Bad Parent: I watch MMA combat sports with my five-year-old. By Heather Kuldell for

I only recently realized that my preschool-age son, Jack, watches mixed martial arts on TV. This knowledge crept up on me, like his transformation from pacifier-sucking toddler to opinionated little boy. He’s sneaky, but he ratted himself out while he chatted with his dad on the phone. 

“Chuck Liddell does the best knockouts,” Jack said.

Crap, I thought. Watching violent mixed martial arts events is supposed to be Mommy’s special no-kid TV time. I find the bouts cathartic. Two men punch, elbow, knee, kick or wrestle using techniques from boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian jiujitsu or any other combat sport they have studied. Sometimes judges’ scores decide a winner. Other times, a fighter bails out to prevent his arm or leg from breaking. Or, most dramatically, someone gets knocked out.

The fights are scary and exciting. The sport’s bad-ass factor is compounded by the fact that fighters wear almost no protective gear except for small gloves, mouth guards and cups.

Until Jack’s phone call, I hadn’t realized he’d seen enough MMA to identify any fighter, let alone to have an opinion on one of the sport’s prominent figures. I already dreaded the conversation I was about to have with his father about “appropriate TV.” Obviously, kids aren’t the target audience for MMA televised events, which show very real violence.

And yet, Jack obsesses over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. He contracted this love of these cartoon fighters from his classmates like he does their colds. He begged to watch the re-formulated Turtles (they travel in space now), and it became our Saturday morning routine. Soon, I was explaining to Jack that even though Donatello uses a bo staff, Jack can’t play with a stick the same way because someone could get hurt. And that no, spinning kicks aren’t acceptable on the playground for the same reason. Not that parental warnings matter to preschoolers. While they accept the possibility of space-traveling mutant turtles, hypothetical injuries are too abstract.

The other day, Jack slunk into the room while I was watching a DVD of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s best knockouts. He came in under the false pretense of needing a shoe tied, despite the fact that other family members were around and capable. Before I shooed him out, a well-aimed elbow split open a fighter’s eyebrow. Blood flowed down his face in two streams: one to the left and down the nose, the other to the right and around the eye. Why now?, I thought to myself as I finished a double knot.

Jack gasped. “Why is he bleeding?”

“Because he got hit in the face with an elbow,” I said. Then the voice in my head reminded me of the endless studies that say TV violence desensitizes children to suffering and makes them aggressive. In other words, if Jack grows up to be a serial killer, a psychologist will trace his anger to this very busted eyebrow. Shame should have overwhelmed me, but suddenly I had a thought: maybe seeing all that blood could do Jack some good.

“When you hit someone, it hurts,” I said. “You can bruise them or even make them bleed.” The connection is completely obvious – unless you’re five. And I could see in Jack’s eyes that, for the first time, he really made the connection. It wasn’t me saying that someone could get hurt; the guy on TV did get hurt. Jack studied the cutman as he tried to repair the wound. He asked a few more questions – “Why’s his eye all swollen?” “What happened to his ear?” – and I fielded them as best I could.

It surprises Jack – and frankly, me – how little it takes to knock out a certified tough guy. Suddenly, Jack saw the world through the eyes of the injured. The Turtles’ moves lost some of their cool.

Don’t get me wrong; I like watching cartoons with Jack. I consider it a perk of parenthood. But I do have a problem with those characters’ invincibility. Pro-wrestling, another popular topic of conversation in Jack’s classroom, is even worse. They’re still doing the old chair-to-the-back-of-the-head trick. Occasionally, the struck wrestler stays on the ground, but more often he gets up with a super-hero-like resilience to fight some more. What’s that teaching kids?

Jack, the biggest and the tallest in his preschool class, thinks of himself as unbeatable, whether it’s who can run the fastest or jump the highest. And as he heads to kindergarten this fall, I worry about his over-confidence. I prefer that somewhere in the back of his mind are the possible consequences of a fist to the face. Though it may seem extreme, MMA gives him that reality check. It surprises him – and frankly, me – how little it takes to knock out a certified tough guy. Just one well-placed punch can do it. It still startles him when an unconscious guy hits the mats, the ref stops the fight, and the medics rush in.

“That’s why I don’t fight,” Jack told me after we’d turned off the DVD. “Except with pillows.”

Photo by J. Heppell

Most states protect the right to breastfeed anywhere the mother and the child have a right to be, but don’t provide women with a way to enforce their right. That’s why when my friend Nancy was on vacation at Disney World, slouching in the backseat of her car while nursing her three-month-old daughter as her husband drove around a parking lot, she could only have been fined for violating the car-seat law. If the Florida cop also tried to charge her for being “lewd,” the charge wouldn’t have held, but Nancy also wouldn’t have been able to bring legal action against the cop for interfering with her right.

Luckily for Lisa, a woman I know in Ohio, that state and six others do give moms recourse, so she was perfectly safe when she was in the car and her three-month-old son was crying and her husband was “about to lose it,” and she did “the hover”: gymnastically positioning herself so she was half-lying over her son’s infant seat so she could nurse him while he, and she, were still buckled in. “I was turned in such a way that I was staring out his window,” Lisa says. “A female passenger in a neighboring car made eye contact with me and smiled.” Of course, if the woman had called the cops instead, Lisa could have filed a complaint against her. And that’s exactly what Emily Gillette did in Vermont in 2006 after Freedom Airlines forced her to get off her flight before it took off because she refused to cover up while nursing.

But . . . no. I’m not aware of any of this as I sit in the backseat of the minivan. She did “the hover”: gymnastically positioning herself so she was half-lying over her son’s infant seat so she could nurse. I am only aware that it is time to switch Blair from the left boob to the right boob. A better parent probably would have checked into the laws. A better parent would certainly have considered the risk of us getting in an accident. I know that’s what the cop will say when he pulls us over: “What if you got in an accident? What if something happened to the baby?” Which is why, as a slink down a little in the seat, I plot the baby-freaking-out defense I’ll spout in response. “But, officer . . . she was crying.”

Meanwhile: “Mom!” I screech. “Don’t let him into our lane, Mom. Pull up!” I know my mother thinks that the fact that I’m making her drive the minivan during Philadelphia rush hour is a far worse offense than what I’m doing in the backseat. She knows nothing about what I’m going through. She didn’t nurse me: her doctor instructed her not to. And, considering that old car seat she showed me last summer at a yard sale, the laundry basket with lace on the ends that was “exactly like the one we had for you,” she also knows nothing about safely restraining children in moving vehicles.

“MOM!” I yell again, focusing entirely now on getting home, since Blair is nursing. And happy. And quiet. “Pull UP!”

I realize then that there is something about this experience that my mother and I have in common, that crosses the generational boundary in this car. And it might have made me laugh, had I not still been squinting through the windows, on the look-out for Johnny Law. We both now know what it’s like to be driving a car while your daughter screams at you from the backseat.

Photo by Rachel Valley

Article Posted 8 years Ago
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