“We rescue because it feels good,” Lahey says.
Parents want to rescue their kids from everything, and so do instructors, sometimes. In this clear-eyed article about the gift of failure, we are reminded that “we seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones.”
Go ask your instructor if failing a student has ever bought them joy. For all that we may be a bunch of crazy people who do martial arts for a living, it is rare (and perhaps cruel) to take pleasure in failing a student.
We are the first to complain about helicopter parenting – how dare this parent question my teaching, we fume — but when it comes to our students and protecting them, we can be just as terrible. There are some students that we just shouldn’t be protecting anymore. Kids that we know that other instructors would never pass at a panel grading. There are some students that really do need to fail, and to fail hard. You know the one. The talented kid who coasts. The sloppy kid with patchy attendance. The know-it-all who needs to be taught the first line of the dojo kun: be humble and polite.
Of course, we worry. Most students quit when they fail, because they’re not accustomed to setbacks. That’s not just a dojo thing – that is a societal fear driven by our punishing treatment of those who don’t make an immediate success of things. Because success is made so obvious with so many ranking systems (Twitter followers, Grammy awards, Forbes Lists, bullshit internet “40 Under 40” lists) , failure seems an unacceptable outcome.
We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles….We see our early failures as proof of conclusive ineptness – rather than as the inevitable stages on every path to mastery. Without an accurate developmental map, we can’t position ourselves properly vis-à-vis our defeats. We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire – and therefore cannot forgive ourselves the horror of our early attempts. – “How Knowledge of Difficulties Lends Confidence”, The Book of Life
(Remember when you were a yellow belt, and you thought you were never going to learn that kata? Like that, but for everything.)
We have a habit of praising outcomes, not effort. We focus on gradings, not the day to day grind of just showing up, the persistence and participation that makes for great adults. We laud talented kids, we set them up as the examples, and then when the talent fails to make up for hard work, we have left them without the tools to learn.
It is our job to be the instructors, not the saviours. It is hard to look a kid in the eye and say “not this time, buddy.” Especially when you think that the kid will quit, because the short-term pain is not worth the lesson, and you’ve seen it happen dozens of times before. Sensei Pain is a great teacher, but no one wants to take his classes. It is hard to not have a bit of a saviour complex when so many seek the wisdom and guidance of their sensei. It makes it hard to be the teacher, who simply teaches without offering salvation as well. We always wish some parents would try be parents instead of best friends to their kids – we need to remind ourselves that we are instructors first, and that means doing what needs to be done, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Especially when it makes us squirm.
When we choose to protect our students from their own shortcomings, we fail them completely. Like when we don’t force them to finish doing the boring, BORING drills that will fix their problems. Yes, it sucks, but eat your karate veggies, kid. But we worry that they’ll get bored and leave, and so maybe this time, we don’t drill basics (like we meant to) and instead we teach that cool bunkai that they don’t need to know just yet.
When we grade them and let them scrape by, we teach them (and the rest of the dojo) that the bare minimum will do. We lower our standards and theirs, out of fear and misplaced compassion. No one wants to be the reason a kid quit martial arts forever. No one wants to hear that a student cried all the way home in the car.
Then we worry about pushback from parents. How dare we, this karate bum who doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, dare fail their child? Can’t we see how amazingly special they are?
“Teaching has become a push and pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as ‘too hard’ or ‘too frustrating’ for their children to endure” Parents, Let Your Kids Fail
Or, and this is much worse, seeing a parent pile on the abuse – “see, even Sensei knows how bloody lazy you are,” and then an unwanted conspiratorial wink as they drag the child out the dojo. What was meant to be a lesson in hard work and growth was turned into a humiliation no one asked for.
Of course we want to rescue them, sometimes. There are some kids that we wish to plead a case for: they have problems at home, or they have lots of homework. But if they’re not doing the work, and if there’s nothing physically challenging them, it does a disservice to the kids who do do the work and make the effort, but who are rewarded equally to the lazy kids. In saving one kid from themselves, we may be discouraging the ones who do the work and put in the time. Why make the effort, when Sloppy Joe still gets graded?
If you think they don’t notice, then you haven’t figured out that kids will spot the laws you’ve broken and call you out on it. It is the core root of why kids tattle and snitch. (That article, by the way, offers the best advice for ending the scourge of mini karate police officers in your dojo.)
I know I’m guilty of making excuses, usually because they’re a sweet kid who loves karate but not the hard work. I would miss them if they quit. But after all, it is my happy duty to forge better character through karate. Giving them a free pass creates the exact kind of spoilt brat (and useless adult) that we all dread. And if they quit, then maybe this journey just wasn’t for them, just as it isn’t for so many thousands of others.
But if they fail, and come back? Well, then that’s a job well done.