While sitting on the pew at church one Sunday, I was a nervous ball of energy. I was seven, maybe eight. I shuffled through the papers in the seat-back pocket. I squirmed consistently. I flipped through the pages of the hymnal and the bible over and over. I glanced back and forth down the row. I turned in the seat a dozens of times or more. I had a good case of the wiggles.
Unable to stand it any longer, one of my aunts leaned in and whispers to me, “if you don’t sit still, I’m going to whip you”. That notice followed by a firm hold on the back of my neck reassured me that she meant business. To be fair, she was not a mean lady, to the contrary she was a sweetheart and loved me very much, but she wanted me to sit quietly and still during the service. I’d become quite a distraction.
Where I’m sure many of you have been on either side of this situation, world-renowned Martial Arts Instructor Dave Kovar has a simple yet very profound take on this topic and says, “Kids have a hard time doing nothing” It’s true, but how does this relate to martial arts? Simple, children are brought into the dojang to improve focus and to learn self-control, ironically, self-defense though important, is often a secondary goal. Likewise, church services provide the basis of a moral compass, a sense of right, wrong, and decency. Coupled together, church and martial arts both offer amazing benefits, but if we are completely honest, there are plenty of times when either can be overly routine and painfully predictable especially for children. Put another way, the words, “I don’t want to go” can be a common thread spoken prior to martial arts class or Sunday’s services. The “rebellion” is cyclical with easy days and almost impossible days, but why?
Well from a child’s perspective, sitting in the pew and only attending Sunday service can be a grueling experience. To overcome that “no fun” perception, most churches offer “Kids Services”, “Family Fun Days”, “Easter Egg Hunts”, field trips, fall and spring festivals, youth ministries, etc. The purpose of these events are to engage kids with recreation and reward-based learning in a friendly and wholesome environment. During these “fun times” a child’s reward-centers are on overdrive as they build relationships with other children, their youth pastors and ultimately extend their church family. Through years of conditioning and maturity, kids come to understand that “church is actually pretty cool and lots of fun”. More importantly learn there are fun times but also there’s a time to focus.
Similarly, bringing a child to the dojang to only participate in scheduled classes (or bringing them to too many classes just because you’ve paid tuition) can be just like sitting in those pews. Yes, students will learn to focus and become more confident, but by not also involving a child (or yourself) in the extracurricular activities martial arts has to offer (Parent’s Night Out, Sparring Classes, Forms Clinics, Leadership Events, Weapons Training, Demo Team, Field Trips, Tournaments, etc.) the fun side will only become more elusive. In most cases, attendance will fade and quitting becomes an ongoing discussion. As my awesome mother used to say, “out of sight, out of mind”.
A hard reality here, the newness of Martial Arts (or any activity, soccer, football, dance, college, etc.) will eventually fade once the real work begins. From this point forward, most kids will no doubt feel like they are doing nothing or perhaps worse, they’ll feel like they are doing the same things over and over. Translation: “I don’t want to go” or “It’s not fun” actually means, “The newness is gone. It’s a lot of work. I’m no longer engaged.”
Having said all of that, the amazing thing about martial arts is it is an individual practice in a team environment. There is a clear and ever-present “Martial Arts Family” filled with many wonderful social and extra opportunities both outside and inside of the dojang. If your child is struggling to engage, we strongly suggest letting them connect with their classmates and the “fun stuff” more often. If they only come once per week, add an additional class to see if their perceptions changes. If they are already doing many of the extracurricular activities and still having trouble engaging, be sure to let the instructor(s) know. Often, a short discussion and a few quick adjustments can restore the desire (and the fun) to reengage your child to continue the practice of martial arts. One caveat, missing classes will only add to the disconnect.
In closing we like to say, “a black belt is a white belt who never quit”, but something that should follow that statement specifically to parents and guardians, “behind ever black belt, NFL player, fighter pilot, entrepreneur, etc. is someone that occasionally had to use a firm voice to say, ‘your entire life can’t be fun all the time, get ready, get in the car, it’s time to go’. The final thought here, stand strong, you know what is best for your child. Bending is going to happen, just don’t break.