I believe that kids were put on earth to bring happiness to us adults. If our children aren't bringing us joy on a daily basis, I think we're missing something.
I developed this belief not long after my first son was born. I had been practicing Aikido for several years, and was feeling quite a bit more confident and settled in my daily life. I have this clear recollection, though, of being at a party at my wife's parents' house, sitting in a chair with my son Justin in my arms, and feeling a sense of peacefulness much deeper than I had ever felt at Aikido. It didn't matter that I was at an event that involved a lot of people - the kind of event that had made me feel unsettled and anxious for as long as I can remember. There was just something about holding this little kid of mine that made me feel great.
Both he and his brother have always seemed to exude some kind of positive energy that I could soak up just by being in contact with them. Justin had a bald little head for the first six months of his life, and I would gently rub it all the time because that energy seemed to be coming right out of it. (In fact, I got blamed for being the reason his hair wasn't growing in, because I rubbed his head so much.) Now, as Justin gets close to being seven years old, and therefore can walk across roads and parking lots by himself, I still often insist that he hold my hand. There is just something about being in physical contact with this little kid that affects my whole state of being. So how is it, with this positive energy streaming out of their little bodies, that he and his brother are also incredibly effective at disrupting our entire household, upsetting each other and their parents, and making life incredibly miserable for us all? And how can we use principles from Aikido to help?
My wife had a couple of observations about Aikido and raising kids that I thought were key. One observation was about a guest Aikido instructor who was staying at our house. Jeannine remarked on how this instructor looked so much younger than her actual age, and how her face was always so calm and pleasant. The only time it wasn't serene, Jeannine noticed, was when she was talking about her child! It seemed as though the role of mother overpowered that of Aikido instructor. All the cares and concerns of the mother came through, and showed on her face.
The point is, we care a great deal about our kids. It troubles us when things aren't perfect for them. And no matter how calm and relaxed we are, problems with our kids affect us deeply. So it seems an application of Aikido ideas to bringing up kids is especially critical if you're looking for inner peace!
The other observation that my wife made was actually the key to my learning how to apply Aikido to bringing up our kids. Though I don't remember the situation exactly, I recall that Justin was causing trouble, and I was very unsuccessfully trying to correct his behavior, I believe, by yelling at him. The gist of what Jeannine told me was, "You always use gentleness in Aikido. Maybe you should try using that with your kids."
The effect of that comment on my life has been incredible. Gentleness, it turned out, wasn't just the best way to throw a big attacker. It was also the best way to raise your children.
Ever since hearing that comment from Jeannine, I have been experimenting with gentleness in child-rearing. I find that if I speak to my kids gently, they are more likely to do what I ask without resistance. If I lead them gently while we are walking down the street, they are more willing to go where I want them to. I feel better, they feel better, and the results are better, too.
What it really comes around to, I believe, is that gentleness is one of those universal principles that works everywhere. Catch onto it, apply it, and your life will be easier and happier.
The challenge, of course, is applying gentleness when your kids are raising heck. Fortunately, this is exactly analagous to what we do in Aikido: applying gentleness when someone is trying to cause us physical harm. The same principles work in both instances. Keep one-point, be relaxed, think positive, and gentleness comes naturally. Lose these ideas, and it is very hard to be gentle in a stressful situation.
So practice your Ki Exercises. Work on the Cool Ki Tricks with a friend. Sit in seiza and practice keeping one-point for a few minutes each morning. Maybe even join an Aikido class. Developing your own dependable mind/body state is the key to rearing your children with gentleness. It will help you more than all the parenting books in the store. Because only by changing what we feel inside can we truly change the way we act with our children.
Sometimes in Aikido we find that to understand relaxation, it helps to really tense up the muscles so we can learn about the opposite feeling. Similarly, I think that we can understand the idea of using gentleness with children by examining an opposite behavior. And that opposite, to me, would be spanking.
Before I had kids, a very intelligent man for whom I had a great deal of respect told me that he spanked his kids. He said it worked. Indeed, his kids were very well-behaved. I came across articles in respected papers that said spanking was the way, that it was the missing ingredient in the way we raised our children. I read letters to the editor from people who said they had been spanked when they were kids, and it was the best thing for them. I was convinced that spanking was a good thing.
So as Justin got older and began to test out his boundaries, I did spank him (the poor little guinea pig) - just as all those authorities and articles had advised. But a strange thing happened. His behavior got worse. He got more aggressive and it seemed, needed more spanking. (I'm not sure all kids would react this way. Justin has always been very strong willed, and I think he saw spanking as an injustice that could only be rectified by causing more trouble!)
But it wasn't Justin's behavior that finally convinced me spanking was wrong. It was my own behavior. I found that whenever I spanked Justin, I was angry. Well, I didn't like being angry; I knew that anger was completely incompatible with having a good ki feeling. So I decided that if I was going to spank Justin, I would do it from a calm, relaxed, and positive state. But that's what led me to the real shocker: When I was calm, relaxed, and positive, I had no desire to spank him. There was only one conclusion I could make: Spanking was not a way to discipline your child, it was simply a way to vent one's own uncontrolled anger.
This was perfectly analogous to what Aikido had taught me. Using muscle and a fighting mind would cause me to come directly into contact with the attacker's power. But using gentleness and a feeling that the attacker was my friend made it feel like they had no power to resist.
So now, when our kids misbehave, we calmly (for the most part) put them in time out, and give them an opportunity to "change their tune". ("Mommy," three-year-old Matthew would call plaintively from the top of the stairs, "I've changed my tune.") Both of our kids really hate time out. I'm not sure why. But it is a humane and (usually) efective punishment. And it is gentle. (It was this revelation on spanking that led me to believe that countries are wrong to punish their own people through methods like caning. Such forms of punishment can only create a society where many people live in fear, and those who have undergone this cruel punishment must live for the opportunity of revenge or retaliation.)
The lesson for me was this: Find your best ki state (keeping one-point, being relaxed, feeling positive), then do what comes naturally with your kids. You'll treat them with greater gentleness, and they will respond. Plus, you will be teaching them the best way to deal with challenges in their own lives.
If your kids start to make you crazy, maybe you'll have to leave the room and do some ki exercises, or sit in seiza for a few minutes. Or, if you can, hand matters over to your calmer spouse. But I believe what you will discover is, when you start with a good feeling of mind/body coordination, you will always treat your children fairly, kindly, and appropriately.
But most of all (and the thing I remind myself of almost every day), just enjoy your kids while they're kids. They're really cool. They say and do weird things. They like you in a way that no one else can. And if you hug them, or hold their hands, or play with them, or rub their bald little heads, that strange and wonderful energy that can only be generated by children will flow right into you.