Sunday, February 03, 2008

Push-me pull-you

For a long time I've been muttering to Noah that I thought he'd be a great candidate for a martial arts program. He has such physical intuitiveness, such an amazing sense of his own body, yet doesn't enjoy team or competitive sports. He's also easily intimidated by the physical energy of fellow human beings when he doesn't trust their impulse control and social skills. He's not physically fearful in the least (as witnessed by his tree-climbing, rope-wrangling adventurousness) but he's easily intimidated by the physical assertiveness of other people. Children especially. So sports have been a hard sell with him. While we try to stay active through unstructured pursuits, there are long stretches of the spring and fall where the kind of exercise that lends a healthy balance to our lives is hard to come by.

Noah does have a bit of an interest in things Japanese, and in martial arts, by way of his contact with computer-gaming. And he would benefit from a physical outlet -- especially something scheduled into his week -- since the computer tends to suck all his time and energy otherwise.

So I dropped a few teasers over the months and years. "You'd be great at martial arts, Noah. We should try to find you something." These were wistful teasers. It seemed unlikely there would be a suitable program anywhere near us. I knew there was an amazing aikido dojo in Nelson, but Noah hates travelling to Nelson no matter the reason. That was out, for sure.

But imagine my surprise to hear a couple of years ago that there was an offshoot of the Nelson dojo being built outside a little village of 700 half an hour south of us. I filed that little tidbit away for future reference.

A couple of months ago I watched Noah having fun with Sophie on the far side of midnight one night playing an invented bizarre combat art he termed Yoga Boxing, leaping around on one leg in the "Tree" yoga position attacking Sophie and having an absolute hoot. His balance, strength and precision were amazing. I thought to myself this kid has to get involved in a martial art. I decided to start investigating that new aikido dojo.

I was sold, but with Noah it was quite a different matter. He hates trying new things; expectations he doesn't fully understand make him anxious, as does the possibility that he won't excel at something the first time out. Normally when I nudge Noah into something, I have to do it in a way that is calculated to help him over the hump of his initial resistance. I thought that he and I were getting much better at reading and understanding each other's signals. But my goodness, I've been totally confused this time around.

A few weeks ago I got in touch with the people at the nearby dojo and found out that they were running youth classes. I was told we were welcome to drop in to observe. I planted a seed with Noah (and Sophie who is also in the age-group for the youth classes). I told them we'd go and check it out sometime. Noah's response was somewhat resistant, but I knew that was coming from his anxiety over trying new things. There was a glimmer of interest too. The mixed signals were starting.

I'm used to his ambivalent signals, though, so I let things go until after the Calgary trip and then told him one morning that we'd be going to check it out in three days' time. No argument, but no enthusiasm. Just the mute signs of anxiety over something new. Then, that morning, I reminded him that this was the day, and that there were no expectations, we'd just go and watch. When it was time to leave, I gave him his marching orders. "Time to go. Come on. We're going to check it out. You don't have to do anything, but you do have to come."

He came along uncomplainingly, though it was clear he wasn't exactly joyfully looking forward to it. Silent dread might have been one way of describing it. But dread and curious excitement at the same time. On the way down we chatted about what it might be like, and it was apparent he knew a fair bit about martial arts -- certainly more than I did, though I shared what I'd learned about aikido by my reading and research. I also explained that I was pushing him into checking things out because I recognized that he often enjoyed things after he'd got over the hump of his initial resistance -- and that as his mom I wasn't always sure when I should push and when I should back off, but I'd decided a small push was likely worthwhile with this activity. We went, we found the place, we felt a bit awkward introducing ourselves, but were able to watch in a low-key way. When the class was over, Noah told the sensei that he thought he might like to join, and he asked to stay to watch a bit of the adult class that followed. When we left the dojo half an hour later he told me "yeah, I think I might go for it." He mentioned finding the behaviour of one or two of the boys a little intimidating, but thought he still might like to join the class. That sounded pretty positive. I felt vindicated in my pushing. We'd both loved the facility and found the sensei very likeable and competent. We came home with a good feeling about it.

However a day later he I asked him how he felt about it and he said he didn't think he'd join. Over the next two days he became even more negative and resistant. Now what? He'd been initially interested, though anxious, yet when I'd got him there he'd decided he'd liked it. But now he'd flip-flopped and was pulling against my pushing.

As the next class loomed, I spent a lot of time and energy reflecting on what to do. In the depths of last night I decided to push him to come to class today and once again see how he felt when it was over. It seemed like anticipatory anxiety was the problem and once he'd worked through it things were good. I figured that he'd need a smaller push the second time and so I decided I was willing to push.

But when it came time to go today, he notched his resistance up an order of magnitude. I felt awful, but I played the parental authority figure. "I think this is good for you, and I don't care what you're saying right now -- you seem to have yes feelings and no feelings all at the same time, and I'm telling you we're going to watch another class to give you a chance to sort those feelings out." It was a pretty dramatic scene; he definitely didn't want to go. He finally got into the van, overflowing with tears and protests. I felt terrible. It was a very silent minivan that headed south towards the dojo.

About half way there he let out a big sigh and then started to join in on conversation with Sophie, Fiona and me. He'd resigned himself to going, finally. When we got there the place felt familiar to us and he was welcomed with a cheerful "Hey, Noah!" by the sensei. We settled in to watch. And as I watched him observe the class it became apparent that he was enjoying himself. Wonder of wonders.

This time when we left, I asked him if he felt any better about things, if his feelings about aikido had changed from before the class. He nodded, smiled, and said "I think I'll come next time and when he asks if I'll join in for tag I will, and the next time after that I'll probably really join."

Sheesh. I hope the sense of vindication I now feel is more than temporary this time. We as good as shook on it today -- we'll go and watch next Thursday's class, and then he'll probably join. Agreed.

Did I do the right thing? I don't know. Noah has a habit of teetering on the brink of decisions that somewhere deep inside himself he really wants to make, working himself up to such a state of anxiety and resistance and eventually paralysis that he's less and less able to take the plunge. An early push reduces the duration of his anxiety and prevents him sliding into a state of paralysis. After being told in no uncertain terms that he must take the leap, he usually feels good about himself. It's just getting him over the hump at the start that's so tough. And really, it's been years since he's tried anything new; I suppose my patience at letting him find his own readiness was wearing thin. I've seen patience become counter-productive (and pushes result in big payoff!) with Noah before. I've never ever pushed as hard as I did today, though. It felt awful even though my instincts were telling me it was the right thing to do.


  1. It's so hard, isn't it? Like walking a tight rope sometimes.

    I think that following your gut is always the right thing to do. And sometimes a push is exactly what we need (I find that with myself, still today - though my kicking and screaming are on the inside now).

  2. I've had the same sort of challenges with my boys. When I wanted them to try Taekwondo, I didn't tell them until we were in the car on the way there that that's where we were going! They tried it and liked it. Two of them did it for a couple of years, one is still there and (along with me) will be black belt soon. I agree that pushing is sometimes necessary.

  3. Anonymous2:00 am

    My dd (almost 8 -- and HS) just decided to quit Aikido. She was the one running around with the biggest grin on her face throughout the class. But the moves are getting more complicated, and she's taking the class in a language she isn't proficient in, and well...

    My dh, who seems to be quite like Noah, physically and emotionally, really loves Iaido. Unforunately, it's impossible to find a dojo here in Eastern Europe (can't imagine in rural BC). But the solitary mind work and the physicality of Iaido really suited him well.

  4. Anonymous3:56 pm

    I'm reading with interest your escapades with Noah. The more I read, the more I feel that my daughter shares many of his characteristics. I have gone through the same struggle you have. Sometimes I'm successful, sometimes not. When to push and how hard is a difficult thing to know. Noah is five years older than my girl, so I'm taking notes!

  5. N. is a lot like Noah, with the added characteristic that, even when he likes something, if you change his schedule, he still mopes about a fair bit. Like you, I am always wondering where the line is between patience and pushing. N. does Taekwondo, and loves it, but will still get really mopy when we go at a time or on a day that is not our normal routine. And I feel like the bad guy when that happens. But he does get over it, usually, and then acts as if it was his own idea all along. So I continue to push and prod--maybe more than I should. But it does seem to work.


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