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What My Children’s Martial Arts Taught Me About Self-Love

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom, author and blogger
07/01/20  11:48 AM PST
Jiu-Jitsu and self-love

“It’s such a small thing, but the mental shift has been seismic in how I care for myself…I am slowly, in middle age, learning how to practice self-love.”

Because my twins are only five and their older brother has special needs that include physical therapies, which fill up our afternoons, I try to limit each kid to one after school activity of their choice. Bonus points if they pick the same one and can do it together.

This winter the twins, Cora and Jonas, picked Jiu-Jitsu. You want to know what I know nothing about? Martial arts. I like General Tsao’s chicken and Pad Thai. I can stand on one leg for a while with my hands in prayer position. My knowledge ends at Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda.

But now is the time to let them try everything, right? We’ve done soccer and gymnastics and swimming. Baseball is on the horizon. Why not Jiu-Jitsu?

I called a mom whose kids had done it to ask her opinion. “It really teaches them how to be in control of their bodies and how to respect others,” she said.

I put my hand over the phone to tell Jonas to stop climbing the banister of the stairs. We could use a dose of self-control and respect.

Learning to Self-love

We started on a Tuesday and here’s the first thing I noticed: the instructor never lost his temper and never raised his voice, even as fifteen kids ages five to ten screamed, picked their noses and tried to stand on their heads. Instead, he said, at normal volume, “We can’t practice tonight if I don’t have all ears and eyes on me. And if you can’t hear me and see me, then you are distracting your fellow warriors and keeping them from learning. You all want to learn, right?”

You know what happened? They all shouted “right!” and sat still and listened. It was shocking, like watching a kid-whisperer. He would explain each drill calmly and clearly and quietly and refuse to proceed until everyone followed along. I watched distractedly at first and then I began to take notes.

He taught the kids how to shake hands, say hello, and look each other in the eye. He talked about how to stand up to bullies. He went over nutrition and manners and discipline. Then one night, he sat them in a circle and asked them who they love most in the whole world.

“My mom!”
“My cousin, June!”
“My brother!”
“Ninja Turtles!”

He nodded and smiled and then leaned in and said, “you know who else you need to love?” They waited in anticipation. I leaned forward too. Who? Who do I need to love? “Yourself,” he said finally and leaned back.

I let out the breath I’d been holding. Oh, that old trick. Everybody knows you have to love yourself and be proud of who you are and yada yada yada. But as he made them go around the circle and share one thing they loved about themselves, I felt an unexpected twinge. They were so excited and proud of who they were.

I caught myself thinking, why am I not like that?

My inner voice is harsh. It always has been. And it’s gotten me far. Valedictorian, top college, great jobs, loving spouse, these crazy, wonderful kids, etc. I thought that inner critic was what I needed to keep pushing me forward. But as we filed out and he gave them their homework assignment, to list one thing they love about themselves each day. I began to wonder what it would have been like if I’d tried it the other way: being gentle with myself and marveling at all I could do.

On the way home, Jonas and Cora kept shouting things from the back seat.

“I love that my eyes are blue!”
“I love that I beat Cora in our match tonight!”
“I love chicken nuggets!”

They lost the thread of the assignment after that, listing all the their favorite foods, but I kept thinking about it. No one had ever told me to love myself as a kid. It just wasn’t something that was said in our house. Maybe it was implied and I just missed it. But I grew up believing you had to push yourself and fight for your place and life was a marathon and not a sprint and keep your eye on the prize and all those other clichés. It seemed so much weaker to celebrate what came naturally. That would be coasting.

Suddenly, I shouted over their litany of foods, “I like that I’m creative! And I can make friends wherever I go! And I love my hair!” The twins clapped and a felt that twinge somewhere near my heart ease up. It felt good to shout happy things about myself that I had no control over. It wasn’t about achievement. It was a relief.

I’ve kept up the practice. I’ll pick up my coffee and think, “I love that my hands are just like my mom’s.” Or I will make an extra spicy curry dish and think, “I love my crazy taste buds.”

It’s such a small thing, but the mental shift has been seismic in how I care for myself. I am gentler. I am more patient. I am less performance-driven. I am slowly, in middle age, learning how to practice self-love.

special needs parents

Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom, author and blogger.

Discover her new book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood.

Read her blog, The Mom Gene.

Follow her on Facebook.


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