Karate and the Aggressive Child: Hitting is NOT Nice!
Some of my friends tell me that they worry about introducing their "aggressive child" to martial arts because it may encourage their natural tendencies. While I didn't start training in karate until I became an adult, as a former "aggressive child", I'd like to share some of my own experiences and insights on the topic.
I was raised in the 70's to be polite and respectful of others. My parents didn't use spanking for discipline and I grew up believing violence was never the answer. However, my natural inclination was always on the aggressive side. I think my dad recognized this early on, and he showed me how to hit a heavy bag; even got me my own gloves, but I was heavily involved in dance classes, mostly ballet, and the bag hurt my hands. Much to the horror of my mother, I liked watching The Three Stooges reruns and poorly dubbed martial arts movies. I can still remember her telling me (repeatedly) that if I played too rough I wouldn't have any friends. Ironically enough, she was a boxing fan, but told me that kickboxing was "barbaric”. One time in grammar school a couple of girls thought it would be funny to trap me between their arms. Confined and restricted, I felt fear, panic, and rage well up inside me. To escape, without thinking, I instinctively bit down on one girl's arm. Immediately afterward I felt bad (sorry Jen), and in the principal's office a nun looked at me with utter disgust and called me an "animal", which only made me feel worse.
Fast forward to my late teens, living outside the city of Trenton, NJ. I had been hanging out with a group where fighting was common and violence was not restricted to the guys. It is not something I am proud of, but it’s a necessary part of the story. At the time my self-destructive behavior included surrounding myself with people who had quick tempers. In that crowd rage issues were commonplace any my own anger was well-controlled by comparison. But as I began to mature, I recognized that nothing good would come of those associations, distanced myself from that crowd, and went away to college shortly thereafter.
When my roommate suggested I come with her to a few self-defense classes hosted by the Karate Club on campus, I jumped at the chance to learn some basic moves. I figured knowing some self-defense techniques might not be a bad idea for those times that I did go home. For weeks after the class I walked around asking family and friends to grab me so I could try out some of what I had learned.
It wasn't until years after those first self-defense classes in college that I made the decision to seriously start learning karate. My former instructor was now my husband and he took me to study under his teacher, Sensei Marty Manuel. The karate school had a big open floor with a small kickboxing ring set up in the back corner. At the end of my first class Sensei put me in the ring with a black belt and told me to fight. I laughed nervously, unsure of what to do, and made some halfhearted attempts at punching and kicking until my opponent made light contact as he easily landed a few shots on me. Suddenly, all those years of holding back my nature fell away as I found myself alert, engaged, and fighting back. That was the day I discovered that I am a counter fighter at heart.
Since that time I have learned that sometimes, it's perfectly okay to hit (at the dojo or on a heavy bag), and to channel my natural aggressiveness into assertiveness. Not only do I still have friends, I am now part of a whole martial arts community. My extended family come from a diverse assortment of backgrounds and personalities, and they are interesting, talented, and a generally great group people to be around.
So what would have happened if I had started studying karate as a child? Well, I can tell you first hand that having an outlet for my nature, where I learned to control my temper instead of just condemning it, has made me a happier, healthier, individual. I believe it's less likely that I would have struggled with those self-destructive tendencies or hung out with a violence-prone crowd. I think my self-esteem would have been boosted and the camaraderie aspects of karate would have given me a good support system of positive role models who would have enriched my life a little sooner. However, I would do it again (mistakes and all) to wind up where I am now. What I do know with absolute certainty is that my aggressive nature did not go away on its own just because I studied ballet instead of karate.
Life will inevitably throw challenges at us, the discipline of practicing traditional karate has taught me how to control my emotional response and respond with a level head. I truly believe there is incredible value in these lessons for students of any age and temperament.
(And again, really sorry about the arm-biting thing.)