Ben is a force of nature — a 9 year-old whirling, twirling tornado of elbows, knees and feet that cuts a swath through our house. It’s not that he means to leave behind a trail of assorted debris – toys, bits of food, spilled drinks, and bruised sisters – he can’t help it – space – his physical relationship to the world around him – holds very little meaning to him, or at least a meaning that is different than that of most people. For many who aren’t exposed to kids like him, Ben would appear to be undisciplined, inconsiderate and possibly even rude. But he isn’t. He just doesn’t regulate himself well when it comes to personal space and understanding the consequences of his own actions. Except in one particular environment:
Ben’s been doing karate since he was 5 years old. I can’t even remember anymore why we initially put him in class, but now it’s become an essential routine and ritual for him, a serene safe harbor in the storm of stimulation and distractions which must always seem to rage around him. I am not sure what happens inside his brain when he puts on his white gi and the hard-earned belt that indicates the rank he’s earned. All I know is that when I see him in karate class, I see a boy who would likely be unrecognizable to those who are familiar with the tornado version.
There is something about the structure of karate that resonates with Ben. He arrives in class, quietly puts his equipment bag in the allotted place, and then without prompting of any kind, will practice his kata (the choreographed moves karate students must learn to perfection) until class begins. This self-discipline and initiative from a kid who usually takes a minimum of five requests, pleas, and prods to do the most simple daily tasks, such as getting dressed or putting his shoes on.
Karate has a built-in reward system that is perfect for many children, but especially for Ben. Hard work pays. You learn the movements, work on perfecting them, conduct yourself with discipline and you’ll get promoted with a new belt color. Straightforward and simple. Perfect for a child who is very bright but who often misreads situations because of his challenges with navigating the world of subtle social cues and nuanced interactions.
What’s more, Ben has become a leader in karate class, helping to teach the younger kids. Yes, he’s a little louder and more strident than he probably needs to be, and perhaps he’s a little awkward in explaining some of the movements, but to see my son, who has needed so much support for behavior in an academic setting, actually leading and teaching other kids is a revelation — one that fills my chest with pride and my eyes with tears. But this isn’t about me. It’s all about Ben — a wonderful, complex boy who often succumbs to his daily challenges in rages and self-loathing, but who has found order, peace, self-esteem, and pride in an ancient art from a faraway land.
Kevin is a friend of SquagTM, and respected journalist. He lives in Singapore with his wife and three kids.