IT was only a matter of time before my son approached me with the question eventually faced by most parents of little boys. He didn't know that I had long anticipated this moment and still had no idea of how I would or should respond.
''Dad,'' he said, standing before me, ''can I take karate lessons?''
''We'll see,'' I told him, seeking the last refuge of the indecisive. The thing was, at 9 I had been the toughest, most freewheeling kid on my block. When I thought back on some of the things I did, my son's request seemed tame by comparison. So why the hesitation?
I guess I blamed it in part on the media, with its explosion of productions involving the martial ''arts.'' I acknowledge that some of the most good-hearted and moral of the TV heroes use these gravity-defying maneuvers to right wrongs and implement justice. But the most malevolent also possess these powers: A bad guy is, well, pretty bad, but when he also knows karate he's really wicked. Add weaponry to the acrobatics and the effect is mesmerizing.
Of course, I knew that reputable martial-arts schools made a point of de-emphasizing the fighting aspects of their crafts and highlighting, instead, metaphysical benefits such as self-confidence, self-control, and respect for others. But to a child, these attributes are simply what must be swallowed, if one is to attain one's principal goal: the emulation of the characters seen on TV.
I decided to table my son's request for a month, like pouring hot tea into a saucer to cool it off before taking a small, tentative sip. If he still wanted karate after the waiting period, then we would see, we would see....
The month passed quickly enough. The 30th day dawned bright and clear. I went up to my son's room to rouse him from bed. ''Morning, Alyosha!'' I announced. To which he replied, ''Karate.''