My Daughters: Martial Artists

My Daughters: Martial Artists

Within the past few months, I have had the pleasure of watching three of my daughters test for big milestone belts in Taekwondo. My 12-year-old daughter Poppy tested for her 1st poom (junior black belt); my 13-year-old Maisy tested for her 2nd poom; and my almost 15-year-old Sunshine tested for her 2nd dan (adult black belt). I was (am!) unbelievably proud of my girls, and impressed not just by what they were able to do physically, but more especially by the grit and grace with which they approached the long and difficult test.  

I could go on and on about the tests, and the challenges the girls faced and completed on those days. But in reality the belts they came away with signify so much more than the passing of those examinations. The gifts martial art has given them, and the qualities they have developed through training, are evident to me every day in every aspect of their lives.

Courtesy is the first Tenet of Taekwondo. From their very first class, when all the veteran students in the class form a line to shake hands and introduce themselves to the new student, courtesy is part of their training. Students are taught to address those of higher rank with respect, ask for things politely, listen to directions, and help others who need it. I cannot even count the number of times strangers have stopped me in public to tell me how polite my children are. Their “yes ma’ams, yes pleases, thank yous” have made people smile from 20-somethings working the food line at Chipotle, to teachers at school, to adults interviewing them for summer jobs. It’s part of the Taekwondo culture, and it has become part of them.

One thing I have never once seen in our 8 years of training in Taekwondo is one student making fun of another student for getting something wrong in class or at tournament. This truly is remarkable, because the classes are comprised of kids at all ages and ability levels. Anyone who has spent time around kids knows that kids can be MEAN. And yes, in classes the students have fun and tease each other. Yes, they joke around. But I have never seen a student do it in a hurtful or condescending way.

On the contrary - students are cheering for each other! At belt tests, there is nothing like the cheering from the other students when one poor kiddo misses his break over and over...but then gets it on his last try. Everyone cheers him on, shouts “Come on! You can do it! Give it everything you’ve got!” There is no rival kid in the crowd secretly hoping he won’t get it. There just isn’t. Because they all want each other to succeed.

Students are taught from white belt that you can always help somebody. Black belts help color belts; color belts help white belts; white belts help the kids on their first day. They have been explicitly taught that along with getting stronger or older or more experienced comes the responsibility to help others who need it. That habit of jumping in to help has also become part of who my children are. If Poppy is late getting to the car after school, chances are she’s going to tell me, “Oh sorry mom, I had to help my friend with her locker combination.” If Maisy asks to stay after school, it’s because she volunteered to help a teacher clean up after a project. And you can bet that if Sunshine has the choice between doing a fun summer activity herself or being a helper at a camp for preschoolers, she’s going to choose to be the helper. They have learned that it feels good to help other people. 

At a Taekwondo test, from white belt on, you are asked to get up in front of your peers, advanced students, black belts, masters, friends and family to perform your techniques. You are front and center, and sometimes you fail spectacularly. The expectation is that you will pick yourself up and try again until you make it happen.

Sometimes it can take weeks, even months of trying again. Sometimes you go in every single day and continue to miss the mark. Sometimes you are quite literally slamming your body against a solid object, over and over, day after day, until you finally break through. Martial arts training asks this of four-year-olds, and it asks this of adults (although in different ways). For the smaller kids, sometimes the motivation to keep going is external (your parents won’t let you quit, and your instructor won’t give you a pass), but even then it’s up to you to go in there and do it. At some point, that becomes a habit.

My girls have formed the habit of never giving up. I remember a time that my oldest daughter  (about 9 years old at the time, a tiny little girl with cerebral palsy) was working on her hammerfist break. She was hitting a board propped up on cinder blocks. At one point she missed the center of the board and cheese-grated her knuckles on the cinder block. I didn’t see it happen. She continued to hit the board many more times. At the end of the class she came up to me and asked for a bandaid for her bloodied-up hand that I did not even realize she’d injured. I asked her why she hadn’t said anything at the time. She said, “It not matter if my hand hurt. It just matter I break the board. If you are Taekwondo person you must be tough.”

She, and the others, have applied this across the board in their lives. Sunshine has cerebral palsy with significant learning disabilities, but maintains straight As in her classes through sheer hard work and stubborn effort. At her parent-teacher conferences this month, all her teachers echoed the same theme: “Sunshine comes in every day and does exactly what is asked of her to the very best of her ability, with a great attitude, and never gives up when it is challenging.” All three of my girls know how to set a goal and then put in the work to make it happen.

Obviously physical fitness is going to be a result of years of Taekwondo training. But two of these three daughters have physical disabilities, and being physically confident in their own bodies is something extra valuable for them.

I used to worry how they would fare in sports and gym class with “regular” kids. Would they be picked last, or not be able to keep up. As it turns out, they are the alpha dogs in any physical situation that arises. The daughter with cerebral palsy is the one who gets super excited when the gym class activity is dodgeball (an activity her nerdy mother still has nightmares about), and has the older boys gunning for her because she is so hard to beat. They can outrun, out-situp, out-pushup anyone in any context. And it’s given them the courage to jump into other sports like soccer or track, when they may otherwise have been too afraid to try.

One time Maisy was walking around rubbing her shoulder. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that the boys at school had been mouthing off about being stronger than the girls. So she arm wrestled them. “I beat them all, but now my arm kind of hurts,” she said off-handedly, and went about her day.

They regard working out as a fun thing to do, a thing they would actually choose to do above watching TV or playing video games anytime. It’s a part of their daily routine that they don’t even think about. I’ve never had one of them say to me a single time, “I’m too tired to go to class today” or “I don’t feel like it.” They just get up and go, even on days after rough tournaments or after nights of missed sleep. It’s just the habit of going and doing.

Of my five children, all but one have physical disabilities. But at Taekwondo, they were never given any special treatment. They were never given any reason to think that they couldn’t do everything everyone else can do -- although sometimes they go about it a bit differently.

Sunshine does not feel the need to hide her “weak” arm. And Poppy is not fazed in the least by questions about her missing hand, and in fact will cheerfully regale questioners with a number of fantasy stories involving sharks or pirates when asked, “What happened to your arm?” Because they know there’s nothing “wrong” with them.

We had bad experiences in other activities (a dance teacher who saw Sunny’s weak arm and told her she had to sit in the corner and watch the other kids do the hand movements to a dance...among other incidents). But at Taekwondo everyone brings their own strengths and weaknesses and works to their own best ability, with respect for the abilities of those around them. No one is better or worth more than anyone else. The winner of the “Martial Artist of the Year” award won’t necessarily be the student who can beat everyone at sparring, or the one with the prettiest technique; it might be the one with the best attitude or the hardest worker. All those things have value, and my children see the value of those things in themselves.

When my older daughters started middle school, I felt as though I was throwing them to the wolves. Middle school is hard when you’re different, as my kids are, and they had trouble making friends. But one thing they always had was their gym family.

Their sparring team is a group of kids, many close to their age, who train hard together at least a couple hours per week and support each other at tournaments. They are kids who have also grown up in the same martial arts values as mine have. It’s a group of kids I can feel good about my daughters spending time with and even traveling to other cities with (sometimes without me). I have been grateful for these friendships during many rough patches through middle school and now high school. 

When Poppy was in 4th grade, we moved the kids into a new school district. Most of the other kids in her classroom had known each other since Kindergarten, and Poppy was the “new kid.” Moreover, Poppy has something else that makes her stand out: she is missing her right arm at the elbow. During the first couple weeks of school, Poppy made up her mind that she was going to run for Student Body Vice President (the highest office allowed a 4th grader). She had to write and give a speech to the faculty, then if selected, write and give a (different) speech in front of the whole school. THEN she had to campaign; she made posters and 500 stickers and went around talking to all the students convincing them to vote for her. And she won! In a matter of a few weeks, she went from being the missing-arm girl that nobody knew, to the kid that got the most votes for Vice President. And the topic of her speech? How training in Taekwondo since age 4 had prepared her for a leadership position. She was 10 years old.

Poppy went on the following year to do it all over again and become Student Body President. I still do not quite know how she found the courage and the will to do that. This is not something I could have given her as her mother; I didn’t have it to give. I was an introverted, anxious, nerdy kid (and frankly, adult). New people, new situations, things that happen unexpectedly have never been easy for me to cope with. I would certainly never have decided, of my own free will, to give a speech in front of the school, much less go ask individual unknown kids to vote for me. But Poppy did.

And really, all three of these girls do it over and over again. They are not afraid to try new things. To join new sports teams where they don’t know anyone. To go to a sleep-away camp with a group of unfamiliar girls. To audition for a role in a play. To apply for a job as a Junior Counselor at the YMCA. To volunteer to wrangle a group of 5-year-olds at art camp for a week. To step willingly into leadership roles again and again. To say, “Yes, I can do this!”

Are they totally free from the insecurities of teenage girldom? Of course not. But they sure have an edge. And an enormous part of that edge is the training they’ve had which has been preparing them for leadership since their very first day in class.

Maisy was about 9 or 10 when we took her to her first sparring tournament. It was about a four-hour drive to get there, and on the way Maisy started to get nervous. She got so nervous, in fact, that she made herself sick to her stomach. I of course was terrified too (they were my little baby girls!), and had every inclination NOT to force Maisy to compete at the tournament if she decided she was too scared. Master Ricardo talked me down off my ledge, and basically told Maisy that she needed to get out there and do it. In her first match, poor Maisy lost spectacularly because she couldn’t bring herself to try.

At the end of the fight, her coach hugged her, wiped her tears, told her she did a good job. And once she calmed down, he talked to her about why she was scared. She was scared of losing. He told her that the only way to guarantee she was going to lose was not to try at all. In between her first and second match, Maisy sat quietly and didn’t say much. She watched her second opponent warming up with her own coach. After a while, Maisy came up to me and said, “I’m not going to let that other girl beat me.” And she didn’t. In her second fight, Maisy had made up her mind that, even though she was scared, she was going to try.

This is something Maisy struggles with still 5 years later; she gets scared before every sparring match and sometimes she does exactly what she did in that very first match and lets the fear win. But she keeps on signing up for tournaments, knowing that she’ll be scared. She keeps on trying to fight through it and do her best even when she is afraid. She knows that bravery doesn’t mean not being scared; bravery means stepping up and doing it EVEN THOUGH you are scared.

Of course you expect a martial arts class to teach you practical self defense (although of course the reality is that many martial arts classes may not actually deliver on that). But when I say my daughters are learning self-defense, I don’t just mean they’ve been taught some punches or kicks or chokes to use if someone attacks them. They have, of course. I have seen these girls throw, submit, and kick in the face opponents who were full grown adults. But what matters to me is that they BELIEVE they could do it. That they have, as I’ve said above, the CONFIDENCE to do it. If my daughters see themselves as valuable and deserving, if they see themselves as strong, and if they have the will to never give up, then I feel much safer sending them out into the world.

Watching my daughters testing for their first and second-degree black belts is something I will always be grateful for. This sport, this way of life, has given them things that I as a parent could certainly not have done alone. They have developed qualities that will give them an advantage in every area of their lives. They have done other activities (soccer, track, art, instruments, theatre, among others), and each certainly has taught them some valuable lessons. I’ve been glad that they’ve participated in these other things and continue to do so. But their martial arts training has brought value far beyond what I ever could have expected when I signed them up as little preschool and kindergartners. It has made them better people, and I hope I can be as awesome as them when I grow up. 

Ms. Jen (Black Belt, Mom of 5)

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