Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More Words of Wisdom from Tomorrow’s Leaders

Gabriel, a 9-year-old purple belt, became Tao of Texas Martial Arts’s newest Junior Leader today. As part of meeting all the requirements for this coveted position, he carefully and thoughtfully wrote the following essay on what makes a good leader:

“A leader shows a good example to other people. A leader helps people to achieve goals. A leader incourages people to do the right thing.

“A leader corrects you when you’re doing something wrong. A leader motivates you when you are discouraged. A leader shouldn’t discourage you. A leader should be very calm and polite. A leader corrects people very nicely.

“A leader tells people what to do very clearly. A leader does not critisize people. A leader does not lie to people. A leader does not cheat nor does he tell his students to cheat either.”

One word: WOW.

Gabriel's essay made me think of the many masters I've worked with over the years who sadly did not live up to the last two lines. It also made me wish the concepts he mentioned in his essay were standard operating procedures for Austin and Washington lawmakers.

This young man has a good head on his shoulders, a good heart in his body, and a brave, compassionate soul.

We need more young men like Gabriel walking this earth.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'Twas the Night Before Kung Fu...

New words to a holiday classic

‘Twas the night before Kung Fu, when all through the house
A creature was stirring, and it wasn’t a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
And, big surprise, a burglar decided to start there.

My children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sparring matches danced in their heads.
And mamma in her dobok, and I in my gi,
Crept down the stairs to surprise the bad-guy would-be.

When out in the living room there rose such a clatter,
I sprang from the hallway, prepared for blood splatter.
Toward the burglar I charged like a flash,
I hit and hit him. I literally kicked his a--.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave luster to his bruised cheeks from blow after blow.
When, what to my overwhelmed eyes should appear,
But a switchblade knife—pointed at me, “Oh dear!”

With my trusty Kung Fu, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment: “Don’t let that knife stick.”
More rapid than eagles his attacks, they came.
And he grunted, and shouted, and called me bad names!

“Get out of my way, or I’ll hurt you, old man!
“This isn’t the time to be a UFC fan!
“I’ll slice you real bad; I’ll throw you against the wall!
“Now get away! Back off! Before I cut you all!”

And then, in a twinkling, I remembered my form
A punch and a tiger claw—and I was reborn.
As I drew in my leg and threw out a kick,
Down to the floor the man went—and now he looked sick.

His eyes—how they dazed! His nose—how it bled!
His cheeks were all swollen! He had a cut on his head!
He drooled from the mouth and was curled up in a ball,
And the shock on his face told me: That was all.

The stump of a knife he held tight in his teeth,
And a bandana encircled his head like a wreath.
In the blink of an eye, he climbed out the window,
And on the lawn he fell in a noisy crescendo.

He ran to his car, to his Homies he whistled,
And away they all drove like an Iranian-bound missile.
But I heard him exclaim, as they screeched out of sight,
“You Kung Fu guys are crazy. But, man, can you fight!”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Learning That Playful Hitting is Still Hitting

I snipped off a red Spirit stripe from the white belt of a promising young student last week because he popped his elementary school buddy in the stomach too hard. Both students agreed they were playing, and that the hitting just got out of hand.

Still, this athletically gifted, quick-study 9-year-old had read and signed Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s Code of Conduct, which clearly states in boldface: CAUTION: Do not misuse the skills you learn in the dojang; use them only in real self-defense situations.”

There’s a reason that rule is there: I’m teaching young students to use their hands and feet as weapons that can hurt others. I’ve got to know they have enough self-control to not misuse their skills on a whim.

It’s truly hard to teach martial arts to children. One of the biggest reasons is because martial artists have to hold themselves up to a higher standard, and that means there are a lot of things that normal, everyday people of all ages can do that we cannot.

Like playing a rather innocent round of “Slug Bug.”

From time to time, I still grieve the fact that slug bug—a traffic game in which friends playfully punch each other in the arm the second they see a Volkswagen beetle roll by—is a luxury I can no longer afford.

After 18 years in the martial arts, I can knock someone into next week with my fist. That’s a wee bit too hard.

And honestly, if I expect my young students to respect the “no horseplay” and “no using Taekwondo outside class unless your life is in danger” rules, I can’t play this game ever again on principle. I must set the example.

I understand that no matter the intensity or intent, hitting is unacceptable. Still, it’s a hard concept for my white belt student to wrap his head around.

“But I didn’t hit him hard,” he said. “I didn’t know that was a Taekwondo strike.”

He showed me how he hit his classmate, demonstrating a knifehand side strike.

“That’s a Taekwondo strike,” I replied. “I’m teaching you how to use your hands and fists as weapons, so you can’t hit others. Period.”

“Do you understand?” I finally said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

Maybe not.

My young white belt has not returned to class.

In a martial arts teacher’s life, you win some (students/lessons/competitions) and you lose some. I’ve had to confront many other students regarding “playful” hitting, and most have come back to train and try again. The students who stick around—the ones who see the benefit of Taekwondo despite a self-control setback—always become stronger and more respectful, responsible, and confident young men and women in the end.

Will my young student take this lesson to heart and return to continue practicing our way of life?

More will be revealed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

10 Strategies to Deal with Bullies

[Part 6 in a series]

Oftentimes it takes a combination of actions to stop bullying. Below are tips I give my martial arts students to help deal with such situations.

1. Don’t retaliate. If a bully physically strikes you in any way, don’t hit back. If a bully says mean things, don’t top that with a hurtful comment of your own. This will only escalate and feed the bully's power. Instead, tell a friend, a teacher or an adult about the person and incident.

2. Walk away. Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s first rule of self-defense is to run away from dangerous situations. Walk away from anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable, whether the person is physically or verbally threatening. If the bully follows you, walk right up to a teacher—and just stand there.

3. Make a bully-buddy. One of my students recently told me that a classmate would stick his leg out to trip her as she walked by in the lunchroom. If this happens to you, find a “bully-buddy”—another student (or maybe several) to walk around with you. Bullies are less likely to target students who travel in pairs or groups. When challenged, many bullies will back down.

4. Avoid the bully. Another student recently said that she and her friend were scared of a boy who hovered around them and said hurtful things as they waited in the hallway for class. In this situation, the bully-buddy method wasn’t enough. Their solution? The girl and her friend began hanging out at a bench outside in the school courtyard; by class time, the boy was gone.

5. Think strong, stand tall. When confronted by a bully, think strong and stand tall. Imagine you are huge. Pretend you’re a super hero. Keep your chin up and shoulders back; and imagine that you’re wearing a cloak that doesn’t allow mean or hurtful words through.

6. “No! Stop!” If a classmate kicks or hits you, pulls your hair, cuts in line, or takes your possessions, say, “No! Stop!” as loud as you can, and then go tell a teacher what happened. This isn’t tattling. It’s called self-defense—and taking care of yourself.

7. Don’t believe everything you hear. Bullies love insults, and they have a way of pressuring otherwise nice classmates—even ones you thought were your friends—to laugh at you, or join in mocking gestures to try to make you feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, ashamed, and sad. Try a role-play game in which your mom or dad play the bully. Practice not believing mean things someone might say to you. Here’s an example of one I played with Peter, a smart, blond-haired, freckle-faced boy in my Taekwondo class.

“Peter, you have the most disgusting purple hair I’ve ever seen.”

He grinned. His classmates giggled.

“What are you smiling at?” I asked. “Your hair makes me want to throw up!”

He started to laugh. So did the rest of the class. “Why aren’t you upset, Peter?”

“Because it’s not true,” he said confidently. “I don’t have purple hair.”

“So what’s the difference in me saying something mean about your freckles? If you believe your freckles are beautiful, it doesn’t matter what I say. Right?”


“But let’s say you don’t think you’re good at math, and someone calls you
‘stupid.’ Then it hurts. Because you think it might be true.”

The class nods in silence. Some kids look down.

“The key is to know what’s true about you, and not be distracted by what’s not true. Love yourself for who you are—freckles, imperfect at math, and all. If others don’t ‘get’ you, their loss.”

8. Smile and nod. Bullies love to make you cry or see you be afraid. It’s a game for them. Don’t show that you’re hurt or scared. No matter what others say, smile and nod. It confuses bullies, and if they don’t get the reaction they seek, they’ll likely get bored and leave you alone.

9. Tell someone. It may be hard to speak up, but don’t be silent about bullies. Know that parents, teachers, and school counselors want to know about bullying, and that teachers are PAID not only to teach you math, English, science, and social studies, but also to ensure that you’re safe while in their care. It’s unfair—and can even be considered disrespectful—to not let them help you. Plus, your teachers may get in trouble with their boss, the principal, if you don’t let them help you.

10. Think outside the box. A parent told me that a bully had taken her son’s shoes one day at school and then threw them to his friends while her son chased after them. “If he takes your shoes again,” I told my student, “ask him to return them. If he doesn’t, don’t chase after him. That’s part of his game—to make you look silly running around. Instead, march right up to the teacher and tell her, ‘Excuse me, ma’am. Can I borrow a pair of shoes?’ When she finds out what happened to your shoes, trust me, she’ll handle it from there.” I explained that, technically, he wouldn’t be tattling on the bully; he’d simply be asking to borrow shoes.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bullying: Signs and Solutions

[Part 5 in a series]

How can you tell if your children or your friends are being bullied when they won’t admit it?

Watch for these signs in others:
• Feeling anxious or upset about going to school or getting on the school bus
• Complaining of feeling sick—especially with headaches and stomachaches—before school
• Crying before school
• Being unusually quiet
• Avoiding certain people at school
• Having lower self-esteem than usual
• Showing a drop in grades
• Coming home from school with torn clothes
• Having unexplained bruises
• Saying they lost a personal item but not wanting to talk about how it happened
• Not mentioning that a personal item has been broken
• Denying (with irritation) that anything’s bothering them

No matter how great a relationship you have with your children or friends, targets of bullying may be hesitant to reveal what’s going on. They may feel that admission makes them look weak, or they may believe the things others say about them and therefore don’t want to talk about it because they feel shame.

A low self-esteem is a prime give-away that something’s wrong at school.

If you suspect your children or friends are being bullied, be supportive. Tell them OFTEN:
• How much you care about them
• How important they are to you
• That they can tell you anything they’re experiencing at school without judgment
• That their peers are crazy if they don’t “get” them or don't think they’re the most terrific person in the world
• That they are perfect just the way they are

Ultimately, trust your instincts. Parents, if your gut tells you that you should intervene further, set up a meeting immediately with your children’s teacher, school counselor, or principal.

Friday, October 29, 2010

“I Was a Teenage Bully – and Didn’t Know It”

[Part 4 in a series]

Looking at my partner—a mature, responsible Lutheran Democrat who relays phone calls for the deaf and hard of hearing of Texas and volunteers every Saturday at a low-cost spay and neuter animal clinic—you’d never know she was a bully in school.

“Were you ever bullied?” I asked one night as I began preparing to write this series.

She paused, then said, “No, I was probably the bully.”

“Really?” I said with a surprised shriek.

She seemed equally surprised. She’d never thought much about it until all the stories of Phoebe Prince surfaced and we began to talk more about our individual school experiences.

I’ve always thought anyone with half a heart could spot a bully a West Texas mile away. Now I’m not so sure. And knowing my partner, I’m convinced that she is one of those people statistics cite who don’t realize just how hurtful and harmful their harassment is to their peers—who blow off their behavior as good, old-fashioned teasing.

Were you, or are you, a bully? Have your ridiculing words or physical actions caused others pain?

Let’s be clear: There ARE mean people in the world who find pleasure in hurting their peers. They know what they’re doing, and they do it with a powerful sense of gratification.

Studies indicate, though, that the majority of bullies were once victims of bullies themselves—many simply doing what was done to them without a second thought. Could the majority of bullies be truly that clueless about the impact of their actions? Could you have been a bully yourself and not even known it?

To find out, let’s all answer one of those dopey questionnaires. Ready? Have you ever:

• Hit, kicked, pushed, back-slapped, tripped a peer?
• Pulled someone's hair or spit at them?
• Called a peer names, or verbally ridiculed him or her in front of friends or before strangers in public?
• Mocked a person’s voice or walk, regardless of whether he or she was present?
• Knocked books out of a classmate’s arms?
• Taken property and refused to give it back—or made your peer do something humiliating and embarrassing to get the property back?
• Taken and purposefully broken someone’s property?
• Pressured others to join in on teasing or hitting someone?
• Alienated a peer from a social circle or group game?
• Threatened others so that they wouldn’t intervene on behalf of a bullied peer?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, sorry to break it to you, but you are, or have been, a bully.

It’s not too late, though, to change your behavior—to make amends. If you’re truly remorseful, here are some ideas on how to cleanse your karma:

• Apologize immediately for past behavior and DO NOT REPEAT that behavior again. If you say you’re sorry but repeat the same actions, it hurts your peers even more—and you lose integrity.
• The next time a peer is being criticized—unfair or not, present or not—say, “That’s bullying, and it’s no O.K. Not now, not ever.” Then walk away.
• Invite the targeted or alienated peer to join your group for lunch or to just sit and talk.
• If you’re in school, tell a teacher or counselor that a peer is being bullied, and that you’re concerned for his or her welfare.
• Avoid hanging out with peers who criticize others because they’re different, especially if they are intolerant of others based on race, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or disability.
• Forgive yourself for past wrongs.

Humans are incredibly resilient. Many grown adults have survived bullying in school. Some are stronger for it, but for many, it’s still a source of painful memories.

If you’ve been a bully in the past, talk to others who were bullied. Get real clear about the depth of damage your actions might have caused. Then share your realizations with others—especially the youth in the world—and use your experiences as a springboard to a more open dialogue on how to treat peers with respect.

It’s always the right time to make amends for past actions—to others and to yourself. All that is required is a sincere heart and a courageous spirit. You never know: People who have been bullied in the past, like me, might just need to hear a kind word from you today.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Memories of Being Bullied

[Part 3 in a series]

Every morning when I was in the second grade, I begged my mom to let me stay home from school.

When I was 8 years old, I was bullied.

Tears flowed from my eyes every day as I sobbed, “Mamma, I don’t wanna go to school!” My mother ignored me, diligently helping tie the shoelaces on my black and white track shoes. I had run out of stomachaches, headaches, and fake fevers. I had to go to school, and I dreaded it because I just didn’t want to face what kids would say to me another day.

From first grade until about ninth grade, I was teased for a variety of reasons. My peers said:
• I was gross. (Truth: I had a gum disease that caused my gums to spontaneously bleed. This drew the disgusted “Eews!” jeers of my classmates.)
• I wore ugly dresses. (Truth: The dresses were discount-store-bought cheap, but pretty. I wore them with black and white track shoes and knee-high white socks—a big fashion no-no, but, come on, I was just a kid.)
• I was a nerd. (Truth: I was book-smart, and I loved learning.)
• I was a teacher’s pet. (Truth: I thrived on pleasing authority figures—and still do.)

Students also mocked my last name with a similarly sounding Spanish slang phrase that was a gay slur.

I played the part of a super-stealth ninja for most of my time in school. I tried not to cry when kids said hurtful things because I learned that if they didn’t think they hurt my feelings, they lost interest and went on to bully someone else.

That worked until the sixth grade, when an older classmate threatened to beat me up after school—for no reason. Again, I was scared and didn’t want to go to school. But while I didn’t breathe a word about the bullies before, I did tell my mom about this girl. Mamma’s solution? Wear jeans and loop on my sister’s thick leather western belt.

"If that girl lays a hand on you," Mamma insisted, "you pull that belt off and whip her with it!"

I snuck around school, changing my routes to avoid the bully, and eventually she forgot about me. For the rest of the year, though, I had a whole new group of kids making fun of me and that big leather belt, calling me “Hee Haw Cathy.”

Eventually, around 10th grade, my peers stopped picking on me. I still excelled in academics, except by the time of my induction into the National Honor Society, being smart was considered an asset. My classmates could call me “nerd” all day long and it didn't matter: I knew I was bound for college. (Stick tongue out here.)

Today I’m a grown woman who still loves to read and has made a career out of working with words as a writer and editor. I also have much higher self-esteem and inner strength. Studying martial arts has been a true gift. It saddens me and makes me angry when I hear what comes out of the mouths of today's bullies. But today through martial arts, I have a chance to help youths build self-confidence as a way to combat the bullies I know they run into at school. I get to give them the words I never knew to speak and the courage I didn't yet have to stand up for themselves.

Surviving bullying IS NOT a rite of passage. Bullying is WRONG. No kid should have to grow thicker skin or toughen up so that they can weather classmates’ taunts and torture. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Until our judgmental and violent-prone culture changes, though, the best I can do is to pass on the following wisdom to those who still suffer the wrath of bullies:
Don’t listen to or believe your classmates’ hurtful words. The mean things a bully might say to you and about you aren’t true anyway. Imagine you’re Teflon cookware: Let nothing stick to you.
Stand up for yourself—and others. Repeat this simple mantra: “Bullying is not O.K.—not now, not ever!” Then walk away.
Stick with the winners. Find a good, solid group of peeps and stay close. Avoid those fair-weather friends who abandon you when the bully comes around or who join in on the bashing because they themselves are afraid of what the bully might do or say if they don’t.
Talk to someone. Don’t suffer in silence. Adults can and will help if you ask—even parents.
Give it time. Remember that school life doesn’t last forever. This, too, shall pass, so please hang in there.
Avoid taking bully-prevention fashion tips from your mother at all costs.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We Interrupt Our Series on Bullies for a Word on Peer Pressure

Another young man bit the character dust this week and suffered the unfortunate consequences of taking action on a bad idea. And it wasn’t even his.

Through aggressive intimidation or by the threat of being ostracized, peers can seemingly wave a Hollywood, Phoenix-feathered Harry Potter wand and make smart kids with low self-esteem do really dumb things. From name-calling to outright dares, peers-in-power have an uncanny ability to push the right social-status buttons to ensure that their insecure fellows act as powerless puppets.

For many elementary- to high school-age youths, it’s vital to look good on the outside—to be liked by their peers. (Heck, this is true for many adults.) However, that desperate need for acceptance oftentimes leads to lackluster decision-making.

Jake is the latest casualty of peer pressure gone wrong.

In my office after Taekwondo class earlier this week, Jake fidgeted while sitting in a cold metal folding chair. Long straight locks of brown hair fell onto his forehead, covering his eyes. His hands nervously rubbed his thighs. Finally he began telling me why he was suspended from high school and sent to an alternative learning center in town.

A couple of weeks ago, a classmate in Jake’s chemistry class bragged that he had brought alcohol to school in his water bottle.

“You don’t believe me?” the classmate asked.

“Nah, I don’t,” Jake said.

“Here. Take a drink then,” his classmate said, holding the water bottle out in the air.

Other classmates looked at Jake to see what he’d do.

Jake grabbed the bottle and took a sip. Right as Jake took the drink, school security officers entered the classroom and busted them both.

“Really?” I asked him after he finished his story. “You took a drink of something without knowing exactly what it was? In CHEMISTRY class?”

Jake nodded yes, then added, “Kind’a ironic.”

“I’ll say,” I replied, then paused. “Smart thing to do?"

“Nah,” he said, shaking his head and smiling weakly. He’d obviously been lectured on this topic already by his mom and dad.

Jake’s grades are good. By all appearances, he’s an intelligent, well-adjusted young man who doesn’t abuse legal or illegal substances. He knows it’s wrong to drink alcohol—anytime, anywhere—until he’s legally mature. So why did he do it?

“ ’Cause I didn’t believe him,” Jake said.

“You didn’t feel pressured?”

“Nah,” he insisted. Now I didn’t believe him.

We could have danced around the issue all night, and Jake probably wouldn’t have admitted that he was afraid of being called a “woosie boy” by his classmates, of being razzed for not having the guts to take a drink. So I had to work with what I was given.

“Learned a big lesson, did you?” I asked, feeling for a second as if I were channeling Yoda.

“Oh, yeah,” Jake insisted, his eyes growing large.

“Because I don’t know if you realize how lucky you were,” I said, leaning forward in my chair. “Whether it’s a friend who tries to get you to drink something or a stranger, you don’t know what’s really in stuff these days. There are so many designer drugs out there. You are really lucky you just had two weeks at The Rock. You could have been permanently physically or mentally scarred by a bad drug trip.”

I paused. He nodded silently. Our martial arts school is a drug-free zone, and anyone who violates the drug policy risks demotion or suspension. He waited to hear the consequences of his actions.

I pulled open the side drawer to my gray metal desk. It was filled with worn, multicolored belts.

“See these belts? These are all the belts I’ve taken away from students over the years for various reasons. One of these is from a young man who got into trouble with pot, came to Taekwondo, was doing really well, but then went to hang out with his drug buddies again one night. He turned in a bad UA (urinalysis) and I had to demote him.

“He knew he had a problem coming in. You’re different,” I said, pausing.

It’s at times like these that I pray for guidance—for the wisdom to know when to be gentle yet firm and when to practice forgiveness, patience, and compassion.

“I’m not going to demote you today,” I finally said, “but you have to be smarter about this kind of stuff, because next time, if you survive, your belt’s going in here,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, then immediately added, “Yes, ma’am.”

"I would hate to not have you as a student anymore, because you're physically talented and have tremendous Taekwondo potential. But in Taekwondo, we either learn to stand tall—to have the strength to follow our own path regardless of what others think—or we are left with pain, resentment, and regret."

He nodded, we bowed and shook hands, and he left. Now it's up to him.

Will Jake learn that “no” is an acceptable and oftentimes important response to peers’ pressure and dares?

More will be revealed.

Not the happily-forever-after ending to the story you’d like? The truth is peer pressure is a cunning, baffling, and powerful force to be reckoned with. The best I or anyone else can do is to live by example: to be a strong person of conviction who not only says no when I want to, but most importantly when I need to. The next best thing I can do is to help my students develop a higher level of self-esteem as a buffer—a halo of protection of sorts—so that they stay true to themselves, on a path of excellence. Only then can the next generation create the possibility of making choices that are right for them.

Only then can our children lead fruitful, fulfilling, and serene lives.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Standing Up to a Bully: A True Story

[Part 2 in a series]

Nine-year-old “Mark” couldn’t just stand there as a bully pulled a classmate’s pants down in the boys’ restroom. Mark intervened, telling the bully to stop. The bully immediately backed down and left the restroom.

Let’s be clear: Mark is not a big boy. He’s not aggressive. What makes this an extraordinary act is that he is a sweet, kind, and gentle young man who still has his own struggles with occasionally being the target of bullies. However, for some reason that day it was easier for him to stand up for his classmate than it has been to stand up for himself.

Standing up to a bully is hard enough for youths. Risking social backlash by defending a peer is harder. Even more difficult is telling an authority figure about the incident without feeling like a tattletale. Mark knew he should tell his teacher what happened because he had heard in Taekwondo class the week before that school officials need and want to know when students are being harassed.

Mark’s classmate was embarrassed about the incident and begged him not to tell their teacher. His friend didn’t want his teacher and peers knowing what happened, and also didn’t want the bully to retaliate for getting him in trouble. But Mark knew what he had to do.

“I didn’t want to hurt my friend, or make the bully mad,” Mark said later, “but I had to tell the teacher what happened.”

School officials later discovered that Mark’s classmate was not the only boy the bully had targeted. At least a dozen students later admitted that the bully had pulled or tried to pull their pants down, too. The bully was disciplined, and Mark and his friend haven’t had a problem with him since.

As a result of his courageous actions, Mark was named Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s 2009 Student of the Year. His courage and commitment to using Taekwondo in a positive way – embodying the tenets of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit – set a mighty high bar for those who follow.

It’s not easy to confront a bully, especially when someone else is the target. Could you do it? Would you?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bullying a Heartbreaking Pandemic

[Part 1 in a series]

My heart broke last week when a parent told me about his son, who every morning cried, screamed, and pleaded for his dad to let him stay home from school. He was afraid of a bully.

“(Jay) is just totally scared of going to school,” the dad said. “I’m emailing and calling the principal and his teacher. The only thing he tells us is that other kids call him ‘stupid’.”

I’ve taught children and teens Taekwondo for 11 years. If I had a dime for every time I heard a heartbreaking story of a student being bullied or an adult recalling a painful, peer-bashing trauma from childhood, I’d be richer than Bill Gates and Oprah combined – on the cover of my own Fortune 1 magazine.

The Karate Kid was a box-office hit this summer, but for many U.S. youths, school bullies are not the fiction of Hollywood movies. They are emotionally unsettling realities.

The problem didn’t start with six Massachusetts teens accused of bullying 15-year-old freshman Phoebe Prince to suicide in January. Bullies torment millions of U.S. youths every year and incidents are commonplace in school hallways, lunchrooms, locker rooms, playgrounds and gym class.

Consider the following statistics from recent government surveys and reports:
• Bullying occurs in 21 percent of U.S. elementary schools, 43 percent of middle schools, and 22 percent of high schools.
• Fifty-two percent of U.S. students witness bullying at least once a week.
• Sixty-six percent of U.S. students are teased or bullied at least once a month.
• An estimated 160,000 children miss school every day because they fear bullies.

Who gets the brunt of bullying? Sixth-graders were bullied more often than any other school-age group, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education report. Bullies also frequently target classmates based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.

If these statistics trouble you, think about the percentage of bullying that goes unreported. I know from experience that youths are tight-lipped about being bullied. They’re ashamed to admit it, and oftentimes will keep quiet until either the pain is unbearable or parents or other adults find out by accident.

For example, a mom of one of my students came to her son’s elementary school to bring him lunch one day and saw him circled by his classmates on the playground. They had tackled him, taken his shoes, and were playing keep-away. Her son chased after his shoes in vain. It was only then that he admitted to her that one of the boys had been bullying him for weeks.

One of the most common reasons parents bring their children to train with me is to learn self-defense.

“He gets picked on at school,” they say. “We want her to learn to stand up for herself.”

I oblige. It’s my job. Unfortunately, bullies keep me in business. Why?

Turn on a cable news program and listen to how pundits debate each other. Watch news footage of a political rally. Be a fly on the wall while an adult drives in rush-hour traffic. Watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Any City, U.S.A., where women are celebrated for berating each other. Some Americans are culturally invested in judging and ridiculing each other, and our kids see it. They mimic it. And some think nothing of the feelings they hurt, or are unconscious of the power of their harsh words.

While reality TV housewives might be able to dish out and receive insults unfazed, our 6-, 10-, and 15-year-olds don’t yet have the self-esteem or life skills to defend against such taunts and torture – to ignore the unfair and oftentimes unfounded criticism from peers.

How can we stop this unconscionable behavior?

At its core, bullying represents a lack of respect for others. If children and adults diligently practice respect, we can cure this social plague. But adults must first change their own judgmental tendencies, because children learn more from their parents about how to interact socially than anyone else.

As a teacher, I rely heavily on Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s 10-point character development system called Basic Rules to Live By. My students understand that rule No. 10 – “We must respect our teachers and peers at all times” – is non-negotiable. If they violate this rule, they risk losing rank.

They are rewarded, however, for showing respect. One of my elementary-age students was named 2009 Student of the Year at Tao of Texas MAI because he intervened on behalf of a classmate who was being bullied.

To ensure that girls like Phoebe Prince graduate from high school and have a chance at a long, healthy and happy life, we must find ways to make respect for others more attractive than wielding power over peers.

Will Tao of Texas MAI’s mission to promote self-respect and respect for others in every child, one child at a time, one day at a time work? I have hope.

Jay may have hope, too. As it turns out, his elementary school has a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. The day his dad reported the incident, counselors talked to Jay, then to one particular boy, then to both of them together. The bully was told that his behavior was unacceptable and that there would be consequences if it continued.

Jay still resists going to school in general, but his dad says this week it has more to do with a scary spelling test than a threatening classmate.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Black Mark on Their Belt is a Good Thing

Nothing motivates my young students more than small, half-inch-wide pieces of electrical tape. These sticky, glossy, self-esteem tools help me challenge them, and ultimately celebrate great triumphs in character development.

As part of my Taekwondo youth program, I award a variety of colored stripes (electrical tape) to students to mark progress within their belt rank. A yellow stripe is for good punches, blocks, and hand strikes; orange is for outrageously great kicks; green is for powerful and graceful forms/patterns; purple is for simple yet effective self-defense techniques; and blue is for high-endurance sparring. Red is awarded when the student shows great fighting spirit. That one isn't awarded every day. Even more rare, though, is the black stripe. This stripe indicates above and beyond the mat progress in character – and is easily one of our hardest stripes to earn.

Yesterday, I gave one of those coveted character-development “black stripes” to a 7-year-old student who brainstormed with his parents on a personal trait he wanted to change – and for one week he did it!

This young yellow belt unknowingly started a trend, for as soon as I got home, I received the following email from another parent whose two white belt sons were now eager to work on a longstanding self-discipline issue.

“They were intrigued when you mentioned in class doing a home (character) challenge,” the mom wrote. “They have both been having a hard time (trying to break a bad habit) and they would both like to try to (stop) for one week. If they succeed in this, would it be possible for them to get some recognition in class?”

How fabulous is that?

My answer was to fire off an email to students young and old, challenging everyone to commit to changing one thing – a thorn in their side, something that eats their lunch – for one week.

I’m excited, because I know they’ll all work hard to persevere through tough obstacles – and they’ll feel great about themselves afterward.

Here’s how it works:

With their parents, students choose from one of the suggested challenges below – or make up their own. (The character trait practiced is in parenthesis.)

Sample challenges:
• Listen to your parents: Reply yes/no, sir/ma’am and take immediate action without complaint (respect)
• Do your homework without complaint (responsibility)
• Eat all your vegetables (self-care)
• Take baths without complaint (good hygiene/self-care/self-respect)
• Break a habit that’s harmful/hurtful (self-care/self-respect/self-discipline)
• Brush your teeth before bedtime without complaint (good hygiene/self-care/self-respect)
• Go to bed at the assigned time without complaint (respect/self-care)
• Get dressed and ready for school ON TIME (responsibility)
• Be nice to your teachers and peers (respect)
• Be nice to your siblings (respect)
• Clean your room and keep it clean (good hygiene/self-respect)
• Do your chores without being asked/reminded (responsibility/integrity)
• Take on a new household chore and follow through (initiative/integrity/maturity)

How would your kids, nieces, or nephews do at any of the above? What challenges could YOU work on to set an example for your kids regarding the importance of building better character every day?

• Call your parents just to say hello (respect/compassion/love)
• Don’t complain about your boss/co-workers (respect)
• Break a habit that’s harmful/hurtful (focus/self-care/self-respect/self-discipline)
• Avoid judging your neighbors (love/compassion)
• Pay your bills on time (responsibility)
• Don’t spread gossip (respect/integrity)
• Be nice to your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend regardless of whether you’ve had your morning coffee (respect/patience)
• Don’t yell or honk the horn at other drivers in traffic (patience/self-control)
• Listen to others’ views without interrupting (respect)
• Don’t call [fill in name of your least-favorite lawmaker] names (respect)
• Live within your financial means (responsibility)
• Don’t yell at the kids (patience/self-control)
• Don’t hit “send” on that snippy email (respect/self-control)

I’ll admit that the piece of black electrical tape my young students work so hard for is not attractive to an adult. But how about this: For any adult who takes on a character challenge and succeeds, I’ll offer a free week of Taekwondo classes. Simply email me your challenge for approval to

That young yellow belt probably has no idea what he and his parents started, but I’m excited to see where this goes – to see the growth of a group of students that surely will result from this challenge.

My gut tells me I should check to see when Home Depot closes today. I suspect I’m going to need a lot more black electrical tape….

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Growing Pains of a Small Dojang

Growing pains.

They hurt – but it’s a good thing when they’re the result of high-class problems.

My young students experience mental and physical growing pains on a daily basis. The biggest physical growth spurts happen over the summer, when they literally grow in their sleep overnight. They complain that their feet hurt, their bones and muscles ache, and they’re tired a lot more than usual. I tell them that it’s a normal part of growing up, and remind them not to be too grumpy with and sassy to their parents. They usually oblige.

Sometimes martial arts schools have growth spurts, too.

Looking around the dojang mat yesterday, I realized that now that fall is here, I have a brand new crew of students. We have a huge influx of white belts who are uber excited and motivated to work hard learning Taekwondo.

Problem is there are A LOT of them.

During yesterday’s youth class, the white belts packed the mat with the more experienced upper belts, all of them forming a sea of white uniforms with rainbow-like colored belts around their waists. Everyone kihapped loud, perspired, and worked hard.

The energy was very powerful.

Almost too powerful.

Bordering on frenetic.

As we bowed out, I knew I needed to meditate on finding a solution to make the student-teacher ratio more manageable. The solution option that struck me immediately, though, freaked me out.

Today, I’ve got an eerie feeling lurking – with the customary “Twilight Zone” theme music playing in the background – because I now remember a dream I had years ago, before there was an inkling of an idea to run a martial arts school:

I am in the front office of my school when a tall, lanky, balding man walks in.

It’s early fall, or late summer. It’s not too hot. There’s a slight breeze, and the sun is shining brightly through our glass doors.

I am in full uniform, but class hasn’t started yet.

“Welcome. Can I help you?” I ask.

“Yes,” the man says. “I’d like to sign my daughter up for martial arts classes.”

“Well thank you for visiting our dojang,” I reply. “We’re filled to capacity right now and have a waiting list. You’re welcome to add your daughter’s name to the list, and as soon as a spot opens up, I’ll give you a call. Feel free to watch a class while you’re here.”

Wow. That’s what yesterday was about. We’ve hit our limit. And it’s definitely a high-class problem. While I hate to turn students away, I need to attentively teach the ones already on the mat.

It’s all about practicing Basic Rules to Live By No. 10: Respect your teachers and peers (classmates) at all times.

The disrespectful thing to do with my students is to pack them in like sardines – many schools actually think this is a GOOD thing – and not care whether they learn solid, quality martial arts.

But I DO care that they learn something. I do want to have a personal relationship with my students. I don’t want there to be so many that I can’t remember their or their parents’ names.

Since I’m not out to get rich off of teaching martial arts, I’m starting to get that it’s O.K. to have boundaries and limits regarding how many students I believe I can effectively teach at one time.

And that’s my growing pain for the day.

A high-class problem indeed.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tom Brokaw Would Love Tao of Texas

When I teach my students how to break pinewood boards, I often emphasize the importance of setting an intention – a visualization of their foot or hand going through the board. I remind them that setting an intention is a spiritually powerful exercise that can be applied to any of life’s situations and dilemmas, oftentimes with freakishly effective results.

Today I realize how my own lessons in setting intentions have impacted the school’s bottom line. In the grand scheme of things, if you ask legendary television newscaster Tom Brokaw, it’s a good thing. But it’s sure made for a hard business road less traveled.

Dial back time to October 2005: I’m sitting in a Denny’s restaurant with my partner at about 5 a.m. because neither of us could sleep. While we’re waiting for our breakfast, I grab a napkin and start writing a mission statement for a martial arts school that hasn’t opened yet.

“We are committed to:
• Helping children and adults of all ages and sizes become physically fit through the art of Taekwondo – and thereby become healthier people.
• Helping attention-challenged children learn to focus so that they can succeed in school – and in life.
• Giving at-risk youth powerful, character-rich role models and a place to work out aggression – and thereby build a greater sense of self-worth and respect for others.
• Giving women and children a safe place to learn self-defense – and to feel secure in their home and world.
• Giving everyone – regardless of age, race, gender, beliefs, or lifestyle – the opportunity to gain mental, physical, and spiritual strength, and as a result, make the world a better place.”

Almost five years later, we have accomplished every one of our intentions – including one that I never wrote down: “Making a difference trumps making money.”

This is the one intention that set the biggest tone for the school.

When I opened Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute, I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew why. When my grandmaster decided to close his Taekwondo school, his students looked to me. At the time, I was just a fledgling youth instructor.

“Where are we going now, Ms. Chapaty?” they asked.

So I shrugged, said, “O.K.,” and became a chief instructor. Why? I felt obligated to help them continue their training – and I’m a people pleaser.

My students and I kicked around at a local YMCA for about 18 months before my partner found this little funky double-garage-door space in Central Austin. The building had foundation problems, flooding issues, and NO air conditioning, but it was the most affordable place we could find in a somewhat affluent, easily accessible area.

“It’s perfect (for a school),” she said. So I shrugged, said, “O.K.,” and became a school owner. Why? My students, their parents, my partner, and my friends thought I would make a great school owner. They caught me at a weak, codependent moment. So I signed for a $10,000 start-up loan, poured in all the money I had from my savings account, and gave it a shot.

You may have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned the desire to own and run a martial arts business.

That’s because I didn’t.

Regardless, my friends and I painted walls, hung sheetrock, attached mirrors to walls, and laid down 1-inch-thick mats over spray-painted concrete floors (the building’s prior tenant was a custom sign shop).

I didn’t have a clue regarding how to run a business, and, honestly, I really didn’t want to know either – which put a lot of pressure on me to figure out how I was going to make this business thingy work without it being too much of a business thingy.

Thankfully, along the way, many offered support. Friends, mentors, and colleagues made suggestions regarding how I could make a buck.

Some of their suggestions were no-brainers. Others felt too confining. While I tried not to be too stubborn (the opposite extreme of perseverance), some suggestions felt like putting on a coat that not only didn’t fit, but itched, and made me look like someone I wasn’t.

One day, I spoke to a martial arts consultant, and I was shocked and appalled at his recommendations that I:

• Charge the market rate of $125 per month for tuition. (Was he comparing my students to "The Day's Catch" at a seafood restaurant?)
• Charge more for rank exams, and charge an increasing amount for each higher rank.
• Hold more frequent exams.
• Let some students test (and pass) even when they’re not quite proficient because they’ll catch up later.
• Charge a monthly fee for locker use.
• Begin a Black Belt Club and charge extra for membership.
• Begin a Leadership League and charge extra for membership.
• Shorten class times and reserve the last 15 minutes of the hour for students who join a Special Training group and … you got it, charge extra for membership.

Overall, his suggestions didn’t feel right in my GUT (my acronym for “God’s Unique Talk), which I rely on heavily to maintain personal integrity.

It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He was just trying to help me make money. He had no idea – no one knew – that my unspoken, Denny’s-enacted intention put me in direct conflict with running a school that focused solely on maintaining a high profit margin.

Right or wrong, good or bad, I tossed that consultant’s advice out our double garage doors and did it my way, vowing to:

• Not incur new debt (besides the start-up loan), ensuring that the business paid for itself and lived within its means
• Not draw a salary until we had a prudent, three-month emergency reserve of all bills (we haven’t reached that mark yet)
• Continue working at my part-time day job to pay my personal bills until the school could afford me a salary (I'm still working that job)
• Not hold back certain information, lessons, or programs just because students or their parents couldn’t afford to be a part of an added-expense Black Belt Club
• Create a Junior Leaders program and make its membership contingent on whether students put in a required number of volunteer assistant teaching hours rather than paid more money in tuition per month
• Let people pay half-tuition if that’s all they could afford
• Start a scholarship program, and when the coffers occasionally dried up let those students continue to train

One day in Year 3, my partner turned to me and said the obvious: “You’re never going to make any money from this school, are you?”

“Probably not,” I replied.

“I didn’t think so,” she said, and we both nodded our heads in acceptance.

Almost five years later, the start-up loan is paid off and the school is supporting itself. I’m not much more than a penny wealthier from a financial perspective than the day we opened, but I'm FILTHY RICH with students whose personal growth and transformations are valuable beyond monetary measure, such as:

• A kid learning the value of telling the truth
• A brother learning how to be more patient – and thereby having a better relationship – with his annoying little sister
• A parent of an ADHD child breathing a sigh of relief and seeing a ray of hope because her son is finally able to focus on anything for five seconds
• A recovering alcoholic/addict healing from a childhood of violence through the art of safe and controlled sparring
• A woman who has never thought of herself as strong (much less an athlete) doing 100 jumping jacks, 30 sit-ups, and 30 push-ups – and living to tell about it
• A kid who now enjoys going to school because he’s heard often enough to “smile and nod” (what I call Verbal Aikido) when a bully says mean things to him
• A young girl who on her first day of Taekwondo class came in with bangs covering her eyes and head pointing to the floor who now confidently sits back straight, head high as first chair oboe in her high school band

I wouldn’t change the above for the world. Today I know that I’m a gifted youth martial arts instructor with a knack for working with ADD/ADHD populations and that I’ve had a tremendous impact on others.

That's priceless, and that's all I've wanted to do.

Which is why I think Tom Brokaw would like Tao of Texas. He once said: “It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.”

Here, here!

Brokaw’s words are like a validating, comfortable, warm, and worn coat that feels right wearing. I haven’t been trying to make a buck. I’ve been trying to make a difference, and that’s why running Tao of Texas MAI – where I’ve valued helping people grow mentally, physically, and spiritually more than attaining monetary gain – has been such a financial struggle at times but at the end of the day also a tremendously rewarding experience.

Has the school been a success? By martial arts industry standards: Nope. In the grand spiritual scheme of things: YES. Today, though, it’s pretty obvious that I have no business running a business. I’m terrible at it. I’m miserable in it. Someone else who has less of a problem dealing with the whole “making money in martial arts” should do it – and maybe I should work for them.

I love to teach, so I’m going to let those who dream of owning martial arts schools step in while I return to doing what I love and do best anyway: impacting lives through Taekwondo.

Will I ever negotiate an internal peace treaty between money and mentoring through martial arts in general? I must, if I’m to realize mental, physical, spiritual, and financial balance. Everyone should be compensated for a job well done. That's why today I’m setting a new intention – and this time I’m not hiding it:

I will focus my energies on mentoring others through Taekwondo, and I will be generously compensated (through monetary and spiritual means) for my efforts.

Now that’s a coat that fits me perfectly.

Open-Air, Open Eyes

Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute is an open-air dojang. Although we have a small air conditioner we use occasionally, it doesn’t work very well, so the majority of the time we end up throwing open the garage doors, turning on a gazillion fans, and training till our doboks are drenched.

Open-air training has become rare in most modern martial arts schools (especially in Texas), but it has been a vital element of how we build mental, physical, and spiritual strength and perseverance at Tao of Texas.

First, it helps everyone feel closer to nature. Hot and cold breezes blow in. Leaves slowly and softly drift to the ground in the fall. Tree limbs sway and swish year-round. Birds chirp. It’s all right outside our white, metal garage doors.

Second, we sweat a lot – I mean A LOT – which forces students to hydrate and take care of their bodies. They drink more water, which helps all their organs function at optimum levels. They learn nifty little statistics, such as, "When you're thirsty, you're already 40% dehydrated."

In this age of obesity in America, one might think students training in an open-air dojang in the height of summer IN TEXAS would have yet another excuse not to exercise. On the contrary. I see just the opposite. Summer training presents an odd challenge. A badge of courage and perseverance of sorts. No matter the temperature, there are those who will not buckle. No matter the weather, someone always shows up for class.

Third, when we sweat and tire, it challenges us to remain in the discomfort of the moment, to notice it – but not run away from it (through drugs, alcohol, food, etc.). I’ve learned that discomfort is often a temporary condition, and I tell my students to let it be until it isn’t anymore.

“This, too, shall pass,” I remind them, adding that when things get hard – in Taekwondo as in life – to remember that the only constant in life is change.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Benefits of Respecting Others

My all-time favorite task as a martial arts teacher is proudly wrapping a new belt around the waist of a deserving student or adding a hard-earned stripe to the well-worn belt of someone who shows progress and fighting spirit. But where there’s a yin, there’s a yang, and that means sometimes I have to later demote those same students for a variety of character-related mistakes. The main violation for kids involves a lack of respect. Siblings are usually the targets. Anger is oftentimes the source.

One time, I bumped a student from probationary black belt all the way down to white belt for bopping his sister on the head with a bo. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do as an instructor. I was afraid that this kid – a really great student in so many ways – would not return to train. But I knew that if I didn’t help him learn a lesson in self-control now, I’d be setting a Taekwondo Tasmanian devil out onto an unsuspecting world later.

After a long talk about "Star Wars" and the dangers of going over to the "dark side" of martial arts, that boy did return. Today he is a 19-year-old second-degree black belt and sophomore at Yale University.

When students misuse their Taekwondo skills, belt demotion is oftentimes automatic, but some students benefit more from telling me (and themselves) what went wrong and what to do right the next time.

The following is a short essay one of my students wrote regarding why it might be a good idea to treat his sister with respect.

Why treating my sister better can benefit me
“If I treat my sister better, then I do not have to get into trouble with my parents. It also will make my sister want to be nicer to me. Like when I was nice to her and she let me play with her brand new toy. I feel good when I am nice to her, but I only feel bad when I am mean to her. Also, if I want her to respect me and my rules about my room and my toys, then I should respect her as well.

“Also, if I keep doing this to my sister, then I cannot study Taekwondo anymore. Taekwondo is helping me a lot with self-control, which is helping me act better to my sister. It is also helping me with my endurance, strength, and self-confidence.” – E.A., age 10

So my question of the day is this: How can treating YOUR siblings with respect benefit YOU?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mantra Magic

The following is a mantra one of my students said to mentally prepare for one of the toughest tests yet of her Taekwondo life:

I will be nervous, but I will get on the mat.
I will sweat, but I will keep fighting.
I will get tired, but I will throw one more kick.
I will want to quit, but I will throw one more punch.
I will mess up, but I will move on.
I will be the strongest, fastest, and best fighter I can be.

To read her full blog entry, visit:

Have I said yet this week that I LOVE my job?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Potty Training as the First Step in the Thousand-Mile Journey

Tiny Texans is our entry-level class for students ages 3-6.

You read that right: 3 years old.

They are an eager, excited, and gut-busting, hilarious group. Honestly, at that age, it’s downright impossible to teach them true Taekwondo. And while I do teach these students a little kicking and punching (always emphasizing that they don’t kick and punch ANYONE ANYWHERE unless they’re in uniform at the Dojang with a paddle in front of them), I mostly focus on developing body awareness and listening skills, and improving balance, body coordination, and respect for others. The kids love it and we have a lot of fun together.

Their parents love the class, too – not only because I wear out their children (who after class are tired and don’t fuss so much when it’s time for bed), but also because I introduce and reinforce basic yet important rules to follow at home:

• Say “yes, ma’am” to Mommy and “yes, sir” to Daddy
• Brush your teeth when you’re told
• Don’t argue about taking baths
• Be nice to your baby sister and brother
• Never lie

From the wooden benches in our spectator section, toddlers of past and current Tiny Texans watch and eagerly wait for the day they’ll get the chance to get out on the mat and kick and punch. But just because they turn 3 doesn’t mean they automatically gain admission to Tiny Texans. They also know that before they can join my class, they must be able to:

1. Follow instructions
2. Pay attention during the entire class
3. Not pee on my mat

No. 3 is non-negotiable.

So I had to smile and chuckle this morning when I received the following email from an excited parent whose pistol of a child had a recent breakthrough:

“Guess who’s potty trained? That’s right! As soon as he got it 100%, he said, ‘Now I can do martial arts!’ He is 3 (years old) now, so can we try it out for September?”

God, I love my job….

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Black Belt Candidate Pep Talk

It's an honor to be a teacher, to give students tools for self-improvement (planting the seeds of strength and self-esteem) and then patiently wait and watch them grow. Some stretch tall. Some expand wide. Others fly to incredible heights.

It's quite an accomplishment for a student at ANY age to take a black belt exam in ANY martial art. And I've learned the hard way that a good instructor knows when to be tough and when to be supportive. That's especially important during the last few days of Black Belt Test Month. During this important time, when the student is on the verge of completing a rite of passage years in the making, there is no time for stern lectures or admonishments. Now, a good instructor pours on the love, support, and encouragement.

Below is the last piece of advice I give students about to face their BLACK BELT TESTS.

But you don't have to be a black-belt-in-waiting to benefit. Read it and ask yourself, "Who in MY life needs to hear good, supporting, loving words from ME today?"

(Don't be surprised if that person is YOU.)


Dear Black Belt Candidates,

Right about now, you're probably feeling a whirlwind of emotions: fear, excitement, gratitude, nausea. You may even feel frustrated, angry, and impatient. Maybe you're wishing the test were already over so that you can relax. Well, you CAN relax in a way: Everything you’re feeling is normal. (Wink.)

Black Belt Test Month can be a highly charged, emotional experience. It's the culmination of years, months, weeks, days, hours, and minute-by-minute honing of a myriad martial arts and self-defense skills. You’ve huffed and puffed, and sweated bullets. You’ve downed millions of gallons of water and bottles of Gatorade to stay hydrated. You’ve given and taken hits to the stomach, kidneys, ribs, head, chest, and even some shots below the belt, and you’ve gotten back up, shaken off the cobwebs, and continued.

Check it: The kind of mental, physical, and spiritual work you've been doing doesn't just come and go unnoticed.

You've learned a great deal in your time with me, and I want you to know today that I'M SO PROUD OF YOU I CAN HARDLY STAND IT! I'm your greatest fan and will be rooting for you as you walk the gauntlet in your individual rites of passage.

Now, though, is your turn to pump yourselves up. A positive mental condition is essential to succeed in this endeavor – and amid life’s greatest challenges. Find a quiet spot somewhere in the house. Take a walk in the park or find a quiet hiking trail to explore. Spend some quality time every day between now and the test to quiet the body, mind, and heart and fill yourselves with positive affirmations.

Remember the following:
• You're mentally, physically, and spiritually stronger than your FIRST day in class.
• You can kick faster and harder than you did as a white belt.
• Your stamina and endurance (no matter WHERE it is today) is FAR BETTER than it was when you began this journey.
• You did that one extra pushup, sit-up, kick, and punch when you didn’t think you could – and you can do it again.
• OMG, you can BREAK BOARDS with your hands and feet! How many people in the school you attend, the office at which you work, or the grocery store in which you shop can say the same?
• Since you began your training, hundreds of students have bowed onto the mat, bowed off the mat, and ultimately quit, and even more advanced belts have avoided this daunting challenge. YOU REMAIN. That alone says a lot about your level of perseverance and fortitude.
• I told you to keep coming back, to suit up and to show up one day at a time – that that is what really turns a white belt into a black belt. You heard me, and you’ve been coming back FOR YEARS. Not surprisingly, your white belt has slowly darkened and is on the verge of becoming black.

There is so much for which to be grateful, so take stock in the next few days. Give a little thanks to those folks who’ve supported you along the way – parents, children, teachers, co-workers, even (and especially) your BFFs on Facebook.

Remember that not everyone in the world wears a black belt because this is HARD WORK. Martial arts pushes you physically. It pushes your mental buttons. It challenges your spirit. It makes you look yourself in the mirror, and ask the hard question: “Am I happy/satisfied with who I am?” If the answer is no, martial arts gives you the tools to transform yourself into the person you’ve always dreamed of being.

This has not been an easy road you have trudged. The journey has been long and hard. But you’re on the cusp of a very important milestone.

So go forth today with confidence, humility, and grace. Do your best on the test. Leave it all out on the mat. Let your performance be the bar you set for how you live your life from now on.

Most importantly, BREATHE...

Your greatest fan,
Cathy Chapaty

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Flimsy Fist Learns to Punch

The following fable was inspired by a real student.

ONCE UPON A TIME in a town called Practice, Practice lived a young man named Flimsy Fist. Flimsy Fist was born in the nearby village of Neglectville, where he lived with his brother and angry parents. His mother and father beat him so bad that the State had to take Flimsy Fist and his brother away from his parents. After living in one foster home after another, Flimsy Fist was finally invited to live with two kind and loving monks who were committed to helping him heal from his physical and emotional wounds.

Although Flimsy Fist now lived in a safe and loving sanctuary, he still suffered from fear and low self-esteem. He didn’t think the two monks would actually let him live with them forever. He thought that any day now they would kick him out—or kick him around, just like his parents. He longed to feel brave and strong, but he didn’t know how.

Only one thing made Flimsy Fist feel better.

Every day on the walk home from school, Flimsy Fist stopped at a local martial arts school. He’d peer into the windows and watch as the students punched, blocked, and kicked like battle-ready samurais. He wanted the courage they had, but he was too afraid to ask how they got it. Besides, he thought he was too weak for martial arts.

One day, Flimsy Fist was especially awed by the student warriors, so much so that he didn’t notice that the master instructor, Fighting Spirit, was standing right next to him by the window. Fighting Spirit was well known in Practice, Practice for his physical strength, mental toughness, and peaceful spirit. He produced the town’s most powerful and promising leaders.

“Hello, son,” Fighting Spirit said in a deep, gentle voice.

Flimsy Fist looked up, eyes wide, not knowing what to say. He managed to eek out a weak, “Hi.”

“What is your name?” the master asked.

“My name is Flimsy Fist,” the boy mumbled.

“Hmm, interesting name,” Fighting Spirit said.

The master instructor stood before Flimsy Fist with his hands cupped together behind his waist. The teacher’s huge body blocked the afternoon sun, producing a halo effect around his head.

“You come here every day,” Fighting Spirit said, “but you never come in. Today, why don’t you come in for a lesson?”

Flimsy Fist’s face lit up, but he was afraid to show his excitement. “O.K. I guess,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“No, not O.K.,” Fighting Spirit said.

Flimsy Fist looked confused.

“Lesson No. 1,” Fighting Spirit said, holding up his forefinger. “When presented with an opportunity, do not decide beforehand whether you can succeed. Simply say, ‘Yes, sir or yes, ma'am!’ and try your best,” Fighting Spirit said.

“Oh, O.K. … I mean, yes, sir!” Flimsy Fist said excitedly.

With that, Fighting Spirit opened the door for the boy to enter the training hall. When Flimsy Fist walked into the dojo, he was overcome with calmness. The dojo was big and bright. U.S., Japanese, and South Korean flags hung above a long line of mirrors, as did a rainbow of belts. Before the long line of mirrors, students kicked and punched with a force Flimsy Fist had never felt watching from the window outside. Their energy was electric, and Flimsy Fist wanted to feel powerful just like them.

“Ready to train?” Fighting Spirit asked.

“Yes, sir!” Flimsy Fist said in a loud, confident voice.

“Excellent!” Fighting Spirit said. “Now you’re getting it.”

Fighting Spirit took Flimsy Fist in a corner of the room, teaching him how to make a firm fist: curling the first joints of the fingers, then curling the joints a second time, then pulling the thumb over the forefinger and middle finger to lock in the fist.

Flimsy Fist immediately felt strong, like he could punch through a brick wall. But when Fighting Spirit held out a target and told Flimsy Fist to hit it with the first two knuckles of his fist, his punch was weak. Flimsy Fist hit the target hard, but he didn’t keep his fist tight and he hurt his hand.

“Lesson No. 2,” Fighting Spirit said. “Always make a firm fist before striking.”

“Yes, sir,” Flimsy Fist said, feeling a little embarrassed.

“Do not be discouraged,” Fighting Spirit said. “Focus and try again.”

Fighting Spirit presented the target pad and Flimsy Fist struck it again, this time with a more firm fist.

“Good!” Fighting Spirit said. “Now, again. Punch.”

Pow! Flimsy Fist hit the target again, this time a little harder than before.

“Great!” Fighting Spirit said. “Again.”

“But I already did it,” Flimsy Fist said. “I want to learn something else.”

“Learn to do this well first,” Fighting Spirit ordered.

“But I already did,” Flimsy Fist said, beginning to get frustrated and teary-eyed.

Flimsy Fist hung his head. Although he wanted to be strong and powerful like the other students, he didn’t realize how they became fierce. He didn’t realize that they had become strong and powerful only after spending many hours, days, weeks—even years—practicing the same blocks, kicks, and punches over and over. It had been so easy for Flimsy Fist to watch them train through the window; fantasizing about being strong was so much nicer than putting in the hard work necessary to actually be strong.

Fighting Spirit had worked with similar students before. He knew Flimsy Fist must have had a hard life so far, but he also knew that because he had lived through such a hard time that Flimsy Fist could be strong. Fighting Spirit would have to find the right words to help Flimsy Fist understand the value of practice, practice, practice.

The next day, Flimsy Fist returned to the school, ready to try again.

“Flimsy Fist, what made the Grand Canyon beautiful?” Fighting Spirit asked when the boy walked in the door.

Flimsy Fist didn’t know, and was afraid to answer incorrectly. He silently shrugged his shoulders.

Finally, Fighting Spirit said, “Water.”

Flimsy Fist nodded that he understood, but he didn’t. A second later, he asked, “But how can water make something so pretty?”

“Because water is strong,” Fighting Spirit said.

Again, Flimsy Fist didn’t understand. “How can water be strong?” the boy asked. “It slips through my hands when I wash my face at night.”

“Ah, but water is very powerful, especially when it practices,” the master said.

“How can water practice?” Flimsy Fist asked.

“How can it not?” Fighting Spirit said. “From the beginning of time, every day, water has flowed through the Grand Canyon. Every day the water runs the same path, and every day it wears a deeper and deeper path into the rock. After years of running the same path, water helps the canyon show its inner beauty and strength.

“Without practice, the Grand Canyon would just be a bump on the earth,” Fighting Spirit said. “Now, young man, which would you rather be: water or a bump on the earth?”

Flimsy Fist’s eyes widened. “Water!”

“Good!” Fighting Spirit said. “Now, hit this target.”

“Yes, sir!” the boy yelled.

From that day forward, Flimsy Fist worked hard, sweat a lot, and felt the soreness of his forearms. Slowly, his techniques began to improve. It wasn’t as hard to focus on keeping a tight fist, for he had done it so many times, his fingers knew how to curl properly on their own. His forearms were as big and strong as those of Popeye.

One day, Fighting Spirit asked Flimsy Fist to again show him his punches.

“Yes, sir!” Flimsy Fist said, hitting the target with such great confidence and force that it knocked Fighting Spirit back on his heels.

The master smiled gently. “You have learned well,” he said.

“Thank you, sir!” Flimsy Fist said proudly.

“But now something isn’t right,” the teacher said.

Flimsy Fist’s heart sank. Even though he had made great improvements, he was sure he had disappointed his instructor.

Fighting Spirit put his arm around the young man’s shoulder. “Your name does not fit your new courageous character and strong fighting spirit anymore. So from now on, you will be known as Fighting Fist.”

Fighting Fist beamed with joy. “Thank you, sir,” he said humbly.

Fighting Spirit nodded, and then motioned for Fighting Fist to join his classmates in the day’s punching drill.

Today, Fighting Fist still lives with the two loving monks, and one day at a time, he has learned to trust them and other more and more. He still studies martial arts, and today his perseverance and commitment to practice has become a deep thread that weaves in and around every aspect of his life—revealing his true beauty.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Understanding is Underrated

Aristotle: "Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach."

Chinese proverb: "I hear; I forget. I see; I remember. I do; I understand."

Lao Tzu: "To realize that you do not understand is a virtue. Not to realize that you do not understand is a defect."

Me: "About the only thing I truly understand is that I'm happiest when I try to understand rather than to BE understood."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Overcoming Obstacles Quote of the Week

"The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain."
- Dolly Parton,
Legendary country music singer and songwriter

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Self-Control Trials of a 7-Year-Old

Another one of my boys grew last week. Not in inches, but in indomitable and immeasurable spirit.

As chief instructor of a small martial arts school, it’s my job to keep everyone who enters the school mindful of our true goal: building better character everyday. Some come in thinking they’ll learn to kick and punch. They do. Others come in thinking they’ll learn to break boards. They do. But most don’t come in thinking that they’ll learn to be strong, honest, responsible, respectful, and compassionate people. But they do.

In my 10 years as an instructor, teaching character hasn’t been easy. Some kids are “teacher pleasers” – never failing to listen, follow directions, try their best, and do the right thing. Others are rebellious. Still others simply have fierce dragons – fiery emotions that they struggle to control.

I’ve demoted students – taken stripes away, bumped them down a belt (sometimes more) – for a variety of “crimes against character.” The first time I demoted a student, I thought it would break my heart. Or his. But neither happened, and today that kid is a second-degree black belt and sophomore at Yale University. (He also towers over me, which I think is quite unfair.)

Today both of us are stronger and better people. Yet teaching – and learning – important character lessons never gets any easier.

As much as I adhere to the Tony DiCicco “Catch Them Being Good” positive coaching philosophy, sometimes I have to be – apologies for the harsh language – a hard ass.

Like last week.

Little Z, all of 7 years old, was sitting on a metal folding chair in my office, his short legs dangling, not even long enough to touch the blue carpet. Tears welled up in his eyes. A sweet-hearted, hardworking yellow belt, Z was two weeks away from promoting to orange belt. But earlier in the day, he had a little problem with self-control. He let anger get the worst of him.

That morning, Z was at a neighborhood park playing a game with another kid when things turned ugly. Z got mad because the kid was physically bullying him, and not playing the game fairly. Z pushed the boy and then tried to hit him in the face. (Z missed, thank goodness.) When Z’s mother told him to apologize to the boy, he refused, and then threw a verbal fit.

Now, just a few hours later, Z was sitting in my office at the martial arts school, head hanging low and looking quite uncomfortable. Fresh from his sparring class, Z’s tussled, sweaty bangs hung above his big brown eyes. He was almost too adorable to punish. But I’ve learned that letting kids off lightly doesn’t do them any favors.

“Do you know why you’re here?” I asked him.

“Yes, ma’am,” he quietly and gently replied.

I asked Z to tell me what happened, and I was proud that his story matched the one his mother just told me. (Chalk up one point for honesty!)

I held Z’s dirty yellow belt in my hands.

“Z, you understand that we only use Taekwondo to protect ourselves and our families, right? Only when our lives are in danger?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Tears welled up in both eyes, and a single one emerged and then rolled a slow, curving path down his left cheek. It stopped at his chin and hung there, waiting – just like Z was waiting with me now.

“Now, the way I see it, you made three really bad choices today,” I continued. “In Taekwondo, one of the five tenets is self-control, and today you lost that.”

He nodded sadly. The tear finally dropped to the lap of his white dobok pants.

“You tried to strike someone in anger. And that’s wrong. You know that, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

His big, brown, sad-puppy dog eyes looked straight into mine, and I had to pray for strength.

I took his belt in my left hand as I slid open my desk drawer and grabbed a pair of scissors. “You’re lucky your punch missed. You’re lucky you didn’t hurt that young man. But because you tried to hit him in anger, that’s one,” I said as I snipped off one of two orange stripes from his yellow belt.

I tore off the strip of colored electrical tape and threw it into the trash can. “There goes a lot of hard work.”

He swallowed hard.

“Then you refused to apologize to the boy, showing a lack of respect to your peers, and a refusal to take personal responsibility for your actions. That’s two,” I said, snipping off the other orange stripe. I tossed it, too, into the trash.

Multiple tears began a NASCAR race down both cheeks.

“Z, you’re lucky you only have two stripes on your belt, because had you had three, you would have lost one more, because you were disrespectful to your mom.”

He nodded that he understood.

“You also don’t get to take the next test with the other yellow belts. Do you understand?”

“Yes…,” – tears were really gushing now from Z’s eyes, and he began sucking wind the way kids do when they’re really sad or hurt – “…ma’am.”

“Z, I know this is a hard lesson for you to learn, but it’s best you learn it from me than to get into real trouble someday because you can’t control yourself when you get mad.”

His eyes were a bloodshot red. He kept crying and sucking wind, crying and sucking wind. I knew that he was truly sorry for his behavior, and for a moment, I wanted to give him a big hug. I thought, “Geez, Cathy, he’s was only 7! Don’t be so hard on him.” I knew this was an important moment, though. The playground incident probably wasn’t the first time he’d lashed out in anger, but I needed to do my best to make sure it was the last.

As I looked at his yellow belt, I noticed a very bright yellow strip where one of the orange stripes had been. I showed it to him.

“Look, Z. Belts don’t lie. See here?” I asked, pointing to the bright yellow area. “You didn’t learn an important lesson here – that you have to practice self-control, that you can’t use Taekwondo when you get mad.”

He looked hard at the belt.

“Z, you’re good at Taekwondo. Real good. Already you could hurt someone with your feet and hands, and that’s why I have to do this today. But I want you to know that while I’m disappointed in how you acted today, I’m not mad at you. I just want you to learn self-control. I want this bright yellow part of your belt to match the gritty, gutsy, hard work, and good decisions of the rest of the belt. And I know you can do it.”

“Yes … (sucking more wind) … ma’am,” he said.

I invited his mother into the office, and together we agreed that the next time he sees the boy in the park, Z would apologize to him for his actions. Then Z, with his mom or dad by his side, would have to apologize to the boy’s parents, too.

I dismissed Z, and after he walked out of the office, his mom told me that this wasn’t the first time he’d lost his temper. However, it was the first time he’d done so in public.

As we both walked out of the office, Z’s mother turned around, looked me in the eye, and thanked me.

She. Thanked. Me.

How many parents these days will thank a teacher for being a hard ass to their kids?

I know we have a special school, but I again was blown away at the truly extraordinary relationships we build and maintain at Tao of Texas. And I felt validated that – although I never enjoy coming down hard on good kids – I’d done the right thing.

Out in the lobby, as Z sat on the floor putting on his little tennis shoes, he was still crying and looking very sad. I wanted to end our time together on a positive note.

“Z, I want you to know that I do love you, and I believe in you,” I said, smiling. “So you just keep coming back. Don’t quit.”

His lips turned up slightly – enough to show that a rainbow of resolve was likely to emerge at the end of his self-created storm – and he mouthed an inaudible, “Yes, ma’am.”

“See you next week,” I said smiling.

I’ve mentored enough kids to make these predictions:
• Z will learn to control his actions, to communicate with others in a respectful manner (even when they piss him off), and to verbally stand up to bullies instead of trying to physically go toe-to-toe.
• One day – sooner than I’d like – he’ll be a fine, outstanding and upstanding black belt who towers over me and heads off to some grand university, where he’ll face a new set of challenges.
• He’ll remember this day for the rest of his life. And I will, too.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Practice, Practice, Practice Quote of the Week

"Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit. You are what you repeatedly do."
- Shaquille O'Neal,
NBA Superstar

Monday, May 3, 2010

Perseverance Quote of the Week

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
– Thomas Edison,
Extraordinary inventor

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Self-Control Quote of the Week

"Exaggeration is truth that has lost its temper."
- Kahlil Gibran,
Lebanese-American poet, painter, sculptor, writer, philosopher, and theologian

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mamma (Black Belt) Bear Rising

Tick by tock, Friday evening became Saturday morning at the dojang, and I was still awake – on purpose. My students and I were about to wrap up another fun-filled lock-in, jammed packed with kids eating pizza, playing martial arts games until their little bodies were drenched in sweat, watching movies, and playing video games. Soon, I’d be sending a mat full of sleepy kids home to their parents. And though I was officially sleep-deprived, I also was very serene.

One by one, parents came to pick up their kids. I took out trash, wiped up sticky punch drippings, and began sweeping up kernels of popcorn strewn in the lobby like dandruff. Before long, only two students – and a chaperone still sleeping on the couch – remained. That’s when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man approaching the school.

Holding my broom with both hands, I walked out to meet him at the threshold of the dojang’s garage door. He was dressed nicely enough: blue jeans and an orange and white striped polo shirt. He wasn’t clean-shaven; but after all, this is Austin. What gave me pause was his rough, leather-tanned arms – with scratches, scars, and fresh scabs – and the pungent stench of alcohol seeping out of every pore of his body and breath.

At first, I was sympathetic. A recovering alcoholic myself, I understand that he has a disease, and a part of me wanted to be of service.

“Can I talk to the owner?” he began.

“That’s me,” pointing my thumb to my chest.

He didn’t look like he believed me.

“Well, my name’s Mark, and I don’t live in Austin. Well, I ... yeah I do live in Austin…” he slurred, about to launch into what I knew would be a long and winding monologue ultimately ending with a plea for money.

I cut to the chase.

“I don’t have any money if that’s what you’re wanting,” I said.

“No, ma’am,” he said politely enough, wavering in his stance. “I’m just looking for work.”

I looked out at the tall grass growing on the side of the school’s lot, and said, “I have some grass that needs cutting.”

“I can do that,” he said, slowly nodding.

“But you’ll need your own equipment,” I replied, remembering that our electronic lawnmower, which I neglected to chain to the fence, had been recently stolen.

“Oh, I don’t have any equipment,” he said gruffly, starting to stagger and stumble.

And that’s when I got a now-familiar gut feeling – one that has proven very accurate in the past – that I needed to get this guy off my property immediately.

“Well, listen, I don’t have any work for you, and we’re a family business,” I said, patting him gently twice on the shoulder. “I’ve got kids in there, and, buddy, you’re drunk, so I think you’d better go.”

His face shot out a squint-eyed leer, his lips pursed together, and I braced for what I knew was coming. I firmly stood my ground at the garage door, still holding my broom.

“I drink every day,” he said, then staggered again. “Every day! And you don’t have to push me!”

I simply nodded my head. I was bracing for a physical confrontation, but I tried to remain calm. I did not back up.

“I could push you right back. You know that?” he said, starting to stagger away. He was leaving, but I was still on edge. As he reached the middle of our parking lot, he turned and said, “You know I’m a black belt, too, and I can stomp on your feet and push you!”

I thought, “Why do drunks always tell me they’re black belts?” It’s not the first time this has happened.

I nodded my head again, trying to reassure myself that a potential crisis had been averted, and watched him as he wobbled down the street to the No. 1 bus stop. I didn’t move my position – or my hands on my broom – until he was out of sight.

I looked down at the broom. It didn’t occur to me until that moment that I had had a weapon in my hands the whole time. I no-doubt would have used it – my training would have kicked in – but it was probably a good thing I didn’t act as if I had a weapon. I didn’t give out that energy. If I had, I may have provoked a fight. Fortunately, all I had to do – and I don’t say “ALL I had to do” lightly – was stand up to him and insist he leave.

As I turned around to go back into the school, I saw one of two little girls left in the dojang sitting on the lobby floor tying her shoes. Our eyes met, and I realized then that she had witnessed the whole thing.

“I’m really sorry you had to see that,” I said gently.

“That’s O.K.” she said, looking down at her shoes.

“No, it’s not O.K.,” I said.

She looked up.

“It’s not O.K. for a drunk person to come to a place like this – or anywhere – with kids around. It’s not O.K. for them to yell at you and scare you.”

We were both quiet for a while.

As I started to sweep again, I added, “That’s why you’re here; so you can learn to stand up to people when they’re being inappropriate and disrespectful. Because it’s not O.K. to treat people that way.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said, then finished tying her shoes.

A little later, she and her sister sleepily said their thank yous and goodbyes and left with their mom. I kept sweeping, replaying the incident in my mind. Though centered and calm in the moment, I was now feeling ticked off at that guy for invading our space and scaring and potentially scarring an innocent young girl. When the chaperone awoke, I told her about the incident and how I wished my student hadn’t seen it.

She offered a different take: Maybe it was a good thing she saw it. More importantly, maybe she saw it differently than how I thought she saw it.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Maaaybe,” she said, carefully drawing out her thought, “it was good for her to see an example of a strong woman stand up to someone like that.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way. I told my young student that it was important to stand up to those who act inappropriately, and that’s why we train. So why was I unhappy about the fact that she had see an example of it up close?

I didn’t realize how strong I might have appeared to this little girl. That instead of seeing a scary drunk threatening a fight, she might have seen a strong woman remaining calm, confident – and firm.

As I locked up the school and headed home, I thought about what the chaperone said, and hoped that the morning's events might have planted the seed of empowerment in that little girl's psyche, one that will grow and blossom for the rest of her life.

And with that comforting thought, I could finally go to sleep.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

“It Was the Right Thing to Do”

A few months ago, I asked a group of martial arts students, “Have you ever been scared to tell the truth?”

One girl shyly raised her hand and said, “I saw one of my classmates vandalize school property, and he told me that I better not tell anyone or he’d beat me up.”

After a long pause, I asked, “What happened?”

“I had to tell someone,” she said meekly, shrugging her shoulders. “It was the right thing to do.”

If a young girl can courageously stand up to her threatening classmate, everyone can stand up for what’s right.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Integrity Quote of the Week

"If winning is everything to you, you will do anything to win."
– Anon

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Good Character Challenge

Character development is the cornerstone of my youth martial arts program. Look around -- in department stores, groceries, schoolyards, street corners, and on the Internet -- and you'll see why. Our children are woefully lacking in good character these days. Just some examples:

  • Some Fort Worth, Texas, cheerleaders reportedly thought it was a good idea to spike sodas with urine and then gleefully give them to teammates.
  • Some teenagers in Massachusetts reportedly bullied a classmate to the point that she committed suicide.
  • Enough student athletes use steroids that some school districts now test, or are considering testing, for performance enhancing drugs.

We read about these incidents every day, and in the moment, we are shocked and appalled. But how many of us can go one day without:

  • telling a little white lie?
  • sticking company office supplies in our briefcase or purse "by accident"?
  • showing up late to work, or leaving early
  • spending way more on our credit card than WE KNOW we can repay
  • driving over the speed limit, taking a U-turn when the sign clearly states it is against the law, or turning right on a red light when another sign tells us not to?

Where has good character gone in this country? Is it no longer valued? Have we given up the good fight for honesty and virtue?

Alas, my stubborn nature is beneficial after all, for I haven't given up on people young and old doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason -- even when no one is looking.

Years ago, my Taekwondo grandmaster had his young students memorize 10 basic rules to live by. One problem was that he made the students memorize and verbally recite these rules, but never checked to see if they were actually adhering to them. The other problem was that each rule started out, "Children must....," as if only youths need character development. When I opened Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute, I made a point to have guidelines that begin with "WE must..." because everyone, at every age, could have better character. Even, and especially, me.

Take a look at the rules my students must follow to qualify for promotion in my Taekwondo program. How many can you check off every day?

  1. We must respect our parents and family members AT ALL TIMES.
  2. We must greet family members when we come home, and say goodbye when we leave.
  3. We must be honest and truthful AT ALL TIMES.
  4. We must build and maintain a good relationship with our brothers and sisters AT ALL TIMES.
  5. We must help with household chores.
  6. We must wash our hair and body, and brush our teeth every day.
  7. We must clean our room and keep it clean.
  8. We must not rudely interrupt another’s conversation.
  9. We must complete our homework (or project) and turn it in on time.
  10. We must respect our teachers and peers AT ALL TIMES.

Heck, Congress could use a little of No. 10 right now! And did anyone get stuck on No. 8? I listen to adults talk to each other all the time, and it's like watching a constant rerun of "Interrupt-Ville." Few people know how to let others finish a sentence before they begin spouting their self-important point of view.

I ask my students which ones they struggle with the most, and overwhelmingly, it's keeping a good relationship with siblings. How are you doing in that arena? Personally, I still have a looooong way to grow. Due to my students' inspiring efforts, though, I've been making baby-step improvements and have been making regular attempts to call my two sisters more often and to be patient and compassionate when they are bickering with each other, which right now is all the time.

I struggle most with No. 1. I don't call my mom and dad enough. I'm working on that, but having been an absentee daughter in the past, it's a hard habit to break. Still, my students offer the inspiration for me to keep trying.

Last week, I dropped everything to go be with my mom as her sister was dying. She said last night that she was so happy that I did.

"I knew you'd come," she said. "You didn't say you were coming, but I knew you would."

It meant a lot to her that I came, and it meant a lot to me to hear her say it made her happy, for I have not always made her happy.

None of us is perfect. Every day is character in progress for me. Take this morning: I woke up, put the back of my hand to my forehead, and sighed, "I don't have a fever." I swallowed. No sore throat. I sighed again, thinking about the sometimes-boring work I do in the mornings at a publishing company, then resolved, "Well, I'm not sick, so I guess I'd better get going." Then I rolled out of bed to begin my day.

We all have our character defects struggles. Years ago, a friend of mine told me her boss had a "come to Buddha" meeting with her about the fact that my friend had been arriving to work every day about 30 minutes late, taking a longer lunch than allowed, and then leaving about 30 minutes early.

"Well no wonder she's upset. That's theft." I said deadpanned. "You're stealing from the company."

She looked stunned. My friend had never seen it that way.

"How long have you been doing this?" I asked.

"Oh, maybe about a year," she said.

"Wow. That's a lot of money you owe the company."

Her jaw dropped. Her olive complexion became ashen. I told her how lucky she was that her boss didn't fire her on the spot. She thought about it, and later went home and calculated all the time she had "stolen" from the company. For MANY months afterward, she came in early, worked through lunches, and stayed late to repay all that time she took off. Her boss never questioned why she was working extra hours.

Another friend thought it was O.K. to pay for one movie ticket at the theater, and, after the movie was over, waltz on over to the movie across the hall without paying. She, too, didn't see that she was stealing from the movie theater. Now, though, when she goes to "the movies," she more specifically goes to see "a movie."

I have never been more proud of my friends.

I'd like to say that the friend who struggled to stay at work has never again failed to put in a good day's work for an honest day's pay, and I'd like to say I always call my mom and dad when I should. The truth? Neither of us is perfect. Everyone falls victim to their weak character defects from time to time, especially when hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. But now she knows that whatever time she fudges on, she must make up, and I know that I have no excuse ("it's too early/too late to call") for not keeping in touch with my parents.

I've made every character mistake in the book in my life. Today, though, I take these rules seriously, and my students know it. The penalty at the school for flagrant violation of our basic rules is loss of belt rank and possible suspension. Some students have indeed lost rank for various infractions: making Fs because they didn't turn in homework, being unreasonably rude to their siblings, talking back to their parents, blaming the broken vase on the dog instead of saying they broke it when they were playing frisbee in the house. Am I hard on them? Why, yes, I guess I am. However, I'd rather they lose rank in a martial arts school and learn a vital lesson about being a better, stronger person than lose a parent's or friend's trust through lying, or worse, make a mistake so large that they lose their freedom via jail time.

So enough already. Developing and keeping good character is simple. I'll admit it's not easy, but very simple. You just do the right thing -- whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not, whether it's politically popular or not -- because it's the right thing to do.

What this means for me is that I show up to work on time, and I don't leave early just because the boss is gone for the day. It means I'll suffer the societal pressure of being honked at by the driver behind me who wants me to turn on red when the sign says not to. It means I'm going to report the cash that student just handed me for a used uniform that wasn't in the school's inventory. It means I'm going to tell the truth about why I was late to meet my friend (I screwed up) instead of making an excuse that "sounds good." And it means I will have to let myself look bad from time to time. It means I will make mistakes and own up to them as quickly as possible instead of pointing the finger at someone else, rationalizing, or justifying my behavior.

Will I always feel better about telling the truth? Honestly, maybe not in the moment (because I'm a perfectionist who's all about looking good), but eventually, I will see the value in truth and be glad I owned up to it. (Plus, I don't have to keep lies straight in my head if I tell the truth the first time.)

If my students can follow these simple rules, everyone can step up to the big-boy Character Development plate, too.

So, I dare you: Take the Good Character Challenge. Follow the above-mentioned 10 basic rules for one week. And let me know how it goes.

Be honest....