Beth Vrabel lives in West Manchester Township with her daughter, Emma, 6, and son, Benny, 3.

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Everyone was new once


Smart Mama

Emma tugged at her piggy tails. “They’re too babyish,” she muttered.

I knew she was feeling too babyish, as well.

This was the second time Emma, age 6, was taking a martial arts class. She had been going to an introductory class for months with 4- and 5-year-olds. But now she was ready to move up.

It’s a big commitment. Class meets three times a week, meaning three late dinners each week, three hours of convincing her little brother to be quiet, and monthly tuition fees that could be going toward dinners out.

But it’s worth it.

The first session was great. Emma’s the smallest one there, but her former instructor cheered her along.

This time, however, someone new led the class. A bunch of kids she didn’t know easily practiced steps she had yet to learn.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said as she bowed off the mat during warm-up. She pulled my arm around her. Her eyes were wide and wet.

“Everyone here was new once,” I whispered back. “They all understand.”

Emma is a brave child. She has no qualms about letting the world know what she wants and whether she is being treated fairly. She is kind and generous.

She is also cautious and hard on herself. And that makes trying new things tough.

Coincidentally, her little brother is rarely shy. He calls everyone else his size “friend.” And if he tries something new and doesn’t get it right away, he just channels Frank Sinatra. “I do it like this,” he says.

Right before Emma’s class, Benny had soccer. Keep in mind, the players are ages 3 and 4. Some of them, however, are mini David Beckhams, zeroing in on the net and landing perfect kicks.

Benny has a different approach. “I love the ball,” he chirped as he hugged it tight to his chest. Of course he wouldn’t kick it. That would be rude.

“Hey, Mama!” he called from across the gym. “Are you OK?”

“Yes, Benny, I am fine, but could you please put the ball on the ground?”

Benny hugged it closer.

A few seconds later, again from across the gym, “I love you, Mama!”

“I love you, too, Benny. Kick the ball!” He ignored me.

And, just when I thought this was a waste of time — and money — he stood in front of the net, stopped the ball and tossed it to his coach. A prideful grin split his face.

“He’s a natural goalie,” the father sitting next to me whispered.

Here, at Emma’s martial arts class, my pride showed through as my little girl bowed back onto the mat. Emma didn’t always know what she was doing, and for the first few minutes, I saw her swipe at her watering eyes. But she stuck with it.

The instructor came to her and patiently modeled each move. At one point, the rest of the class — about 20 or so children in all — waited while Emma perfected her front snap kick. Not one of them sighed. No one rolled his eyes. They stood and watched with respect. No longer embarrassed, the red blotches faded on her face and her eyes lit up. In that moment, she knew she could do this.

And that’s why we were there. Because right now, Emma knows she is beautiful. She knows that she’s strong. She knows she is loved and worthy of protecting.

But she is only 6, and adolescence and life are sure to batter that knowledge. I hope martial arts and the quiet confidence that goes with it will be another tool to keep her self-assuredness intact.

“I did it, Mama!” she said at the end of class, running back to my arms. “At first, I didn’t like it, but now I love it!”

And that’s well worth three hours a week.

Beth Vrabel lives in West Manchester Township with her daughter, Emma, 6, and son, Benny, 3. For a free subscription to Smart, visit

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