Traditional Martial Arts Academy is located next door to Hoppin’ House. Hoppin’ House is an indoor playground full of bouncy houses, inflatable slides and a foam pit. It is a great place to turn kids loose, let them be crazy and for them to burn off all of that excess energy. Children have a blast there. So much fun, in fact, that they often play past the point of exhaustion. And that is where the “fun” begins for the parents.
As a parent, it is probably not difficult for you to imagine your child bouncing in their car seat in anticipation of going to Hoppin’ House. You open the car door and they are a greyhound shooting from the gate on race day as they sprint from the car to the front door. They wait at the front door, but only because they have found it too heavy to open themselves. They bounce around the reception area like a pinball, impatient for you to finish filling out the waiver. And when you are done, they charge screaming towards the inflatable of their choice without a glance backwards.
Perhaps you can imagine them 30 minutes, an hour, maybe two hours later. Cheeks flushed, hair and shirt wet and sticking to them in various places. And a manic, unfocused look in their eyes…
…and this is when you tell them it is time to leave…
…and this is when the meltdown begins.
At this point, your child has played past the point of exhaustion and emotional stability. Simple instructions and mental clarity are out of reach. You are now the parent of a small, crazy person. Your child is no longer capable of basic human communication or reason. Now all you can do is wait. As one comedian put it, just tape the windows, it’s a hurricane.
My desk in the martial arts school used to be right by the entrance, so I had front row seating for several extraordinary temper tantrums every day. I learned a lot over the years watching these little volcanic eruptions spray their parents (and anyone unlucky enough to be walking by) with exhausted rage. It taught me a lot about the nature of temper tantrums. It also taught me a lot about parenting.
Some parents saw it as a teachable moment, a chance to correct their child’s behavior. Nope, doesn’t work. The kids were just too crazy to understand anything but their own rage. Anything they were told just added to that rage.
Some parents tried negotiation. If you just stop screaming, I’ll give you this. Uh-uh. Not a chance. Just too crazy.
Some parents would flip out themselves. I’ve seen children yelled at, threatened and even hit. Negatory. I think the formula is (Child Temper Tantrum)+(Parent Temper Tantrum)=(Much Bigger Child Temper Tantrum)-(Trust in Parents).
A handful of parents saw it as the inevitable hurricane that it was and just let the kid burn themselves out. This is the most effective approach to a tantrum. It allows the child’s brain the space to reset and move out of fight or flight mode.
Watching all of these families struggle with the same crisis, combined with my own study of the latest research, taught me a lot about how to better deal with temper tantrums. It made me a better teacher and, when I became a dad, it made me a better parent.
I have had many parents over the years comment on my abilities as a teacher. I have been told that I am patient, that I am talented…that I am just so good with kids.
What those parents do not consider is the fact that I have been teaching for over twenty years and have had hundreds of opportunities to learn deeply about children, like having a desk well-positioned for watching hundreds of temper tantrums.
What they do not know is how much I used to dread teaching children, how intimidated I was by my incompetence with them and my confusion at how spazzy they could get.
And now that I am a parent, I am hearing similar things about my approach to my own daughter, Imma.
A few days ago, I mentioned to another parent that my daughter has never been in Hoppin’ House. If I want Imma to go to an indoor playground, we drive across town. Not because another facility is better, but because every time I walk into the martial arts school with Imma (several times a week), we have to go past the front door of Hoppin’ House. If she had known what was behind that door, especially when she was 2-3 years old, we would have had a struggle every time we went to the school.
This other parent commented on how they would have never thought of that. But me recognizing that potential minefield does not make me particularly smart or awesome as a parent. It just means that I have a certain level of skill that comes from years of experience and practice in working with children.
So what does this mean for you? It means that your first big insight towards becoming a better parent is to recognize that parenting is a skill. It is not something that you are born to do, but something that you learn to do.
In Chinese, the term Kung Fu (“Gong Fu”, 工夫), does not mean martial arts, as is common believed. Its literal translation is “skill that requires effort”. Being good at parenting is not an issue of talent. Good parenting requires Kung Fu.
To apply Kung Fu to your parenting, you first must learn all you can from the best sources possible. Learn from people who have deep experience with children and from as many researched-backed sources as you can. In this blog, I present from my own experience as a martial arts teacher and a parent, but I also seek expertise from research in the fields of psychology, sociology and education.
The next step is to increase your self-awareness. The more you know about yourself, your emotional needs and vulnerabilities, as well as what drives your thoughts, feeling and behaviors, the better you will be able to objectively evaluate your skills as a parent. Through self-reflecting with brutal honesty, you can better identify your strengths and weakness, and better recognize where you need improvement.
The “final” step in bringing Kung Fu to your parenting skillset is deliberate practice. You must see your interactions with your child as practice towards becoming a better parent. Like an athlete preparing for a championship game or a painter seeking to perfect her art, you must practice with the deliberate and mindful intention to grow, learn and improve.
You may have noticed that the “final” in “final step” was in quotes. That is because Kung Fu is not a straight line but a circle. When you engage in deliberate practice, you get feedback on the quality and effectiveness of your effort. That feedback tells you what you are doing well and what needs improvement. And that returns you to the first step of learning from the best sources possible. But now, you can seek those sources with greater clarity on what you need to learn. And as you learn more, you become more aware of yourself (and your child). And with that awareness, you are able to refine your deliberate practice. Which again brings you back to the beginning.
Through this cycle of parenting Kung Fu, you will become a more skillful parent.