First he bows. Then, with one hand, my 8-year-old son Eric grips the sleeve of his opponent’s “judogi,” a white cotton outfit like a pair of pajamas with a top that wraps. With the other hand, Eric grips the other boy’s lapel. With his legs wide apart, Eric uses his bare foot to sweep the other boy-one of his best friends at school-off balance. Bam! They both hit the mat with a thump. In a tournament, Eric would have used an “osoto-gari” to score an “ippon.”

Or was that a “wazari”?

Since giving birth to Eric and Andrew, now 5, I’ve had this dream of raising Renaissance boys: Kids who like art, music, sports, science-a little bit of everything. It hasn’t turned out quite the way I expected. So far, their favorite art is Nintendo and their choice in music is Little Richard singing the “Hokey-Pokey.”

But finding the right sports for kids in a sports-crazed town like Dallas should be easy, right”’ Not it you want to help them find something they can do all their lives without needing a team or major equipment. As adults, my husband and I have taken up golf and skiing, encouraging our boys to try both. So far, Eric loves golf, is ambiguous about skiing and ecstatic about the basketball hoop on the driveway.

Then one day about a year and a half ago, Eric announced that he wanted to take judo. It may have something to do with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Karate Kid; little boys all seem to have a fascination with martial arts. I wasn’t so sure. Judo sounded more like junior Chuck Norris than a sport. But I’ve talked about making your own choices. I told him yes.

Eric got his own gi and a white belt to wrap around his waist. He started attending hour-long classes twice a week at the Ridgewood Recreation Center. And soon I discovered the first thing I like about judo: The reward system. In a lot of sports, recognition is hard to come by. In judo, for students who work hard and attend class, coach Ken Patteson hands out red stripes to wrap around the end of their belts. After three stripes, Eric received a yellow belt. Now, he’s got three stripes around that; the next step is an orange belt, and so on.

My fears of martial mayhem were unfounded. Judo is to wrestling like karate is to boxing. The goal is to throw your opponent or pin him or her to the mat for 30 seconds. There’s no hitting or kicking and the winner isn’t always the strongest or the biggest. The kids are fighting, but in a controlled way, Eric has discovered that to win, he has to use the techniques he has learned to get his opponent off balance. (I suspect that this will come in handy in his first corporate negotiations.)

I also learned that the physical contact of judo lets out aggression in an appropriate way, Little boys play rough. I don’t want to stamp that out, I want to channel it.

Patteson also teaches kids that when the match is over, it’s over. It’s a game, not combat. Courtesy surrounds the sport. Before and after class, Eric and the other children kneel on the mat and bow to the coach. Before sparring, Eric bows to his opponent. Patteson will tell a stronger child to spar with a smaller child, and the bigger one will take falls.

Eric’s classes have also made me think about the value of male role models. Young boys spend most of their time with females: mothers, child care workers, teachers. Patteson, 34, has won two national judo championships, competed in international tournaments, and is now one of the coaches for the U.S. National Team. But he also is extraordinarily patient with children. Patteson will put a child who’s misbehaving on the sidelines, but he’ll also let a 6-year-old throw him with a resounding whoomp.

Most of all. judo has strengthened Eric’s body and his self-confidence. He says it’s made him quicker, more agile, and I can see it. At a recent foot race at school, he came in second; a year before, he would have been back in the pack.

The new dilemma will be seeing if Eric will stick with judo-the sport that he found for himself, and that, surprisingly, fit my own goals for him. He may get tired of the routine and want to try something new. But, then again, maybe I shouldn’t worry. Sometimes, despite a parent’s plotting and planning, kids are better at knowing where their interests and abilities lie. So long as Eric doesn’t take up boxing…


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