ken·do ˈkendō/ noun
a Japanese form of fencing with two-handed bamboo swords, originally developed as a safe form of sword training for samurai.
My fifteen year old daughter has a passion for kendo. Kendo is the Japanese martial art of sword fighting. She began studying kendo six years ago when we decided to homeschool. One of her closest friends and academic rivals took kendo and we parents thought it might be a great way for them to stay in touch. The first time we visited these armor clad, stick swinging, screaming kenshi, I thought there would be no way in hell my daughter would would go for it. But I was wrong. She loved it!
For the first few years she was mainly excited about seeing her friend. It wasn’t until she was twelve that she made the decision to keep studying kendo for herself. Until that point she had progressed through the ranks steadily and easily. My daughter has a natural poise that was praised by the instructors. But at twelve she and her friend tested for the rank of 1 kyu (brown belt). Her friend passed but she didn’t and rightly so. She wasn’t taking the test seriously and only went through the motions. The judges didn’t pass her and she was heart broken. To her, it was as if they didn’t like her.
As for me, I saw it coming that day. I stood at the side lines suspecting the worst. I braced myself for how to respond. I didn’t tell her she did fine. I didn’t tell her it was okay. I told her that she can work harder and try again next time. She wasn’t so sure it was worth it. She was embarrassed.
We went home and she became ‘sick’ on kendo days. I told her to be honest with herself and to take a break if she needed one, but I wasn’t going to lie for her or make excuses to the senseis for her. She needed to tell them she was going to take the summer off to decide if she wanted to continue. She did. It was hard, but she talked to the instructors and told them she needed some time off. They knew. Then something amazing happened. The senseis, one by one told her stories of how they had failed and continued. How she was so good and shouldn’t ever give kendo up completely. They asked her to come back once a month to make sure she didn’t leave for good. She left that day feeling loved and supported in a way I alone could never make her feel. These were adults who had known her for years and genuinely wanted her to stay. She thought about everything they said that week and by the next class, she had decided for herself that she really loved kendo not because she had friends there, but because she really loved the sport and the group she worked with.
Since then, Gillian has advanced steadily. When she was fourteen she was finally old enough to test for shodan, a first degree black belt. She passed this test and went on to pass her nidan, a second degree black belt at 15. These are the highest ranks they allow for kids of this age. Last month she placed third in the women’s division at a regional tournament where she was one of the youngest in the division and had to beat women of higher ranking. Her attitude toward the sport is amazing. When she wins a match, she is gracious, and when she loses a match, she sees it as a chance to improve.
This passion for kendo has motivated her to study Japanese too. She tried on her own for a few years but really began to make progress when she enrolled in a Japanese Second Language (JSL) class at a Saturday Japanese school. She goes for hours every Saturday where she has met other motivated teens who share her passion for learning.
Every parent hopes their kids will find a passion and nurture it. We place them in group after group and pay for lessons after lessons looking for something to spark their interest. We do it because we want them to have every opportunity to be happy and successful. I’m lucky that Gillian has found something she loves, but it didn’t have to turn out this way. If she had walked away from kendo at the age of twelve, I’d have been fine with it. She would have gone on with life and not been any the worse for having tried it. I don’t think children need to be pushed into events in order to make them well rounded or to look interesting on college applications. I think extra curricular activities should be something they do because they love it.