The Black Belt Wall

Lisa’s son competing in board breaking in November, 2011 as a “Recommended Black Belt”
Jennifer and my children are testing for their Black Belts in Tae Kwon Do (TKD) this weekend.  It’s kind of a big deal.  This test, six and a half hours in total, is the culmination of four years of study.  They have each hit their own personal Black Belt walls and wanted to quit.  As I wrote about in Quitters, Campers, and Quitters:  Which One Are You?, what matters is that they didn’t quit and, as their parents, we didn’t quit on them. 

Our kids starting out on their TKD Journey four years ago as “White Belts”
Our kids started to study TKD within one month of one another. Jennifer’s daughter led the pack.  She had just arrived from Ethiopia, and my kids had just moved with my husband and I from Canada to the U.S.  Our kids have become good friends while logging a lot hours of study and commuting together to weekly classes over the years.  Keep in mind that TKD is not a seasonal sport, this is a 50 or-so week a year commitment! As my matter-of-fact husband pointed out, when I asked him what he thinks it takes to be the parent of a kid who completes their Black Belt, “You need to be prepared to drive a lot.”  My son’s response to the same question: “Be there.” 
I’ll be honest, I was reticent about my kids studying a martial art.  Before signing my kids up, I met with and basically drilled Master Miller, the owner of the school Jennifer had found, about his approach to teaching TKD—which was code for “Are you going to teach my kids to be more fearful and aggressive in this world?”  That was my big fear.  I didn’t want them to learn to be looking over their shoulders for potential apprehenders or attackers.  I’m not trying to raise my kids in a bubble, but I am pretty clear on the importance of not marinating them in fear. Master Miller was tolerant of my over-the-top questioning, and stated simply, “Well, Mrs. Dungate, we are a school that teaches a self-defense martial art.”  Duh!  I also figured that since my husband has a Black Belt in Aikido, and he’s the kindest, most peaceful man I know, our kids should be okay.  It helped to reflect on the times that contrary to my fear, knowing some basic self-defense had made me more confident—even courageous—to fend off a groper on a subway in Japan, avoid being robbed on a bridge in Rome, and navigate dark alleys around the world.
Turns out the risk I took in trusting Master Miller with my kids has been one of the all-time best decisions I’ve made as a parent.  You couldn’t find a more skilled, intelligent, generous, funny, or all-around inspiring mentor for kids than this man.  He is, to my mind, integrity personified.  One of the things I’ve learned as a parent:  sharing the responsibility of educating our children with other inspiring teachers is a good thing to do.  And you can’t argue with the inspiring core values that are the cornerstones of his mat chats and the words that line his school walls: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit.  It’s inspiring to witness to the transformation of some of the off-the wall, disrespectful, temper-tantruming kids that come in the doors of his school, and the upstanding citizens who walk out.

Jennifer’s daughter a few years ago practicing in class as a “Green Belt”
My son recently commented how much he appreciates that I’m not a “Tiger Mother.”  He’s too busy to have read Amy Chua’s bestseller extolling the value of that particular parenting style.  I had to ask him what he meant.  His reply, “Like one of those moms who screams from the sidelines, demanding that their kid do better, kick higher, punch harder, and generally needs to be on the mats herself.”  I laughed.  It turns out that my somewhat laid back approach to TKD (as it isn’t my passion) seems to have actually paid off in my kids’ case.  I can’t be bossy or controlling in this area of their life.  Which is probably a huge relief for them, I’m sure.  It has also required some letting go.  Accepting that they are growing up, making friends, finding mentors, and learning cool stuff in life that I have absolutely nothing to do with. 
While they study I often go for a run, which is my passion.  At least I’m not a total hypocrite extolling the virtues of physical fitness, insisting that they attend classes when they are too tired, while being a total couch potato myself.  Unlike my husband I don’t possess a Black Belt—except for the super cute skinny one I just picked up on sale at Banana Republic.  But I digress. 

Lisa’s daughter and son practicing their “High Blue Belt” form in tandem
 a couple of years ago

In my kids’ darkest moments during the past four years, I’ve shared my experiences hitting half and full-marathon walls.  But most of all, Jennifer, my husband, and I just kept cheering our kids on, urging them forward (even refusing for them to quit at times), paying their school fees, and filling up our gas tanks.  The most important lessons I think we’ve all learned relate to the value of sticking with something we said we would, respect for the master-student relationship and the process involved with learning something challenging (especially in our age of instant gratification), and enjoying the learning as much as the final result.  The skill, courage, confidence, and sense of accomplishment our kids have gained?  Priceless.
I asked Master Miller recently what he thought it took for the approximately 10% of children who actually complete their Black Belt from amongst the 90% of children that quit before finishing?  What separates the wheat from chaff, so to speak?  The two factors he identified as the source of Black Belt success are well worth considering as valuable insight about what it takes to raise a courageous kid:
“For most children, this is the first long term goal the will have achieved in their entire lives. The first factor is the student themselves. Everyone starts martial arts with a different level of skill, athleticism, motivation, discipline and spirit. It is always dependent on what a student is willing to put in, that translates to what they are willing to get back. This is why each new black belt we have slightly redefines what it means to be a ‘Black Belt.’ Just like no two people are the same, no two black belts’ experiences are the same. Each student has their own struggles, difficulties, and challenges, but they also have rewarding, and joyous experiences. The key is about perseverance: Keeping your eyes on your goals and not allowing the other challenges that you face to diminish the strength of your resolve. If you focus on your difficulties, they will appear to grow in strength, but if you focus on your goals, the challenges seem to diminish.

The second main factor would have to be a support system around them that is encouraging and supportive. Everyone has feelings of wanting to give up along the path of anything you can consider calling a ‘journey’. Unfortunately, there are too many families who have clearly learned about the huge benefits that martial arts have to offer, but are not willing to say it is not okay to quit and take the necessary steps to inspire, mentor and guide a child on the right path. Sometimes, all it would have taken was a nudge in the right direction to help steer someone on a better path. Sometimes, we hand over the rudder of the boat to a child before they are ready to handle the responsibility and the repercussions of their decisions. There are some black belts who never needed to hear a single thing from their parents; for the other 99%, each one speaks in their essays about how grateful they were to their parents for the guidance and added motivation that it took to assist them in reaching their goal.”

Special thanks, and tons of gratitude, to Master Miller for tolerating my initial interrogation, and to his parents and team of instructors (especially Mr. Gray) for believing in our children, and being such inspiring mentors for all our children!  Click here to learn more about Cutting Edge Martial Arts.
Dear Reader, care to share your or your child’s learning about completing a long-term goal? Post a comment.  We’d LOVE to hear from you, too!

One thought on “The Black Belt Wall

  1. Anonymous

    What a phenomenal endeavor!Yes, it takes a huge amount of perseverance, discipline and courage to accomplish what your children have undertaken over the past 4 years.Fantastic learning.Congratulations and good luck this weekend!

  2. Lisa Dungate

    Thanks Anonymous…sounds like you, too, know what it takes to accomplish long-term goals!Thanks for the kind and inspiring words.Blessings on the journey!


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