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Exploiting my children

Yes, well, you'll have to excuse me. And you will once you realize what little gem my 9-year-old came up with last night...

It's not ideology, she said. It's idiotology.

(Yes, one day we'll discuss how the word ideology has been tortured out of its real context - a system of beliefs based on ideas - to the point where today it's mostly used to describe an unthinking inflexible moron, which is in itself a feat of some kind, but for now I'll just bask in her cleverness. Thank you for your understanding.)

Big changes happen... at their own speed, actually

I used to believe big changes happened slowly. Well, they do. But they also don't. Recent events in the life of Eldest have caused me to ponder this space-time continuum conundrum, including her recent well-researched and supremely-well-argued request to be allowed to go to regular school for a while.

This one hit me pretty hard. I swallowed even harder listening to her. Because there she was, making her case like a person much older than she is. She was prepared to make her case, and had her answers ready for the objections she knew I'd bring up.

I know going to school isn't what she really wants, and I said that to her. What she really wants is to spend a bit more time away from her family, with friends her age. That's a perfectly natural desire at her age, and as I explained to her it can be accommodated in a homeschooling context. But she seems pretty determined... (she's a bit stubborn, unlike some people we know).

I was both hurt and bursting with pride. And also amazed at the speed at which this tiny fragile helpless baby girl turned into a strong, eloquent young woman. In a way, it happened very suddenly. But of course, it didn't. She started turning into who she is today the day she was born - nay, conceived. Those big visible changes happen all at once, yes. But they also take a long time to evolve.

It's magical and baffling all at once.

The perils of free-range parenting

It had to happen sooner or later. That's why I'd prepared my kids for that possibility, by explaining that adults were so unused to seeing kids allowed to be competent by themselves that they might call the cops on them. I can't control what other people do, but I can give my kids guidelines (to random stranger: don't give your name, but say firmly that your mother knows where you are and walk away; to uniformed police officer: give your name/age if asked, give my name and phone number, explain politely but firmly that your mother knows where you are and that you have permission to be there). Yesterday those guidelines were put to good use when someone pushed the panic button because they saw one of my kids on the street, alone.

I dropped off Middle Daughter (age 9) near the library around 11:45 and went to the dojo for class. She was going there to return books, browse and pick up new ones. Then she was to walk down to the dojo and read there with her big sister.

Eldest, who is now 11, has been walking to the library and back to the dojo by herself (a distance of maybe 600 metres) for some time now, and Middle Daughter has often been with her. But when she turned 9, I thought it was time to let MD try it by herself. It's a perfectly safe neighbourhood, but the street is fairly busy and you need to be careful. She knows how to do it, not that it stopped me from repeating it 400 times.

Anyway. She's done it by herself a couple of times now, and I'm confident she knows what she's doing. I dropped her off at a convenient spot, about a block from the library, and drove off. Almost right away a woman accosted her, demanding to know how old she was, why she wasn't in school, and where her parents were. She explained she was nine, homeschooled, and yes indeed her mother knew where she was, thank you very much. I don't mean to boast when I say this, but all three of my daughters are exceptionally well-spoken, especially for their respective ages. They are used to dealing with adults, and they can talk their way out of a tied-up paper bag. I have no doubt she explained everything clearly and concisely to that woman. But apparently that wasn't enough...

Half of me appreciates the concern. You see a kid by herself on the street during school hours, and you wonder what she's doing there and whether she's in trouble or not. My daughter walked away from that woman and entered the library. When she came out of there, her backpack heavy with books for herself and her two sisters, a policeman was waiting for her.

He asked her the same questions, and she gave the same answers. Evidently she did a good job of it because he left her with his card to give me, and coupons for a free drink at the nearby convenience store.

When I got out of my karate class and went to see how my two eldest daughters were doing (Youngest was with her dad), they were all weird. Eldest blurted out that someone had called the cops on her sister, who immediately tried to hide inside her shoulders, convinced she was about to get in trouble with me. I made her explain the story from beginning to end, then gave her a big hug. She did everything the way she was supposed to, and it wasn't her fault the woman who approached her overreacted. 

We did call the number on the policeman's card, and left a message thanking him for dealing with the matter sensibly. Obviously once a concerned citizen calls the cops fearing a child might be in trouble, they have to come check it out. But he was evidently convinced there was nothing to worry about in my daughter's situation, because he let her go on her merry way without undue fuss.

It's a sad world when adults think it's so wrong to see a kid walking by herself on a safe street in broad daylight that it's a matter for law enforcement. I encourage my daughters to be independent and street-smart, because those are very useful skills to have. But I'm not blind or stupid; my feisty 7-year-old is not allowed to walk to the library without an adult. But she's allowed to walk with her sisters to the local playground because there are no busy streets to cross. I know my kids and I make judgement calls all the time about what I think they can and cannot do. You see stories of parents being arrested for letting their kids roam freeishly - in the United States as well as in Canada. I'm aware that this is a risk of free-range parenting. But I refuse to have my kids grow up thinking their mother didn't trust them to walk 600 metres by themselves.

Grace, aka adversity

It's not an easy thing to keep up with my work and my reading while taking part in the WKC World Karate Championship (I'm fighting at 10 am, send good vibes!), but you know, I try.

One of the books I'm reading is Mark Wolynn's It Didn't Start With You, and in the beginning he recounts his story about getting back in touch with his parents and somehow curing a terrible eye condition. Towards the end of the anecdote he says:

What looked like adversity was actually grace in disguise.

And that brought me back to Tuesday morning in Orlando, Florida. It was my daughter's first fight at Worlds. She'd never fought at this level and was understandably nervous. I did my best to pump her up. I believe in her; she's a great little fighter who trains like very few people train - heck, she trains with me and a bunch of grownups, and she's trained by the best in the world; I'd bet my right arm very few kids in her division benefited from this much top-drawer training as she has these past two years. I told her that I (along with her coach and other senseis) believe in her. That we all think she has what it takes to make it at this level.

I did some drills and warmup with her before her fight, and I sat in the coach's chair during her fight - at her request. I'm not the best coach in the world, but I'm the absolute best in the world at this kid. She's so much like me... I know painfully well that the only thing standing in her way that morning was the little voice in her head telling her she had no business being there. She comes by her Imposter Syndrome honestly; I have a major league case of it myself.

But I know it can be defeated. And I tell her: Look, you'll hear this voice in your head asking you who the hell you think you're kidding fighting at Worlds. You have my permission to tell this voice to shut the f*ck up. ("You know these words. Don't use them! Unless it's absolutely necessary... It's absolutely necessary!") I believe in you, I told her, and I hope you believe in yourself half as much as I believe in you. If you do, you'll be fine.

She fought her best fight ever. But it wasn't enough; she lost that fight 7-5 and was therefore out of competition. She was *very* upset - with herself, with me, with the refs and the universe. But within ten minutes she was enthusiastically cheering her teammates on.

She was learning her lesson, and taking it like a champ.

I know it feels terrible to lose your first fight on the world stage. I did that myself last year in Dublin. But like I told her, no real champion ever started winning everything. Real champions start out losing - bitterly so - and grow from there. They lose and they lose until one day they start winning. And don't stop winning. Because by that point they've learned so many lessons about what not to do that they become virtually unbeatable. 

Nobody starts out a winner. Being a true champion is something that's earned the hard way. Losing your first fight at worlds is hard. Very hard. But now she knows something about herself she didn't before losing that fight.

She may not know it yet, but this adversity will one day turn into grace. I say, go girl. I'm immensely proud of you.

Well, now, which lifestyle you want?

This morning the quote (which I hope you'll find inspiring rather than just annoying) is from me. We've been in Florida since Saturday, for a karate world tournament, and already I've had to say "no" six hundred million times to sweet treats and/or unsuitable snacks. My daughter, a remarkably fit and healthy 11-year-old, who is in town competing at a tournament that could make her world karate champion, has trouble focusing on the prize in the face of all those very clever ads for "food" items that would make her unhealthy in no time flat.

She's a smart, focused and disciplined kid (at least, when she wants to be), but those ads, and that sugar, are hard to resist. She knows all this. She understands why she can't have much of the sort of food other people seem to ingest without thinking twice (or once, even). But it's tempting her. And I'm not exactly the person with the most patience in the world for this sort of thing...

This morning while waiting for our breakfast ("leave the bread, eat the eggs and meat") she saw an ad for some creamy luscious milkshake and said she was tempted by those. Not in a "BUT I WANT IT" tone of voice, rather in a matter-of-fact kind of way, just a child telling her mom what was going through her head.

That's the moment when I flubbed Bonding With Your Child 101, because I almost exploded.

Do you want the lifestyle that goes with those shakes, or do you want the gold-medal lifestyle?!?

She knew it, of course. But every now and then I feel like she needs to hear me nearly explode to really get it. Well, that's done now, and maybe I'll get an easier week from here on out, junk-food-wise.

The episode also gave me another opportunity to mention to her that discipline is one of those things that do become easier with practice. Treat it like a muscle. Every time she's tempted by something she knows she shouldn't have and refuses to let herself have it, it's like her mind is doing 10 pushups. After a while, that mind will get very strong. Stronger than the milkshake ads.

And then there is nothing in the world she won't be able to do. Because in the end, whether you practice any sport at all, you want the gold-medal lifestyle, not the other stuff.

The privilege of mentoring

It's one of the things I miss the most these days, as I've had to take a step back from teaching karate for work-related reasons (only 24 hours in a day, that's a real shame).

It is a wonderful privilege to be able to teach children something you love, and to have those children grow to love the same thing and push themselves to reach their own goals.

The beauty of having kids run to your arms to show you their new belt, or a medal they won, or even a sticker they got at the dentist's office. Kids whose parents tell you do their homework because you asked them to. Kids who may not believe you when you say it's an Official Rule of the Universe that the better you behave in the car on the way to the tournament, the better you perform at the tournament, but behave anyway because why take chances?

I have seen kids go from being 4-year-olds with significant behaviour issues to reasonably pleasant young people. Kids who used to struggle in school (with attention, or reading, or anything) and manage to get better grades. Every day you see real progress being made in so many individual lives. I see kids who used to get in trouble all the time, and who now are being trusted to mentor younger kids.

Teaching kids is not even that hard - you just need to care about what you're teaching, and care about those kids. (Actual knowledge not a bad thing to possess either.) But basically it comes down to this: Everyone wants to be seen, and everyone does better when they know other people genuinely care about them. That's true at any age, even with teenagers who do a good job of looking like they could care less what you think. Shocker: they actually do care what you think. Whatever you're teaching, treat each child like a complete and autonomous person, and show them that you care how they do.

That last part is made harder these days because in many places - like schools - adults aren't allowed to touch children in any way. I understand why - parents are legitimately worried about creeps. I have daughters. I get it. But.

The problem is you can't teach children that way. Me, I hug them, high-five them, pick them up in my arms when they're little. I try to do this in view of the parents, to make sure they're comfortable with it. But man, how you're supposed to teach children without touching them I really don't know. Kids aren't good at abstract concepts. They know you love them when they feel it in your touch.

Kids know when your high-five or your pat on the shoulder is fake. They know when you're just pretending to care. And they respond accordingly.

I had one kid this past weekend, flush with pride at having earned an advanced belt, who hugged me so hard when I told her I was proud of her I was almost worried I wouldn't be able to breathe. Children need to feel loved and appreciated for who they are and for what they do. If you give them that, they'll rise to their full potential.

It's the most beautiful thing in the world to see.