There have been times when—talking to my sisters on the phone—I've wanted to repeatedly bang the receiver against the coffee table in frustration. So recently when one of my hardest-working students showed signs of a relationship struggle with his little brother, I understood.
In 11 years of teaching martial arts, I've learned that for students with siblings, Basic Rules to Live By No. 4—"We must build and maintain a good relationship with our brothers and sisters at all times."—can oftentimes be an annoying, painful thorn in their sides, but that it's a Basic Rule for a reason. Besides parents, there is no more important, long-term, grit-your-teeth-and-smile-anyway relationship than the one we have with our brothers and sisters.
You may love your brother. You may treasure your sister. If you've never had fleeting angry and even homicidal thoughts toward your siblings, though, (1) I'd like to meet you and (2) you’re either a freak or a saint.
Maybe I'm the freak, though. And maybe all my students are freaks, too, because poor little Carl, all of 7 years old, was struggling with the “at all times” part regarding his 3-year-old brother Wallace. Carl and Wallace are in Tiny Texans together, and Carl is a great big brother in martial arts class. In fact, he's in many ways a model student. But recently things had not been so hunky-dory at home.
In an email, Carl's mother told me that she and her husband had discussed it, and they wanted me to remove a black character stripe that I had awarded their son for being a good big brother. Apparently, the last straw was when Wallace wanted to see something that Carl had, and Carl uttered an ugly refusal.
I can understand his parents' frustration. All parents want in the whole wide world is for their children to be safe and to get along. But all older siblings want in the whole wide world is a cool toy for their birthday and space from their annoying younger siblings.
Anyone familiar with my teaching style knows I have no qualms about stripping stripes from belts when students exhibit character unbecoming a decent human being. My gut told me, though, that stripe removal or demotion would be the easy way out for Carl. Indeed, this was a great opportunity for him to practice perseverance.
On Sunday, I took Carl and his father into the YMCA’s nursery room for a one-on-one talk. I no longer have my own office, so the unoccupied nursery—though cheerfully and colorfully decorated—was the best place available to have a serious, private talk. I could tell Carl was apprehensive. He knew his parents had asked that I remove the stripe. He squirmed in his chair, expecting me to whip out my scissors and snip, snip, snip.
Instead, I asked him several questions to gauge whether he understood why his parents were concerned about how he treated Wallace at home.
"What does it mean to be a good big brother?" I asked.
"Be nice?" he replied. "And share my stuff?"
"Good! Yes! That’s what I’d like in a big brother. Now, it’s normal for your little brother to want to be around you all the time. Do you know why?"
"No, ma’am?" (Carl's answers always sound like he’s asking a question.)
"Because he loves you."
"You are so BIG to him. Like your dad is big to you. You love your dad, right?"
"Well, that’s how Wallace feels about you. He looks up to you. He wants to hang out with you because you’re cool."
"I am?" Carl asked. (This time it was a question.)
"Yes, you are," I said, then leaned forward in my chair to look him in the eye. "So next time Wallace wants to see something you have, or do something you’re doing, just remember that it’s because he loves you."
"Do you have any questions?" I asked.
"No, ma'am?" Carl said.
"O.K. then, let's train."
We stood up, bowed to each other, and Carl walked out of the nursery to join his classmates on the mat. His dad offered a handshake.
"Thanks, Cathy," he said.
I nodded, "No problem. That's what I’m here for."
A few days later, I wrote the following email to Carl to encourage him to keep working on his relationship with Wallace:
"Remember the essay you wrote on what it means to be a good leader? Well, it turns out that if you replace the word 'leader' in your essay with 'big brother' and 'students' with 'little brother,' you already know how to be a good brother….
"Below is your essay. Read it with your parents so that you can continue your commitment to being a better brother:
" 'To be a good [big brother] you have to listen to your [little brother]. It might be important. Be honest to your [little brother] so that your [little brother] will do [things] right. Be kind to your [little brother] so [he] will like you. Respect your [little brother] and [he] will respect you. Think about your [little brother] and [he] will think about you. I think these are qualities that make a good [brother].' "
"These were your own words, so think of [your brother] as one of my students and one of your classmates. Try to be kind. When you feel impatient or frustrated or angry, don’t take it out on him. Instead, tell your parents your feelings, ask for some alone time if needed, and then in a few minutes, try again to reconnect in a positive way.
"You can do this. I BELIEVE IN YOU.
Yesterday, Carl’s mom told me that she had created a behavior chart so that Carl would have clear instructions regarding what is expected of him. This was a great idea, because I can attest that most children thrive amid structure.
"Since I made the behavior chart," she said, "he has been an AMAZING big brother!"
I had to smile wide. In that moment, I was proud of Carl, proud of his parents, and grateful that the Taekwondo tenet of perseverance can have a positive impact on every part of our lives.
Sometimes, life offers wonderful opportunities to be brave, strong, and responsible—to take action instead of complaining, blaming, or lashing out. There are things I wish I didn’t have to do and actions I’m sometimes afraid of taking. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that complaining and excuse-making wastes time and doesn’t change the fact that I still have to take action if I want my life and relationships to improve.
Speaking of which, I owe my sisters a much overdue phone call.