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For her imminent eighth birthday, Zoe has asked for sparring gear (so she can participate in the sparring class at Evolve All, where she takes marPrincess Leia legotial arts), a Jedi robe (in part so she can be Luke Skywalker for Halloween, after having been Princess Leia this past Halloween), action figures from Big Hero 6; and Legos. Oh, and to get her nails done with me.

I don’t know what exactly this means, but she is a far cry from the fairy princess she used to  pretend to be. Her favorite books right now are a series about clans of cats that fight each other to establish dominance. When she asked her grandfather to guess what she planned to be for Halloween this year and he said Princess Leia, I reminded him that she had already been Princess Leia, but that he was close. I meant close as in someone else from Star Wars, but he thought I meant another princess, so he said, “someone from Frozen?” Zoe scoffed. She does like Frozen, and we watched it again just last week, but not as much as she loves Star Wars, and she said, “I would never be a princess from Frozen.”

Certainly Zoe still loves her American Girl dolls, and has taught her brother how to properly brush their hair, because he wants to get in on the grooming action. He loves to take care of her babies (and the baby–Sam–that he received for Christmas this past year) and is often stuffing pretend food into their mouths. But Zoe also has her American Girl dolls teach her baby dolls how to do tae kwan do. I think her dad is relieved that the days are over when Zoe wants to play mommy-having-a-baby or be a princess with Randy acting as prince.

She also loves to play board games and word games and sometimes she beats us at Othello and Trivial Pursuit. She loves to draw and she has created a cartoon superhero named Pet Girl, who takes care of lots of animals. She still draws lots of rainbows that say “I love you Mommy.”

She is stubborn and argumentative and has already mastered the teenage glare although she’s still five years away from adolescence. She loses things and doesn’t pay attention and asks over and over for things she know she can’t do or have. But she is also the sweetest big sister who deeply adores her little brother, even though she does get annoyed when he gets into her stuff, which happens all the time. She is thoughtful and compassionate and curious. I love the person she is and the way she is learning to see the world and her place in it. I love that she would rather look in the boys section at Old Navy for Star Wars or soccer t-shirts instead of the girls’ section for Hello Kitty. Although she did wear a sequined panda shirt today that she recently picked out. I love that she wants to wear matching clothes with her brother and take baths with him. And she wants to be elegant and beautiful and go to royal balls and tea parties and try on makeup. I don’t love the makeup. But I get it.

Part of me cringes at the thought of her sparring, and I wouldn’t let her do it if it weren’t part of the instruction at the martial arts school we love so sparring glovesmuch where they teach you that the black belt attitude is about caring, responsibility, respect, determination, and patience. It’s not about fighting. I imagine the sparring will help build her strength and confidence, which is a good thing for any kid. And you won’t be able to see her manicure underneath the sparring gloves, but her nails will definitely be lovely.

Sometimes I wish Zoe would magically behave like some mythical girl I imagine from the 50s–perhaps like how I imagine my mom and her siblings were taught to behave by my Nana and Papa. I don’t know how they actually behaved, but I imagine a lot of “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” and looking adults in the eye and shaking their hands politely when the adults said “you look so nice!” or “you’re getting so tall!” I somehow imagine they never had to be told (again and again) to sit up, or to stop scowling, or to stop kicking the back of someone else’s seat.

But that’s probably not true. That’s what kids do, right?

And in general I’m thrilled we don’t live in the 50s.

I often think about how vastly different the culture was and my grandparents’ circumstances were from my own parents, and–somewhat less dramatically–how the expectations for parents and children are for my generation. Paradoxically I wish for the simplicity, respect, and determination to appreciate what you have and not waste so much of everything that I feel was characteristic of my grandparents’ parenting and my parents’ upbringing. But I realize that times were different and some of that leanness was born of necessity. They had less so they had no choice. We have more so we can afford to make poor decisions more often. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Sometimes I don’t know how to stop it though.

I read somewhere that moms today spend way more hours actually engaged in activities with their children than moms 50 years ago, despite the fact that more moms today have part-time or full-time jobs outside the home than did previously. Because that’s what’s expected of us. We have playgroups, we take our babies to music classes and sign language classes and playdates. My own mom, who was a stay-at-home mom at least until my sister and I were in school all day, doesn’t recall scheduling playdates with us and our friends. Friends would come over to play or we would be dropped off somewhere else. But that didn’t really happen until elementary school. We went to preschool. But we didn’t take weekend classes at the rec center when we were three. I’m making no judgment here whatsoever. I’ve signed Zoe up for and schlepped her to plenty of classes, some of which I thought she would love, and some of which I felt like I was supposed to bring her to. And certainly when your kid crosses the threshold where you don’t have to participate in the class, and you can sit on the sidelines and watch, what a relief to have a break! In recent years Zoe has said, “I wish you were one of the counselors at camp so you could stay there all day with me.” Um, don’t you get it? If I was going to be with you all day, I wouldn’t send you to camp. We would just stay home. I have to work. That’s why you go to camp. But I don’t say that.

Which brings us, naturally, to martial arts. A couple years ago Zoe attended a tae kwon do birthday party. She was a little scared and a little intrigued. Chalk it up to a new experience. The following year, she attended the party of the same girl (now a black belt) at the same tae kwon do studio. She loved it. She wasn’t scared. She was fearless. She said, “I want to take tae kwon do!”

I file that away and then notice months later there is a new martial arts studio in our neighborhood. We sign up for a two-week trial. It’s not easy, but it’s fun and interesting and Zoe’s on board. Of course the timing on my part was foolish. When we did the trial we were in the midst of a rec center gymnastics session and a preschool soccer clinic. And we were looking forward to a summer at the pool and more swimming lessons. Tae kwon do seemed like too much to add, so we didn’t.

Then, after a summer of successful swimming (which it turns out that Zoe’s much better at than soccer or gymnastics), the pool closed and our thoughts returned to tae kwon do. The people running this studio are smart. The minimum commitment is six months. You can also opt for 12 or 18 months worth of classes when you sign up. You can go once, twice, or three times a week. It turns out that it actually takes a while (or at least it has for Zoe) to get the hang of martial arts.

I was thrilled that Zoe showed interest in this. It’s so important for kids–and I think girls in particular–to have the strength and confidence instilled by martial arts. Zoe is active and athletic but also very girly and princessy. Her parents are conflict-averse. I emphasize compassion and kindness and politeness. Assertiveness has never been my strong suit. So I didn’t make her sign up, and it wasn’t even my idea. But I’m the one who’s made the commitment.

Martial arts is hard. The master who teaches her class is excellent, and a stickler for perfection. He does not reward kids who don’t get it right. And why should he? If you’re going to learn it, of course you should get it right. But did I mention it’s hard? It requires different skills than reading or writing or painting or making up shows or any of the many, many things that Zoe does well at and enjoys. It requires patience, diligence, a lot of repetition. Martial arts requires strength, agility, and amazing motor skills and coordination. For a five-year-old, these skills are still developing, sometimes slowly. So Zoe complains. When it’s time to go to class, she often doesn’t want to. She’s tired. But when she gets to class she usually perks up and has a great time. I often struggle with what to say or do to get her excited about going. She doesn’t understand or care about the money I’m spending on the classes or the commitment we’ve made and I’m sure not going to get into how I want her to be able to fend off attackers when she’s older if she’s ever in a dangerous situation. It’s hard to come up with a reason you should do something that you don’t feel like doing that’s not necessarily mandatory, like school or eating or bathing.

Recently she went to a day of camp at the martial arts studio on a day when school was closed. When I arrived in the afternoon, it was time for her regular class. She’d already been there for seven hours, some of which she’d been practicing moves and some of which she’d been playing and watching a movie. Apparently she was completely spent. And apparently I was totally unable to comprehend that, and deeply frustrated that she was refusing to participate in the class and just glaring at me. I had brought her the day before to a 50-minute private lesson there because she had said she felt like she was behind and didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing, after missing a couple weeks of class because of her surgery. During the private lesson she improved dramatically just over the course of 50 minutes. She was focused, determined, and awesome. When she wouldn’t go to class the next day and she gave up the opportunity to demonstrate what she’d learned and test for a stripe on her belt, I was so angry. So we went home and I fumed and she sobbed and I did not have my best ever parenting day.

She went back to class the next regularly scheduled day and was happy enough to go. I thought she did great and the master asked her to try to test for her next stripe, and while I thought she nailed it, apparently she didn’t quite, because he didn’t give it to her. I was disappointed, but she came off the mat smiling and I congratulated her for working hard. I asked if she wanted to go to class Saturday (which we don’t usually go to, but could since we missed several classes and should really make them up) so she could have another shot, and she said no. I asked her again later and she still said no. But she’s been practicing her form all weekend and her punches and kicks, so clearly she wants to get back on the mat and try again.

Part of the reason I so want Zoe to stick with this is that it’s difficult and it doesn’t come easy for her. I wish I had had the opportunity to do something like that when I was a kid. The most comparable thing for me was math, but I never got better and there was no joy there for sure. I never played on a team or competed in anything except intellectual pursuits. That’s a whole different post, but the point is I know this could be so good for her. But I don’t want to push her so much that we both dissolve into tears and fury. But I don’t want to let her give up just because she doesn’t feel like working at it one day. But maybe when you’re five your parents should cut you some slack? Or maybe that’s when you need to start learning to be strong?

Randy says when she does get her next stripe, it will mean that much more because she’s had to try for it again and again. That’s probably true. Until then I probably just need to take more deep breaths and not say anything. I should try not to push or pull. But it’s so hard.

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