My daughter, now six, is at her karate class. She moves up and down the hall with the others, blocking, kicking, punching. There’s fifty children and young people here, from ones as small and round as Star Wars Ewoks to great elongated teens. At the end of the hall she turns and snaps a punch out. And she shouts!. “Ayaah!” Yes, shouts! She’s encouraged to shout loudly and powerfully, energising her punch.
I love this moment and believe it’s a moment we need to consider. Why?
Because I know of very few places that children are encouraged to be this powerful in such a unified and embodied way. Nowhere else that children are taught the two necessary things for being powerful:- firstly, how to raise their energy, rather than mute it. And secondly, how to shape it into something skilful and focused. We are very good at teaching our children to be nice or smart. We teach them how to be graceful or agile. (My daughter does ballet and football too.) But powerful?
Our general approach, especially when it comes to children, is to dampen down their energy. Or find ways to exhaust it. ‘Let them run it off.’ Of course we need balanced and socially healthy children, and learning skilful containment is an absolutely necessary part of growing into the world. But containment is easier if the energy is muted, so too often our parental and schooling approaches take this low road.
As a result, children are rarely taught how to raise their energy, excitement and aliveness. Nor how to ride its winds or shape it into something useful to them and the world. More likely through countless interactions, looks and comments, they learn that roused energy is a problem, to be distrusted or shunned. As if only Chaos accompanies it, trailing one step behind , panting at its elbow, waiting for its moment to take over.
If we never explore being really powerful with children, if we never examine its textures, opportunities and dangers, should we then be surprised that when they grow up, power becomes an area of difficulty?
That as adults we display a lack of confidence or skill in its use? That we have so many examples of power being badly contained and toxic? Or over-contained and ineffective?
That collectively the organisations where we earn our ‘livelihood’ often seem divorced from our liveliness. Or invoke an unskilful use of our energy that proves exhausting and disempowering.
The karate class is coming to an end. Suddenly there is absolute silence as the children line up in ranks. The Sensei kneels and the hall fills with the rustle of fifty children in white gi’s bending to the floor for the final bows signalling the lesson is over. The class started with a bow, and now concludes with one. These rituals of respect are the necessary accompaniments to this weekly exercise of being powerful. Part of the deep experience of the cycle of generation, containment and shaping.
Kindness and compassion have also shown up in the hall this week, and do so each week. A belt is re-tied around a small waist, an encouraging word whispered, a smile and moment of attention to someone struggling. Every week I have watched the wonderfully skilled teachers show moments of kindness as well as moments of discipline, instances of great sensitivity and substantial toughness. The point is these are not abstract ideas. These are experiences of power that our children need to marinate in, soak up into their pores and circulate in their blood, so that they have this reference point strongly available in their system when they grow up. Power, not opposed to, but accompanied by compassion.
I want my daughter to be powerful. And compassionate. Strong and kind. If she hasn’t got both then it troubles me. The complex world she is walking towards needs her to be both, and she needs both to survive, flourish and contribute. I want her to trust her own power, trust that she can generate it in difficult times, and trust that she can shape it usefully when it bubbles up within her. I want this for her. And I want it for other children.
As we walk home in the dark she shows me her front kick. It whips out and she knows it’s a good one. She is proud of it, but I am prouder. “Bedtime when we get home,” I say. ‘Yes, I know, ” she replies. And then she shouts “Ayaah!”
My thanks to Sensei Dean Ince and Sensei Greg Wallace of the New Roding Karate Club for their teaching and example. Children cannot be led through the experience of power and compassion without adults who can comfortably embody it for them. I don’t think these two teachers fully realise how brilliant they are. But having worked with teachers for 25 years, I do know. They do things with 50 energised children in the room that many a school teacher could learn from. Deep bow!
If you live in East London and want to contact them you can ring them on 01277 362104.