Extra Pulp: The Karate Kids

Laura Anders Lee and her sons discover the benefits of karate at their local dojo.

David Vallejo

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d end up in a dojo on a Friday night watching martial arts demonstrations, I would have called you crazy—and asked what a dojo was. Yet here I am today, spending three evenings a week in a dojo, the classroom where my sons take karate.

Growing up, I played volleyball and basketball, and after my sons were born, I assumed they would play traditional sports, too. I never gave taekwondo, kung fu or karate much thought other than a brief crush on Ralph Macchio in elementary school. But during an especially rainy and hot summer trapped inside with my then 6- and 4-year-old, I discovered karate. The three of us walked into the dojo for the first time not sure what to expect—the boys just wanted to play ninjas. But it didn’t take me long to realize karate’s values. A quick impulse to get the kids out of the house has become a game-changing experience for our family.

First, karate is good exercise. My first-grader, Anders, has developmental delays and low-muscle tone. Before we started karate, he’d been seeing an occupational therapist. Karate teaches him coordination, flexibility and balance. He kicks, punches and does jumping jacks and sit-ups without realizing how hard he’s working.

Secondly, karate teaches discipline. A typical preschooler, William tests his boundaries on a daily basis. One day we walked inside the dojo for his lesson, and he yanked off his shoes and threw them on the floor. Out of habit, I promptly picked them up. “Put those down right now,” his sensei said. I obeyed. “William, your shoes and your belongings are your responsibility, not your mother’s. Now pick them up and put them inside your bag.” William did exactly what he was told. At each lesson, their instructors remind them to say “yes ma’am,’’ “please” and “thank you,” and the boys earn stripes on their belt for good behavior at home.

Karate provides important safety tips. The boys were required to memorize my 10-digit, out-of-state cell phone number. They’ve learned survival skills, like never walking alone and never going anywhere with a stranger—even if they offer something cool or say they’re a friend. The boys know how to enter a building and identify the exits. They’re learning to be aware of their surroundings and stand up to bullies—they even took a class in the dark. Because of karate, our family finds a designated meeting spot at every public place in case we get separated. We’ve had earnest conversations about what could happen, and we have a family plan.

Karate teaches self-confidence. Before the first day of school, the boys learned what it means to make a good first impression. Their sensei taught them how to walk confidently into a room and introduce themselves with eye contact and a firm handshake. “You are what you look like; you are what you sound like; you are how you respond,” they say together.

And finally, karate builds character. Before every class, the boys recite a creed about honor, courage, respect, knowledge, strength and honesty. During a karate competition, Anders was forced to put this creed into action. The dojo hosted “American Ninja Warrior,” modeled after the hit NBC show, where students competed in various physical tests. I reminded Anders that it was okay if he didn’t win as long as he tried his best and had fun. One of the first challenges was an obstacle course, and Anders lost by a full 10 seconds. He was visibly upset, but he shook it off, and at the next event, he went on to break his very first board—a karate rite of passage.

At the awards ceremony, Anders won first place in the kicking competition. He never looked so proud in his life. I smiled a big goofy mom grin. But then, they mistakenly called his name for winning the obstacle course. Anders reluctantly took the medal and went back to take a seat next to the boy who had beaten him.

I went over and whispered, “Anders, who won the obstacle course?” He sheepishly answered, “Nate.” He was disappointed and embarrassed, but Anders took the medal off his neck and placed it on Nate’s. “Good job, Nate,” he said.

While I was proud of the medal Anders did earn, I was even prouder that he did the right thing. I’ve loved watching my sons progress and grow into little gentlemen, but it really does take a village to raise them. We’ve found our village inside a karate dojo—and yes, sometimes even on Friday nights.

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