Ryan recently added sparring class to his Taekwondo schedule, which is a little different from regular class. In regular class, they line up and practice their kicks and punches, learn new forms (routines), and generally try to work on personal improvement. He does this three times a week. Sparring class involves putting on protective gear and using those kicks and punches in a one-on-one (sometimes two-on-one for the higher belts!) match. He tried it out first, decided he enjoyed it, and we bought the gear.
Last week, he started FREAKING out about going to sparring. He told me he was afraid, and the more we talked, the more it became apparent that he was afraid of one particular student. This didn't come as a total surprise to me, since I've been watching this girl and her older brother and their father for some time. These kids are both really good at taekwondo, and participate in national tournaments and things. Their dad really pushes these kids, and it's fairly obvious that their doing well in this sport is something he very much wants. (I can't quite tell if it's something the children also want, having never really interacted with them.) This dad is also really hard on his kids, especially his daughter, and openly fusses at her when she messes up or he thinks she's too slow.
This girl, in part to win her dad's approval (I think), is extremely aggressive in sparring class. Sure, sure, they're there to beat each other up, but they are also expected to exhibit self-control (it's one of the TKD tenets!). She's the same rank as Ryan and about his size, although a little younger by half a year or so. Because they are well-matched in rank and size, they are often paired up together in class. The lower belts/smaller kids also practice against older kids, too, who are expected to take on a teaching role with the little ones. And they do. But this girl, for reasons I can really only guess at, is really wild in sparring. I wonder if she mistakenly views her classmates as "enemies"--something Ryan had a hard time with in team sports a couple years ago (he wanted to view the other team as Bad Guys and took defeat very hard and gloated over every win).
The last time I observed sparring class, she and Ryan were paired up three times. She came out fighting, and Ryan was sort of dumbstruck at first. But the older black belt helped him identify some tactics and he even won the last sparring match. She melted into tears, ran to her dad and immediately launched into her defense: "He's new! I had to let him win! He cheated!" Etc. Honestly, that part didn't bother me too much--six year olds are not always graceful about losing (or winning).
So last week, when Ryan expressed to me how scared he was of her, how she once (accidentally) hit him in the eye, how he was NEVER going back to sparring ever again--I wasn't all that surprised, but it took me a while to figure out what to do.
As best as I can recall, here are some of the things going through my mind during his initial wave of freak-out:
- Does he really not like sparring, or is it this particular child?
- It's fine for him to quit if he just doesn't like it, but I'd hate to see him quit because of this one kid.
- Man! I just paid 90 bucks for all that gear!
- He really seems to enjoy it when he's not against this girl.
- How can I help him overcome his fear?
- And the big question: Do I make him go tonight? Is it worth it?
No. Not as clear-cut as saying "No biting!" to a toddler and putting him down on the floor.
I quickly got over my slight annoyance about having paid for the sparring gear. I have learned that buying such things (or signing kids up for classes or activities) is an inherent risk, and I always make sure I'm okay with not getting my money back in such situations. And I didn't want Ryan to feel obligated to stick with something that frightened him so much, for ME, simply because I complained about the cost. The cost is certainly something worthy of consideration, but that is MY problem, not his, since I am the one who paid the money. The only consequence of his (theoretical) quitting too many things for which I've paid money should be my hesitancy or refusal to sign him up for things that cost money.
Ryan and I talked some more, and I finally became satisfied that YES, he likes sparring, but NO he doesn't like this girl. She is too mean and aggressive and he's afraid of her. Okay. Then that sounds like a problem, which is what I told him. I also told him that he shouldn't let this girl be the reason he stops going to sparring. That he can quit if HE doesn't like it, but that quitting because of her is kind of like letting her decide things about his life. And I didn't think that was right.
And then he said miserably, "Maybe she just won't come tonight. I'll just think about that."
BAM. He was trying to evade, I think. He was scared and worried and nervous and didn't know what to do. So he wanted to pretend that she wouldn't be there. Now I'm all about pretend, and even using fantasy to deal with some types of problems. "If I had a million dollars, wouldn't that be great? We could have our own swimming pool!" Stuff like that. And role-playing really helps things, too. "What could you do the next time you spar her? What about this move?" And that is something we practiced, actually.
But this was different. The way he said that set off alarm bells in my head. I think he was so emotional, and he was trying to hide. Because he's a Flight kind of guy (me, too). So I made up my mind right there and then to be blunt with him. Kind, but blunt.
"Honey. I know you wish she won't be there tonight. But you need to know this. She will be there. They never miss practices, ever. You know how they're always going to tournaments and stuff? She and her brother are always at class. And if she's there, chances are you are going to have to spar her, since you guys are the same rank and size. She's going to go tonight, so it's no use pretending she won't be there."
He really looked stricken, and I felt sad about that. But then I forged ahead with something like:
"She'll be there. But that's okay. What we have here is a problem. And I do think it's a problem that can be solved, but it's the kind of problem that Daddy and I and Mr. H. [the owner of the TKD studio] need to work on. Now that you told us how you feel, we can deal with it, and help you deal with it. You don't have to quit sparring because you are afraid, because this is something that we can handle."
I said that over and over and over again, in different ways, just sticking to the theme: This is a problem we can handle. Let me and Daddy and Mr. H. help you. Don't quit sparring unless you really don't like it.
At some point, Ryan asked me to tell Mr. H. NOW. I knew he was in a class, so I asked Ryan if I could email Mr. H. That was fine with him. So I stopped our conversation right there and then, sent Mr. H. an email, and told Ryan what it said. I told Mr. H. that Ryan was afraid of sparring this particular girl, and that I was encouraging him to go to class, but that we needed to find a solution.
Ryan was visibly relieved after that and did agree to go to class if Brendan (who was taking him that night) would talk to Mr. H. once they got there. Deal. Brendan did speak briefly with Mr. H. who really tried hard to make class enjoyable for Ryan that night, and did not have him spar this girl. Ryan had a ball and told us he was glad he went. Mr. H. told Ryan that he was proud of him for coming to sparring, for doing that even though he was scared, and reassured him that he would help Ryan improve and gain confidence.
Honestly, part of me wishes Mr. H. had had Ryan and the girl spar each other, just to get him through that part of the fear. But I guess we'll cross that bridge tonight when he goes. I know that Mr. H. realizes that this girl's aggression is a problem, because I watched him with her the other night in regular class. I'm trying to keep in mind that she is a little kid, too, and needs to learn more self-control, and that Mr. H. is helping her with that.
Unfortunately, her dad continues to be a problem, and I've decided that I'll talk to Mr. H. about him soon. I don't think it's appropriate for a parent to be in the gym and encourage his child in some of her antics. She once tried to trip another student who was running out of the gym because she was bleeding, and he laughed. He also thinks it's quite amusing when his daughter doesn't stop sparring after the ref calls "break."
It was a tough parenting moment, and I'm generally pleased with how I handled it. I'm glad I recognized his trying to evade reality and I think I helped him acknowledge the unpleasant, scary facts and deal with them in a kind way. I really, really sympathized with him. It's so tempting to pretend our problems will just go away if we wish it. But I know that he can handle his problems--with Brendan's and my help--and I don't want him to fall into this temptation. He is strong enough and brave enough to deal with reality, and I don't ever want him to doubt that.
But wow! This stuff makes Sean's little biting phase seem like NOTHING. And I know it's only going to get more interesting and challenging from here on out. I'll look at this as an easy-breezy no-brainer someday when they're teenagers, I'm sure. :o)