Each year, many children enroll in martial arts programs. They progress through belts, learn their styles, and get in better physical shape. Is that all there is to it? What if you, as a parent, could make the most of the opportunity to help master the qualities your child needs for life? What are those qualities? How do you do it?
Life qualities must be mastered. They must be defined, valued, talked about, practiced realistically, and coached in an effective practice environment.
Life Qualities Must Be Mastered
Martial arts training provides a mastery environment for learning that is missing from most of our children’s schools. In school, subjects are reduced down to the cognitive aspects, treated in textbooks, and only given a certain amount of time to learn, and usually without realistic practice.
Traditional, term-based teaching holds time fixed while letting learning vary. That’s why you get a curve of performance from failure to excellent.
Mastery learning holds learning fixed by defining performance, and lets time vary as long as needed to develop mastery.
When we think about some things we learn, we’re glad to get it over in a short time. But life qualities? They are far too critical to a successful, happy, and meaningful life to approach any other way than to master them.
Defining Life Qualities
I use the term quality because it includes virtues, values, skills, and mindsets. Churches often talk about virtues and values. Work may define another set of values and skills. Schools, thankfully, are talking about growth mindset. Many martial arts have a long tradition of developing more than kicking and punching.
Shotokan Karate’s founder, Gichin Funakoshi, said the first principle of karate is to “seek perfection of character.”
After interviewing parents, reviewing religious and psychological texts, evaluating research on the 21st-century skills, and noting the emerging standards for employment skills and qualities, we have selected 22 qualities that encompass the most needed and appropriate qualities found in these sources for children in grades PK through 8.
They appear in this graphic, organized in four fundamental areas, personal, interpersonal, physical, and learning. The last category, learning, is essential for developing the other three. A fifth category that is specific to each religion is spiritual and needs mastered as well.
These qualities are defined in detail with levels of performance in the book, Martial Arts for Life: A Guide for Getting the Most From Your Training for Parents and Practitioners New to Martial Arts, written by myself and Grand Master Jin Yong Kwon.
Two sections from the book illustrate the learning skill of self-coaching and the interpersonal skill of being friendly.
I assess my performances to learn what was strong that I could repeat, what was not as strong and could be improved, and to appreciate how much I can achieve by being thoughtful and trying. I encourage others to do the same.
1. I am not judgmental of myself or others because everyone is always learning
2. I analyze my strengths so I can learn to repeat them and to stay positive
3. I analyze my performances to find improvement opportunities
4. I plan my improvements and track my progress
5. I measure my performance quality so I can track my growth and learning
Isabella practices at home with her mother’s help. They’re using Isabella’s self-coaching assessments in her training notebook. Her mother asks her a question about her current form.
“So, how’d that go, Isabella?”
“Fine,” Isabella replies.
“What was strong about it?” her mom asks.
“I remembered all the moves and did them in the right shape. I didn’t have to stop to think or do a move over.”
“Those are definite strengths. Your hard work has improved your moves, Isabella. Are there any other strengths?”
Isabella shakes her head “no”. Her mom continues, “Ok. Now, in what way could you make the performance even stronger?”
Isabella thinks about it. “I could yell louder on the kiyaps,” she says. “And I could look my opponent in the eyes.”
Isabella’s mom considers Isabella’s answers. “Louder yells would help, Isabella. Let me ask, why did you say ‘look my opponent in the eyes’?”
“I remember better and do stronger moves when I think there’s someone there,” Isabella replies. “And it’s more fun.”
Her mother writes the strength and two suggestions in Isabella’s journal.
“And what did you learn, Isabella?” her mother asks.
“That by talking about my practice, I’m getting better?” Isabella asks.
“Is that what you believe, Isabella?” her mom asks. Isabella nods.
“Ok, that’s going in the journal as your insight.”
What’s Going On?
By asking Isabella to assess her own performance, Isabella’s mom is letting Isabella take ownership of practice. Meanwhile, Isabella’s mom is coaching Isabella’s self-coaching. By writing it for her in the journal, they’ll have that entry to refer to when Isabella practices next time.
Self-coaching takes a while to develop and absolutely depends on coaching. Isabella’s mom is alert to Isabella’s accuracy, whether she’s emphasized the right strengths, truly noted the most powerful opportunities, and can describe what she needs to do next. Rather than tell Isabella corrections, she asks questions to develop Isabella’s own coaching abilities. In the long run, Isabella will make more progress through self-coaching and take over more of the work of deliberate practice.
I remember how it feels when someone is in a new group of people. I show an interest in everyone in our training. I learn their names. I encourage them, and I applaud their efforts. I find out what they like to do and talk to them about it.
1. I am open to others by making eye contact, using a friendly voice, and being positive
2. I am welcoming to new people and will engage them first if possible
3. I ask questions and listen well to answers to learn more about others
4. I recognize and genuinely compliment others for their efforts, enthusiasm, and other black belt qualities
5. Before I judge a person, I seek to understand them and their actions so that I am fair and open-minded
Isabella and the New Girl
Isabella is waiting for class and sees a new girl wearing a white belt and new uniform.
“Hi,” Isabella says. “I’m Isabella.”
The new girl quietly says, “Hi,” and looks down at the floor.
Isabella asks, “I like unicorns, but Susy likes butterflies. Which one do you like?”
The new girl looks up with determination. “They’re ok. But I like ponies.”
“Well, I’m a unicorn,” says Isabella. “My unicorn name is ‘Sparkles the Swift.’ What’s your pony name?”
The new girl had never thought of that and decided to name herself right on the spot.
“I’m ‘Thunderlina’,” she says, giggling. “And my real name is Morgan.”
“Stick with me, Thunderlina, and I’ll help you meet everyone.”
What’s Going On?
Isabella was somewhat shy at the start of her training. She is still not the most outgoing student. However, she knows how to push herself outside her comfort zone to be friendly. Part of the friendly behavior is the growth culture. The students are not in competition to win or lose, even when the older students spar. Everyone is expected to support others to grow.
It’s not just the expectation to be friendly and helpful, it’s the experience. Training can still put stress on students who are learning to perform and continuously challenging themselves. In that situation, the support of others can make a huge difference, and the experience changes one’s understanding.
It doesn’t hurt that the instructors expect that senior students be friendly to junior students, learn their names, and welcome them to the school.
Parents, you can help your children learn friendliness as a quality by modeling friendly behaviors with other parents, recognizing your child’s growing confidence, and asking questions about the other students. Just like the instructors, you can clearly, but kindly, state your expectations to be friendly with others.
When children experience friendship challenges, tell your child to find a way to work through it. It helps if you question their assumptions when they say something like “she hates me.” We all have made mistakes interpreting another’s behavior, remarks, or mood as directed at us when the other person’s feelings are elsewhere. Ask your child to communicate directly to clear up a challenge.
How Can Parents Support?
The Support Qualities
Good parenting requires mastering the support qualities.
Three of the parental qualities cut across all the quality areas: role modeling, patience, and growth coaching.
1. Support All Qualities
Role Model all the Qualities — your child looks up to you and will model their behaviors and thoughts after yours. Be a role model to your child by demonstrating all their qualities in your life. They’ll have a lot of fun learning along with you. You don’t have to say very much about your learning — just show them the best you have. They’ll get the point. And remember, it’s not a competition with you.
Be Patient and Kind — learning and enjoying learning while developing black belt qualities is the biggest benefit from your child’s martial art. Like all skilled teachers, you must resist the urge to impart your knowledge through lecture. Instead, cultivate it in your child through love, support, and questions that help them develop self-coaching.
Growth coaching is a key skill for any parent that supports growth and treats a “failure” as a positive learning opportunity. See “Self-Coach” in the Life Qualities section but apply it to your child as well as yourself.
2. Support Personal Qualities
Learn how to maintain a growth culture for all qualities by replacing evaluation with coaching assessment. You’ll see better progress when you catch your child doing something right, rather than catching them doing something wrong. Recognize and reinforce their displayed strengths. Of course, if they create a serious error, you’ll need to step in. Otherwise, a question in the right circumstance may be all that your child needs to self-correct their own performance. Making these qualities part of a morning routine will allow your child to tell you what they want to work on.
Add your family or religious qualities as you see the need and use the support skills to help develop them. Don’t work on too many qualities at once.
3. Support Learning Qualities
Help your child set and track training, quality, and school goals. At the start of each belt, ask your child to get the requirements for the next level. If they’re old enough, have them write the goals down. Help them fill in a weekly schedule and fill in key events on their own calendar.
Help your child set up a morning and evening routine and stick to it. Discuss or have them write a training goal, a quality goal, and one or more school goals each morning. Letting your child choose the goals helps them develop ownership and responsibility. Then, assess those goals in the evening, by having your child talk about their two strengths, two improvement opportunities, and one insight they developed. If a goal is to practice 4 times a week, then have them mark each time they do. At the end of the week, assess all the goals, and then pick bigger goals in training, qualities, and school for the coming week.
To help your child the most when they self-coach, nudge them when they’re being judgmental or showing a fixed mindset. Help your child to recognize strengths that you see and to phrase improvements as opportunities and not failures. Keep a log so you both can look back on your child’s progress. Maintain a log yourself to serve as a role model.
Create and support a growth culture. The big goal here is you want your child to believe in the truth that they have unlimited potential. With enough motivation, guidance, and hard work, your child can achieve amazing things and create powerful qualities that last a lifetime.
Further support a growth culture in the home by not judging any performance as bad or good. Doing so would teach your child you only care about success and not the attitudes and hard work required to achieve it. Praise authentically by catching your child using a strength and explain why it is one. They will be much more likely to value and repeat it. When you see your child being hard on themselves, intervene, saying that the only failure is to stop trying. Then coach, looking for strengths and opportunities. Your child will always have many others volunteer to judge them. Don’t be one of those judges.
4. Support Physical Qualities
Establish a regular sleep schedule and enforce it. Eight to nine hours of sleep is required for good health and peak performance in any area of your child’s life. For yourself, get seven to eight hours.
Help your child to be healthy by ensuring plenty of vegetables and protein while minimizing starches like French fries, white bread, and sugar. Limit or eliminate chips and cookies to control starches, salt, and unhealthy fats (such as the creamy filling in sandwich cookies made of tallow or lard). Talk to the other parents for ideas.
Regular practice will help prevent injuries, develop the practice habit, and ensure consistent progress. Help your child schedule and ensure that they are keeping up with all their responsibilities. You don’t want training to interfere with school, and vice versa.
If your child has any conditions like asthma or previous injuries, first secure your child’s doctor’s permission to train. Then, inform your instructor about all conditions so they can work out a modified training plan, if needed.
5. Support Interpersonal Qualities
Some children need extra encouragement developing the social qualities. You can reinforce your child’s friendliness by making friends with the other parents and discovering who their children are. Together, you could make an introduction. That’s an example of role-modeling.
Another type of role-modeling is good communication skills. In this case, if you have any questions or concerns, or if you feel you need to advocate for your child, speak courteously to the staff, which will help you resolve any concerns. This approach takes care of your and your child’s needs and demonstrates looking out for yourself (self-advocacy) in a polite and effective manner. It’s important to not let your child convince you to take sides, however, until you know all the facts; otherwise, you could start a pattern that undermines the respect your child shows to instructors and teachers.
That’s a lot of information to take in at once! Don’t sweat it. And remember: don’t judge yourself. Learn from mistakes, recognize your strengths, and be a great role model for your child.
School doesn’t provide a mastery environment and church tends to focus on the spiritual domain, with overlap into the personal and interpersonal domains. As we’ve discussed, a mastery environment is needed where the qualities are naturally practiced. We’ve found the martial arts an ideal mastery environment with the experiences that lead to situations where improvements can be made.
Sports and other life activities such as scouting may also provide a mastery environment.
Chose one that fits you and your child.
Focus on coaching and not judging. Different children are at different places in their development, so adapt to the needs and readiness of your child.
Three Key Principles
Let your child fail. Say what? Failure can be an excellent teacher. We learn far more from failure than success. The key is to cultivate your child’s growth mindset and self-coaching capabilities.
Don’t Do For Your Child What They Can Do for Themselves. Children learn ownership, responsibility, and self-efficacy (confidence in their own ability to learn and perform). Parents used to be so busy, that this approach was the standard. But failure causes pain, right? And why should our children suffer? Because making a mistake in school, sports, or elsewhere is usually fairly harmless. The real goal here is for your child to become a contributing, successful happy, healthy adult living a life of meaning. Adult mistakes, like driving when drinking, abusing drugs, failing to plan ahead, and misbehaving at work all have terribly serious consequences.
Practice Unconditional Love. Knowing that they are loved, causes children to have confidence in themselves and higher aspirations for themselves, to self-regulate, and to show kindness to others. If you only show attention to your child when they are succeeding, you’re inadvertently giving the message that you love them for what they do, and not who they are. Praise the qualities when you see them. Support them when they struggle by helping them take ownership of their challenges and to find solutions. Improvement applies to the performance of the qualities, not to your child. Separate loving from performing and love them regardless of how they’re performing.
Best wishes for your child’s and your development of the qualities. Find the environment where they can learn by doing the qualities, and get good at supporting them. For more help, obtain our book from our author page at amazon.com/author/davidleasure.