Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Belts And Trophies

Ryan earned his Yellow Belt at Taekwondo! He is beyond thrilled (as are his proud parents). Watching him make progress toward this accomplishment since September has been amazing. He not only knows how to do all of the moves, he actually comports himself differently when he's in uniform--he's calm and tall and very aware of doing the appropriate thing.

He never goofs around with the other kids before class. (Really, not too many of the kids actually goof around, but there always seem to be a couple of them who do). He runs right in, bows, and starts stretching or practicing his form or running. He is focused and interested and I never, ever have to ask him twice to get into uniform when it's time to go to class--and he's been going three times a week for the last month or so.

Last Thursday, I found out he'd be testing that night. Apparently, he knew it all along and just failed to mention it to me. I called Brendan and he came over from work to watch the test. Just before the test, Ryan had an attack of nerves: "What if I don't know anything?"

Suddenly, I felt all nervous on his behalf--as a child I never did well in similar situations, even when I knew my stuff cold, because in my house anything less than Perfection was a Complete, Universe-Ending Failure. I tried to imagine what I would have wanted my parents to say to me and so I had him recite the 5 Tenets, told him "See? You KNOW this stuff! You'll do great." And then told him all he or his teacher or we wanted him to do was his best try. And then I shut up because I tend to babble and over-explain and he really didn't need that from me just then!

He took the test with two other White Belts--they were so tiny compared to the older kids who were testing!--wasn't perfect, and passed. He was positively beaming last night, when he received his new Yellow Belt (pictures soon on the FamBlog, promise!). Later, he announced to Brendan and me that he intended to "do Taekwondo until I die!" Which I'm assuming means that he intends to go for Black Belt rather than a more literal interpretation. :o)

If he hadn't passed--well, I now know, at the age of 38, that the universe hardly ever ends when such things happen. I think he might have been sad, of course, but I feel sure that he would have continued with it. I would NOT have said something like, "Well, you should have practiced more." or "It must have been when you messed up in the middle of the form." (Yes, I'm still trying to get over some things!)

I can't help but contrast this experience with that of his Chess Class. Ryan is also very talented at chess. (Hmmm....I wonder if he's just naturally good at things where he can imagine Good Guys versus Bad Guys.) At the end of each chess session, there is a trophy ceremony. "Every child receives a trophy!" is displayed prominently in the handouts and on their website.

There is a nominal ranking system, grouped by age, where the child gets points for answering questions and winning games and being a gracious winner or a gracious loser. But the points are very arbitrary. I've never been able to figure out why some answers are worth 2 points and others are worth 5 points, and there doesn't seem to be an attempt to get some of the quieter kids to answer questions (and I'm not entirely sure if that's good or bad).

Every child does indeed get a trophy, and they're nice trophies, too. But there are two ways you can earn an extra trophy--you can beat a coach at a chess game or you can get the Good Sportsmanship trophy. I've never seen anyone beat a coach yet, so those trophies are very rare indeed. The Good Sportmanship trophy is completely pointless, I think. Yes, being a good sport--helping reset the chessboard, not throwing a hissy fit when you lose, not gloating when you win, being flexible about who you're partnered with, moving to a different table if necessary, etc.--good things to know, sure. But I think that just by being a part of that class (which I love for him, apart from all of this trophy stuff), the kids learn the appropriate ways to behave, with no special reward necessary. I've seen this trophy ceremony three times, and last time was the only time where the coaches gave a specific reason for giving the Good Sportsmanship trophy to a certain kid. The other two times it seemed completely arbitrary.

Still--Ryan has told us that he would like to be the recipient of the Good Sportsmanship trophy one day. So we talk about the kinds of things he can do to show the coaches he deserves it, but it's very nebulous. Neither one of us really has any clue what he might do to get this particular trophy--and I doubt the coaches do either, truly. Whereas, it's quite clear how he can earn the other trophy--by beating a coach. It's very clear what he needs to do to earn his next belt in taekwondo--the requirements are written out and are very specific.

Ryan's first Every Child Gets A Trophy! ceremony was fun, but both subsequent ceremonies were kind of boring and Ryan was visibly much less excited than he was when he received his first trophy. Still happy to get a trophy, of course--who doesn't like shiny trophies made of real gold? (I've tried to 'splain that, but he doesn't seem to hear me.)

It wasn't until last night that I again saw that level of excitement and happiness radiating out of him--only MORE. He experienced that true feeling of happiness at having accomplished an actual something as opposed to being just one of a crowd picking up the next shiny thing. Joy. Pure joy. You'll see it on his face once I get the pictures up.

I suspect that the next trophy ceremony at Chess class (coming up in a few weeks) will seem even flatter than before. I don't know who the chess people think they're fooling (and I'm really not trying to knock them--they run an excellent program and teach chess really well). Even kids can figure out when a reward is truly earned and when it's not. Even if they can't articulate why, none of these kids at chess smile like the kids at taekwondo last night. It's a shame--yes, a shame in the butt--that so many adults seem to think that a feeling of accomplishment can simply be handed to a child in the form of a trophy.

The real feeling of pride can only come from hard work and effort and determination focused on objective goals, and can never be provided by another person. I am so happy Ryan experienced that!


Kevin said...

Congratulations to Ryan! He should be very proud!

Although I didn't study martial arts (Kempo) until an adult, the Yellow belt is one I will always remember. It is the first step on a long road of achievement, the one that says I can see the path and it is open to me I just need to do the work.

It was second only to the Black belt, which was truly an amazing feeling, which was worth every minute.

Principled Parent said...

Way to go Ryan! It was so wonderful to read about him having pride in himself for something well earned.

Rational Jenn said...

Thanks Kevin and PP! He is still floating on cloud nine. Went to his first class as a Yellow the other day and learned a whole bunch of new stuff. It's thrilling to see him so into this!