Toughen up, everyone

“Punch to destroy,” I remind my 10-year-old daughter on the drive to her hand-to-hand combat training, being an annoying father who says the same stuff all the time.
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“Yes, Dad,” she says, scrolling through pop songs on her iPad.

“You don’t want to be one of those people,” I tell her, tapping the steering wheel for emphasis. “And I know you’re not, but you know what I’m talking about – those people that just flop their arms out or slap the target.”

“I’m not, Dad,” she says, settling on a Sia tune.

“Coz if you get in a fight – if you have to defend yourself or defend someone else – then tapping the bully, not hitting them seriously, you know, is just going to annoy them and make them hit you harder. You gotta stop them in their tracks. You gotta be ferocious – controlled, but ferocious.”

“I know, Dad. I know.”

“And if they sense that sharpness, that controlled ferocity, in you –”

“Dad.”

“Then chances are the fight won’t happen in the first place.”

“Dad! I know. Can I listen to my song now?”

“Of course, sure – sorry.”

I gear down for a corner and she restarts She Wolf, singing along to “What do you see in those yellow eyes?”while I ponder the challenge of raising a girl to be able to fight.

The stand-up-for-yourself attitude hasn’t been easy to instil when her schools have drummed into the kids that it’s always wrong to fight – that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. Shoving a bully away can easily land the defender in as much trouble as the bully – a tad more trouble even than doing one of the many banned activities which include cartwheels, handball at times (depending on how heated the games get), and going up the slippery dip instead of down.

This all might make life easier for teachers and minimise their charges bruises, scrapes and sprains, but longer term it’s weakening kids. Years back when I did some neighbourhood karate instructing I had a pair of boys about my daughter’s age training together. One was used to the ouches and tumbles of the physical world while his mate was soft as butter, having grown up to that point with permission and even more – encouragement – to opt of out of things that might hurt.

We spent a morning learning how to block kicks – something in which your arms sometimes get bruised, especially before you loosen up and get supple, get your timing in, get in the flow. And when butter-boy copped a sharp heel-thwack on the arm, he burst into tears and ran out.

I found him over in the shade clutching his mortal injury and asked if he was OK. “I’m hurt!” he said. “My arm hurts!” He was now stunned that anyone would choose to do this. “It hurts!” And for a moment he cried harder at the shock of it all.

We sat for a while and as he calmed I told him that pain and emotion can be separated – that something can hurt, and hurt a lot, but that the pain need not be distressing. “In fact, unless it’s done some real damage, you know, like broken a bone or wrecked your knee or something, don’t even give it the time of day. It’s just pain. And if you’re fighting, then don’t even show it. Eat it. Eat the pain and use it as fuel. Use it to make you sharper.”

The little lad looked at me in amazement. “Just pain?”

The concept was utterly foreign to him. So far in his life he had been taught that pain and emotion – being upset, more specifically – go together.

“Just pain?” His eyes were wide.

“Yep. Can wake you up, can’t it?”

The lad’s mate came out to see how he was going and butter-boy surprised us both; he wanted to get straight back into it, and he did. When he collecting a few more bruises he yelped but grinned and later didn’t even yelp so much but worked well on stance and timing and movement and counter-attacks. When the session ended he was the most satisfied I’d seen him, and his hardier little mate looked at him in a new light.

Later that day I caught up with the changed kid’s mum, and I ran her through the transformation in thinking, in being, that had taken place. She stared at me, somewhat appalled. “There’s nothing at all wrong with getting upset about pain,” she said.

“Sometimes, sure,” I said. “But this is just pain, it’s only pain – and even when it’s more than that, when you’re hurt because of someone’s cruelty, then not going straight to distress and mess but instead showing nothing – no sign of it – and even using it to get sharper, well then this separation I’ve taught your son about is useful. It could strengthen him.”

She was lost for words and stared at me like I was a maniac, which made me glad I hadn’t gone into full loony cult-mode and given the boys set readings like Joyce Carol Oates’ book, On Boxing, particularly the part where she so reverently writes that the sweet science “inhabits a sacred space predating civilization”. To nail it even further, Oates describes boxing with a sizzler of a line from a DH Lawrence poem. Boxing, she writes, comes from a time “before God was love.”

What I wanted those boys to know then, what I want my daughter to understand now, is that despite all the moral and physical hand-holding going on at schools and in popular culture, we still live in that time. God is vaster than love. Life is vaster than love. Life, God, existence, is also made of terror and torment and pain.

We can’t run from it all. We can’t always go and tell a teacher. Sometimes we need ferocity and control.

“I can’t compete with the she-wolf,” sings my little girl. But putting aside the song’s adult connotations, when I see her switch to war mode in the class and punch with speed and power, I think maybe she can.

Matt Thompson is the Dungog-based author of Mayhem: the Strange and Savage Saga of Christopher ‘BADNE$$’ Binse.