saying anything. When she came back, I pulled her aside and said she was free to go where she wanted, but she needed to take ten seconds to inform us first. What if someone threw her in a van? I wanted to teach her to escape at least a wrist hold. Let’s role-play: I’m the kidnapper and OOF! She simply punched me in the sternum and knocked the wind out of me. Point taken. Good girl. She’s been supporting herself for a few years now, ever since she was nineteen. When we want them to be independent and powerful, we have to allow independence and power, even when it’s uncomfortable.
It’s too late for my grandmother’s generation; they’re gone now. They had dress codes and they were legally barred from joining many male-only clubs, schools, and organizations. My mom’s generation was prevented from doing a lot of things, too, and even my generation couldn’t do such basic things as join a basketball team. What I do now, I often do with thoughts of my forebears, the ladies who weren’t allowed. I’d fight with my mom if I could, if she wanted to. Maybe it’s enough that I can, and that the next generation can, too.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.