“What’s the matter with you?”

“The problem is you guys are just not listening!”

“Do you know what’s wrong with you guys…you don’t listen!”

“Did I tell you to move…DON’T MOVE…get back here.”


These are just a few comments expressed by the Sensei teaching my kids karate class last week. This Sensei is not the primary teacher and rarely teaches alone. I dropped my headphones into my bag and gave up on the workout I was looking forward knowing it would be a tense class. Every…single…word out of Sensei’s mouth was critical, biting and harsh.

These critical comments and questions are not a problem unto themselves, but when offered as a primary tool for communication, even the five years olds in the class were perplexed. As I took deep breaths, I glance at the other parents. Even the veteran parents winced or laugh uncomfortably. I was angry and still, my usual response to a bully. I get that karate requires respect and honor for the Sensei, however these statements do not inspire respect or honor. Nor are these statements and behavior exclusive to this situation. My kids have experienced critical instruction and coaching in other areas of their lives, learning how to be ‘good’ by accepting the authority of the adult or leader in the group. As parents we have been diligent to address these situations directly and often.


As I think back on my past work experiences, I believe I have followed these instructions well. Be a good listener, the people in positions of authority know best, remain quiet, and work to prove yourself. In fact, I have had two bully bosses in my life. One I witnessed ongoing abusive behavior towards others and the other, I experienced bullying and worked in a hostile work environment. In both these situations everyone was complicit in this behavior. Either deal with it or find another job, which in both situations I eventually did. The fall out was struggling with the destructive messages these relationships create.

As I watched my son in class he stares forward paying close attention to Sensei, trying to do his best. Is this the lesson I’ve taught him? By standing on the sidelines listening to this painful class, I realized I am yet again complicit in the goal to conform and in this situation accepting abusive behavior. We have already addressed this situation and requested a different teacher for our daughter. She spent part of the class twirling and rolling around on the floor. You’ve got to love autism. In this moment I can’t help but smile knowing she responds to the tension in the room the best way she knows how. After I gave several prompts, she simply refused to leave the class and I avoid several near-meltdowns. The decision was made and we stayed for the ninety minutes of class.

As we debriefed on the drive home, I struggled through yet another opportunity to teach my kids an important life lesion. Criticism if used to offer both negative and positive feedback, can be healthy and support growth. The three other Sensei’s involved in my children’s instruction offer this approach. However, critical judgment and bullying, using negative comments to put others down and assert your power, is not an instruction I want my children to learn. We will address this situation as we have countless others, but the point remains we cannot be there during every negative experience. So if there is a life lesson I want for my kids to learn its self-compassion. The foundation of this concept is to extend compassion for oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy or failure. If they learn this lesson well, it can be armor against the bullies of the world and perhaps support a sense of compassion for those who knowingly and unknowingly behave in such a way.