The other day a parent approached me about their child.  He had been struggling with a particular aspect of getting his stripes in time for testing for his next belt.  She was worried that he wasn’t going to be ready and, fearing that he might get disappointed, would I come up with a plan to help him.  As I was just finishing up teaching a group of upcoming instructors and about to start another class, I asked her to let me think on this a bit and that I would reach out to her the next time he was in class.

Now, I have to tell you a little background about this child to give you some perspective.  He started with Concord Taekwondo at the age of four years old.  The reasons for starting a child in Taekwondo often center on the parent wishing them to learn some self-control and self-confidence.  For which, we seem to be well suited for the task; as many parents have told us over the past two decades years of teaching.

At that age, he was in the Dragons program for preschool kids.  Like most small children, he was not overly concerned about the time schedules of adults.  His goals were doing well enough in class to earn a sticker and a high five from the instructor.  And his time in class consisted of learning to wait his turn, sitting in one place for longer than 30 seconds, not talking when the instructor was talking, and getting along with other children.  That is the real challenges for that age group.  The easy stuff is kicking, punching, and blocking.  For that comes with practice and everyone who continues to come to class eventually learns all they need to achieve their next rank.

But children are funny in the way they grow up.  When they are born, we are not handed instruction manuals for any particular child.  They don’t always conform to the expectations of the parents.  Nor do they grow at the speed which fits within our schedule.  And as most parents will tell you, at least the ones that have survived their teenagers’ years, children have to find their own path.   We know this when we ask them what they want to be when they grow up, but we forget it the moment we ask them to put on their shoes.  Because we can understand the path to becoming an astronaut, or veterinarian, or police officer is filled with thousands of moments that does not seem to impact us as much as those shoes not being on their feet in time for them to get on the bus.  We too often sweat the small stuff and miss the bigger picture.

Children are given hundreds of thousands of small choices to make in life as they grow up.  What shirt to put on, what food to eat, what they need to pack for school, what to say to that bully at school, what friends are truthful and which are not, and a million more decisions that will affect them from very little to having a profound effect on their lives, years to come.  And they often do this with little to no guidance, only basing it on their own past experiences and the thoughts that enter their minds in the moment.

In many of those moments, they may recall a parent encouraging them on to achieve something worthwhile or giving them an excuse as to why they didn’t reach that goal.  Those are the moments that define us and our character.  Those moments will be who we become; for we are judged not by our intent but by our actions.

When we send our children off to school, we know they will face many challenges academically on many fronts.  A few of those children will have made the choice that they enjoy school and in making that choice, often excel in nearly all their classes.  A few, when they fail to achieve a high grade on the first test, will decide that they don’t like their teacher.  You may interpret this as “the teacher caused me to fail the test and therefore must not like me.”  We must be very careful how we respond when hearing this.  It very well may be the teacher has not taken the time to build a good relationship with your child, but more often, it’s the child that is transferring the blame onto the teacher.  As we all know, it is far easier to put the blame onto someone else than it is to accept responsibility and work a little harder or a little longer.  This ‘blame game’ often has worked at least once before when faced with a parent’s potential disappointment.  Our children want us to be proud of them and will do many odd things to avoid our disappointment.  Even if it is unwarranted.

Wouldn’t it be easier for us as parents to protect our children from disappointment?  To avoid those moments of grief, seeing our children struggle and fail?  Do we not often wish for the easy road for our children knowing that life is not so?  Parenting is not for the faint-hearted.  One of our important lessons we teach our children is how we deal with disappointment and how to move past it to reach our goal.  Whether that end is earning a grade, achieving black belt, or building a great marriage.

Some may have heard the saying “sour grapes.”  Some may even know the fable behind it but it bears repeating.

The fox who longed for grapes, beholds with pain
the tempting clusters were too high to gain.
Grieved in his heart he forced a careless smile,
and cried, ‘they’re sharp and hardly worth my while.’

Rather than admit his failure to reach the grapes, the fox rationalizes that they are not really desirable. The story illustrates the state of cognitive dissonance.  The fox is taken as attempting to hold two incompatible ideas simultaneously, desire and its frustration.  In this case, the disdain expressed by the fox at the conclusion to the fable serves to reduce the dissonance through criticism.  And hence, the fox decides the grapes are sour.

The stories we tell others about growing up are almost always filled with overcoming some challenge.  We often compare how we had it growing up and how we survived the hard work we put into something just through sheer tenacity.  Our stories are never about how easy our achievements were.  There’s nothing to be learned from the telling.  And where’s there no hard work, there is no pride.

Even though we may not realize it, children are watching us very closely.  They watch what we wear, what time we leave for work, and what food we eat.  They watch the many tiny decisions we make and what we ultimately put in our shopping carts. They watch what we do when we’re late for work and whether we obey the speed limit.

And they listen intently to us. To what we say when we call in sick and to what we say about the boss to our co-workers.  They listen to what we say to our spouses when we want something we know we shouldn’t buy.  They listen to us when we fail to achieve.  And they listen to our fears and our excuses. They are watching and they are always listening.

Many students and parents admire our black belts for their technical ability, for their strength in board breaking,  their snap, power, and grace demonstrating a form, their seemingly ease of performing some of the more complex and difficult jump spinning kicks in martial arts.  But they only see the end product.  What they don’t see are the moments where that particular black belt; much like themselves or their child, failed to break a board, failed to earn a stripe, or failed a rank test.  Some of our best black belts were once awkward yellow belts, trying to performing a basic front stance and remember the sequence of Dan-Gun pattern.  Or as red belts, failing to get the 360 side kick off the ground; or failing multiple rank tests for board breaking as black belts.   For each of those moments prompted a decision.  To see the moment as an opportunity for improvement or dwell on it as a failure and look for an out.  If the student fears the future disappointment or perceived disappointment of a parent, he may look to mitigate that feeling through avoidance.  They may start avoiding those moments for potential disappointment though a variety of excuses.  Through deliberate inaction to avoid disappointment, they will fail to achieve their goal.

But that is not the way of the Black Belt.  For us, there is no failure; only moments of clarity.  Was our past training correct in preparing us for this moment?  We do not see quitting itself as an option but as the only true failure.  This is what we believe and this is what we teach.  As for your child, what stories will they tell?

My own experience in Taekwondo has been dotted with ‘moments of clarity’.  At red belt, I realized that my right leg side kick needed work.  After my third failed test for second degree senior black belt, I needed to rethink how to perform the jump spin side kick.  In testing five times for instructor level 4, I needed a lot more practice on the alternate patterns.  At third degree, my close quarters sparring needed improvement.  At fourth degree, I discovered my round kicks were not where they should be.  Was I disappointed at any of these moments?  Sure I was!  And like many others, I even started questioning whether I wanted to continue trying.  Luckily, I had no one to hold my hand, suggest to me that maybe I should quit, say it was someone else’s fault, or that my instructor liked seeing me fail over and over.  Disappointment is the path to enlightenment.

My advice to that parent would be the same as to anyone working toward a goal worthy of the hard work.  Let the work needed to achieve a goal, define the glory in reaching it.

 “Fall down seven times; get up eight”

– Japanese proverb on Success

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