Care and Feeding

What My Daughter’s Karate Teacher Did Is Not Normal—Right?

A 4-year-old does martial arts.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Galina Sharapova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old daughter recently joined a martial arts studio in our smallish town. She and her dad often practice at home together, and she was overjoyed to be old enough to start at the studio. Overall the classes are okay—not quite as disciplined as expected, but she has been having fun. However, during the first class a strange thing occurred. The teacher warned a boy that if he didn’t behave he would get a kick to the butt. And then when the boy did not behave, he did indeed get a kick to the butt! I was taken aback, though the other parents laughed and the class continued. I tried to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt (OK, so he made a weird threat, then felt backed into a corner and felt he had no choice but to follow through) and convinced myself it wasn’t likely to happen ever again. Two weeks later, a different little boy had a birthday, and the same teacher said that in some countries on your birthday you get a kick in the butt! The birthday boy was not given an opportunity to say no. And then the teacher lined up all the kids and had everyone kick this child! One student kicked him rather hard. My child was last and didn’t know what to do, but another instructor picked her up, brought her over, and told her to kick the boy. She gave him a very light tap and ran back to her spot. I was so uncomfortable! And yet, once again, the other parents laughed. The birthday boy’s parents did nothing to stop it!

Is this normal? I just can’t seem to move past this. And I fear I botched my conversation with my daughter about it, soon after the incident. We talked about it in the car, and I wasn’t really prepared, so I told her that we can’t kick butts outside the dojo, and she got scared—I guess she thought I was saying that what she’d just witnessed was OK. She asked me if she’d have to get kicked on her birthday. We had a conversation about body autonomy and saying no. But it doesn’t feel like it was enough. What are my next steps? Do I talk to the other parents? Do I send an email? Do I straight up talk to the instructor? There isn’t really a private spot to pull him aside. Do I look for another class in a neighboring town? Please help!

—Don’t Kick My Butt!

Dear Don’t,

I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. Pull your kid out of there. I don’t see what good talking to the other parents—who laughed!—is going to do you. I would, however, talk to the teacher, to let him know why you’ve taken your child out. I would do this for the sake of the other children, whose parents don’t seem willing or able to do anything for them, and to put the teacher on notice that his behavior has been clocked. And I would most certainly also talk to the owner of the dojo, on the off chance that that person doesn’t know what their employees are up to. (I will add that if I were in your position, I’d also make a public fuss—I’d take to social media and put the dojo on blast. But I am a confrontational person, I admit [I’m from NYC—I come by it honestly].) While coaches and teachers in sports and activities like gymnastics and ballet and martial arts do sometimes need to touch children’s bodies to spot them or help position them, parents should always be given the opportunity to be apprised of the policies that are in place to protect the children involved. And no adult should ever be touching a child’s body for reasons other than those I’ve mentioned.

Find another dojo, if this experience hasn’t soured your child on martial arts, which are supposed to happen in a controlled way, with consent. Or find something else that’s local and fun for her to do, and let her keep up doing martial arts at home with Dad. What happened at that studio isn’t “normal” if by normal you mean healthy. People (those laughing parents, for example) “normalize” all kinds of unhealthy, damaging behavior. You don’t have to be one of them.