We were all up before the sun this past Saturday morning. My eight-year-old son was practically bouncing off the walls with nervous energy from the moment he was out of bed. We left the house at 8AM for a regional karate tournament in which my son would be competing. Although my husband and I tried to hide it, we were pretty nervous on the 45-minute drive to the suburban high school gym we’d only seen on Google map satellite views.
Thirty kids are in enrolled in my son’s karate class. A small number of these are highly spirited and impulsive, and they benefit from the self-discipline and focus required in the martial arts. My son is part of another sub-section of students, those who are cautious and unassertive. We knew very little about karate but were drawn to the martial arts as a way to help boost my son’s self-confidence and release his inner kiai. The dojo we joined has a wonderful reputation, and its motto is “Kindness, courage, excellence.” Hey, nothing about fighting or violence — what more could a mother want! I knew that the rough stuff would begin eventually but surely not in the early years. I love watching my son perform katas, the beautiful, almost dance-like sequence of kicks and punches that are the basic karate forms. Lulled into this false, non-contact impression of karate, I was surprised when we were asked to buy a mouth guard and what looked like boxing gloves for sparring. My son’s sensei laughed at what must have been an alarmed look on my face, and he reassured me that I’d get used to it.
Interestingly, my son still prefers kata to actual contact through sparring, and his sensei recommended that he enter the kata competition in the tournament. Having participated in a couple of local tournaments before, where the entrants were organized in such a way that all the young kids received some kind of medal, my son was eager to take on this new challenge. However, his sensei warned him that this regional tournament would be different, with no guarantee of a prize. My son was nevertheless eager to try, and he spent extra time practicing his kata. We tried to encourage him, without giving him unrealistic expectations, saying things like, “We’re proud of you for how hard you’re working to prepare for this.” But maybe we also said, “You’ll do great!” Just the kind of thing parents say, without thinking, when they try to be supportive. And now, looking back, did any of us — parents, sensei, grandparents — set him up to think that with all his hard work he’d be bound to win a medal?
He did not win a medal, although his sensei told him (and we told him) afterward that he’d done well. It’s just that four out of the seven kids in his age class did better. My son was disappointed in himself, and he couldn’t hold back the tears. We felt terrible for him, but continued to tell him how proud we were and how brave he’d been to register for the tournament (only two other kids from his class competed). Most important, we asked him if he felt he’d done well. After all, it’s self-confidence we’re trying to help build, not reliance solely on external affirmation of his performance.
I’ve been unable to stop thinking about the tournament and about our role as parents in nurturing our son’s self-esteem. On the one hand, my first instinct is to protect my son from hurt. When I mentioned confidentially to my son’s sensei (who is not a parent) that I was nervous, he laughed and asked why I’d be nervous since my son couldn’t get hurt doing kata. But it’s not necessarily physical hurt I worry about. I keep questioning whether competition at such a young age is a good thing. The decision to enter the tournament was my son’s alone; no one pushed him. But at his age and early stages of development in his sport, I wonder if we should limit his exposure to events where he might fail (in his own eyes). As I was expressing these concerns to a friend of mine, she reminded me of how beneficial it is for children to experience failure in a safe, supportive environment. Sure, my son was disappointed, but his two teammates, his sensei, and his family were with him to provide support. Through the competition he may have learned that he can survive when he fails to meet his own expectations, learn from it, and move on. In fact, he told us today that he’s gotten over feeling sad and that he wants to do another tournament. Maybe he’s just naturally resilient, but I hope some of the lessons we’ve all learned from this experience will help down the road.