Does an 8-year-old’s black belt reflect on mine?

It’s a much-discussed topic on forums, blogs, and in pubs after workout, whether the widespread awarding of black belts to children in some styles—and for that matter, the churning out of black belts of all ages by “black belt mill”-type schools—dilutes or cheapens the value of the black belts the rest of us feel we’ve legitimately earned.

I’ve always been of the “lighten up, don’t worry about it so much” school. Yes, of course we have our private opinions about the value or meaning of other people’s belts, our private opinions of how their training and skills compare to ours or our students’.

I certainly have those opinions, but I try to keep them in perspective. For one thing, no one else’s belt—not even one within my own school or style—can diminish the meaning or value of mine. Nor can it diminish the meaning or value of yours. The meaning of the belt lies in a combination of what it took to earn it, and what the wearer continues to do to live up to it. The value of a rank, if we have to assign a value, should have to do with how the wearer is looked up to within their own martial arts community, and the contributions they continue to make to that community.

Furthermore, my opinions of other people’s belts and skills—just like their opinions of mine—might well be based on imperfect, incomplete or biased information. There is a lot of chauvinism in the martial arts world (as in all human endeavors); we’ve all felt a bit of chauvinism about our chosen styles, at some time, to some degree. There are people who sneer at any rank earned in a style that doesn’t share whatever emphasis their own style happens to favor. But that sneering means nothing about the value of my rank or yours; it only reflects something about the sneerer’s attitude.

I also try to remember that innocent participants in “black belt mills” and children’s classes have, after all, worked hard at a set of skills for a sustained period of time, and their accomplishments surely deserve some respect. Okay, maybe the skill set was limited, and the period of time was brief by the standards of my own style—but the student didn’t know that at the time, and they were giving their best effort. I would prefer to judge them by their commitment and their willingness to continue learning, and not by comparing their skills and ranks to those of my own students.

But what about the opinions of the general public? Do child black belts and “black belt mills” reflect badly on the martial arts as a whole? Do they create suspicion and cynicism in the public toward the rest of us? To this I have to say that the general public is quite ignorant about martial arts, and although these types of schools may reinforce that ignorance in some cases, they aren’t the cause of it.

Something we sometimes forget—those of us who are so dedicated to martial arts—is that the vast majority of people just aren’t into martial arts; they don’t know or care much about it, outside what they encounter casually or in the media. So of course their views are distorted and their information is slightly off. Then, in some cases, it’s time to sign their kids up for sports, and they see it on the list of possible activities—in their minds, on a par with tee-ball. Or adults see all the kids in gis and doboks on their way to after-school programs, and assume martial arts is mainly for children. Or they’re a schoolteacher, and they see kids on the playground kicking at each other acting out movie scenes, and conclude martial arts teaches violence and should be discouraged.

The point here is that people need to be educated about the meaning of what we do—and the meaning of our ranks—before it makes sense to ask whether something reflects badly on us.

And it’s up to us to educate them.

Still, let’s take one more look at the 8-year-old black belt. I’ve been professing an attitude of laid-back tolerance toward other people’s standards—that they don’t reflect on us in any meaningful way, and we shouldn’t worry about it, but should do our part to educate people. But a part of me really isn’t that laid back. I know this because of a rise in blood pressure I experience sometimes.

I do teach children at my dojo, and I believe there’s much one can impart to children about traditional martial arts without compromising (I may blog about this subject in the future). But our curriculum is broad and complex, our attitude is serious, and bottom line: no child—not the most brilliant, not the most dedicated—can earn black belt before their mid-teens at best. For the younger kids, that means seven or eight years of devoted training and increasing maturity.

On the other hand, there are several taekwondo schools in the area that are filled with 8-year-old black belts. Many of my students have young friends who are black belts, and many parents are aware of this and expect it for their own child. Every time a youngster in one of my classes announces how their friend has a black belt, or a parent says little Johnny’s friend just got a black belt, so Johnny is excited about getting one too—my stomach churns and the edges of my vision start to go black.

I take a few breaths, because I don’t want to disrespect the friend or the friend’s dojang. I just have to educate this parent (and child) about what it is we offer at this dojo, and explain how it differs from what their friend does. But I also at times feel pressured to give a sales pitch about why what we offer is better—why they should look forward to investing four times as many years to get that belt. It walks the line of chauvinism—which I tried to disavow earlier—and it lures me toward speaking ill of other schools’ practices. I’ve slipped up a few times.

I guess my heart is not yet in harmony with my mind on this whole issue.


32 Responses to “Does an 8-year-old’s black belt reflect on mine?”

  1. I’m with your heart on this one. Although your head makes some good points.

  2. A couple of schools I went to would offer a “junior black belt ” course for kids, I’m guessing under 12. In Okinawan or Japanese arts, dan represents a coming of age so to speak. So you’ll see kids wearing black belts, but they’re not yudansha, nor should they be regarded as such. If they stick around (and if they’re ready) they’ll get re-tested for 1st dan when they turn 16. Still, it doesn’t look good to have a school full of little black belts.

  3. Joan Harris Says:

    Thank you for writing about this issue. It is a difficult one. My children and I are studying at a somewhat more traditional martial arts school, and are happy that after 6 years of study we have achieved the rank of 3rd kyu.

    There are numerous martial arts schools in our city that ensure that anyone that pays their money and “does their time” (usually two classes a week for about 4 years) will receive a black belt. I attended a black belt promotion ceremony for one group that has several dojo in our town–there were several hundred people there, most of them children. One child was awarded a black belt who could not tie his own belt. I thought it was an amazing sight, to see his Sensei tying a black belt around his waist.

    All of those people worked hard, and all of their teachers are hard working and dedicated. I don’t want to discount that, but at the same time I know from experience that almost all of the people who received black belts that night had quit the martial arts within a year. The one I knew best was “done” with martial arts, and moved on to other things.

    At my school they teach us that we are never “done,” no matter what our rank! We are having a different martial arts experience than some of our friends and acquaintances. I am just glad that we found our school, considering how little I knew about martial arts before we began studying!

  4. serpentstaff Says:

    Hello, all, I’ve been too busy to blog these couple weeks, but thanks to those (few) of you who have commented. Your comments and my continued ruminations are helping me clarify my thinking on this issue, and I hope to say more when I have some time.

  5. This is one of the most thoughtful, insightful, and sensitive articles on this important topic that I have ever read. I have written on this topic a few times and have fallen way short of your eloquence on expressing: “the meaning of the belt lies in a combination of what it took to earn it, and what the wearer continues to do to live up to it.”

    You also express well the pain and dilemma of holding to traditional standards in the face of the commercial and interpersonal pressure to provide more immediate gratification (say 3-4 years).

    I’ll quote some of this article on my blog, if I may.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Well, thanks for your very kind words, and feel free to quote. There’s more to be said and more to be read on this subject! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  6. I think these are great thoughts on this subject. School owners often struggle with this. Children often provide “revenue”. “Stalling” these students can cause them to become discouraged and drop out. A compromise I have seen is the “junior” Black Belt. The youngster must continue to uphold not only the skill, but the attitudes, discipline, and behavior expected of a Black Belt in order to continue on in the awarded rank. They should also be expected to “test” again to obtain the actual rank of full Black Belt. Where I train this idea has been discussed but as of yet, not implemented.

  7. serpentstaff Says:

    Thanks for writing, R.S. I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject since I first posted on it, and I’m feeling a bit more argumentative today, so I want to toss out a couple more thoughts. I don’t mean to direct them at you in particular—you just happened to write at the right moment. 🙂
    Anyway, I’m familiar with the “revenue” problem, and the phenomenon of kids dropping out when they don’t advance as quickly as they wish. (Adults do this, too, of course.) But—isn’t it precisely our job to educate these kids, and their parents, about the importance and value of persevering toward long-term goals? –and to educate them about the relative value of achieving a hard-earned, deeply-accomplished black belt versus an “immediate gratification” black belt? In so educating them, we provide them with something more valuable than a piece of black cloth, and it’s worth more even if they subsequently drop out.
    The Junior Black Belt idea is a good one. My style has this. But in our case, we’re talking about young teenagers getting a rank that they may convert to full black belt by re-testing at age 16 or higher. I still have concerns about a black belt—junior or otherwise—that can be earned by an 8-year-old, no disrespect at all to kids of that age. They are bright, energetic and full of potential. But they are third-graders. There is an understanding of the term “black belt” by which a third-grader can no more be a black belt than they can be a high school senior. Even those extraordinary 8-year-olds whose intellect is equal to a high school senior will likely lack the emotional development and physical stature to cope with the high school experience. And it goes without saying, they could not make it as high school athletes. Yet it seems to me a martial arts black belt needs analogous skills and qualities. Physical maturity and emotional development to some kind of minimum. Maybe something like the maturity and physical competence to be qualified to work as a public pool lifeguard. After all, we’re dealing with serious subject matter in the martial arts. So the black belt that can be earned by an 8-year-old must mean something different. Black belt with an asterisk?

  8. Chris Baglieri Says:

    I am very much like you in that I have two reactions, but I don’t see them as mutually exclusive.

    First – Other schools’ ranks have no more meaning to me than the color and cut of their uniform. It’s apples and oranges.

    The single exception is when a student joins our school and says, “In my old school, I was a ________ belt.”

    I tell them that they are welcome to wear their rank out of courtesy until the first test, at which point I will offer them a rank in our school which might or not be equivalent. (To date, it never has been, but by then, they have had a chance to compare themselves to other students their “rank” and never complain.)

    I also tell them (if they are “black-belts”) that I and my co-instructors will address them as “Sensei” out of courtesy, but that fellow students are not asked to do so until they earn rank with us.

    The second facet is the meaning of rank in my school.

    I have taught children almost exclusively for over 15 years. Out of upwards of three thousand students I have promoted a total of 15 of them to Junior Black Belt. Because my classes only meet for an hour or two a week, students average over ten years–close to a thousand class-hours–to reach black belt.

    For some, well into their late teens, the “junior” is something of a slight, but I let people know from day one that our class is designed for children, and the rank bestowed reflects that. Several have gone on to earn rank in adult classes, in some case with former adult students of mine.

    Although the process of Black-Belt is complex, involving student-teaching, extra workout hours, promotion portfolios and multiple evaluations, the actual criteria is simple.

    To hold the rank of Junior Black-Belt, they must not only have acquired a coherent set of techniques, (a shopping list of requirement) but they must be a -martial artist- in their own right. I take the mystique out of rank by placing it in the definition of -martial artist-.

    They must be able to work with individuals as well as lead a group. They must teach something from their own experience, correcting with respect and building on their knowledge every time they perform.

    They must know their own strengths and weaknesses as a student, as a teacher and as a role model, and work consistently to overcome them.
    They must be capable of objectively evaluating others as well, and helping others improve in their art, knowing that this is the only way that they themselves will improve.

    They must serve at every moment that they wear the belt as a role model and a co-leader of the best martial arts class that we together can create.

    So their is no dissonance to me.

    Show me an eight year old who can do that, and I’ll promote her.

    As for student “revenue”… in my opinion, it’s a moot point.

    If you lower your standards to keep students, you are charging people for mediocrity. Instead, I charge them for the process of becoming a martial artist. Rank is just a convenient way to acknowledge that process.

    How many years does it take to “get a black-belt,” they ask?

    In two days, you can get one from Amazon.

    To actually -be- a black-belt takes a bit longer, I tell them. 🙂

  9. One of the criteria to receive the title of Sensei is to be a third degree black belt, and just because one holds the rank doesn’t automatically give them the title. Rank and title are two different things!

    As for individuals coming to my dojo wearing a specific rank from another organization, I tell them, “You can wear it but keep in mind you will be treated like the rank you represent!”

    After their first experience in my dojo they usually request a new rank!

  10. hi some great posts, my daughter is 9 in aug and passed her first dan in taekwondo this week. She has hardly missed a week in nearly 3 years, has fought at the british nationals twice. The standard at her school is very high and i think that 8 9 year old can def be blackbelts providing there is a good teacher. The problem comes from teachers that treat the school as income and hold gradings every other week charging all the time. Our school has grading every 3 months and seems to work well.

    • h.flashman I do not mean anything personal of what I’m about to state, however in a philosophical manor I could not disagree with you more.
      I have no doubt your daughter is capable of competing in any martial art, nor do believe in competition my self.
      I used to my self compete in martial arts and used to be Shodan, Sensei I never was, perhaps in another 20 years I will.

      For me Sho dan is a responsibility, not for society and not for proclaiming means of who is better and who is not. I have both trained and fought with great fighters but also with great martial artists.

      Take it back to your daughter a good example. She is by all means I’m certain a great fighter, but is she Sho dan simply for holding a black belt on her Dogi?
      Sho dan also 初段 in Japanse means “first stage”.
      We start learning martial arts at our first kyu wether we give high or low number first. But we start to study at Sho dan. Someone said a long long time ago “it is good to have a goal to journey towards, but it is better to have the journey for a goal”.

      Just my 2 cents

  11. Kempo fan Says:

    Hi. I never participated in Martial Arts when I was a kid but I started taking Shaolin Kempo a little over three months ago and am 24 years old. I passed my Yellow Belt test a few weeks ago and boy does it feel good.

    Personally I don’t approve of giving children black belts because mentally, and sometimes physically, most just aren’t ready for it. It makes me glad, in a way, that I started Martial Arts as an adult.

    I’m fortunate to have an instructor that believes in the “at least ten years to get a black belt” theory. Maturity-level wise, I’m going to need that ten years.

  12. A joke that my previous sensei used to tell is “What is the difference between a white belt and a black belt? About $20 online.” Posing it as a “everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a black belt, and here is ours” might be a good way to reduce the sales-pitchiness when chatting with parents. I suspect most parents would respect the idea of a rank representing technical proficiency AND demonstrated maturity 😉

  13. Dragon slayer Says:

    Black belts for adults? seriously? I thought that was for kids. Why does an adult need a colored piece of cloth to prove his warrior prowess? The military doesn’t hand them out; boxers don’t wear them; neither do MMA fighters. Should an adult who feels diminished because a child is wearing a black belt be worthy of wearing a black belt?

    Think about it folks. The public can’t tell the difference between a ninja and a nut. Telling them my black belt is better than yours is a little like saying Luke Skywalker is better than Capt. Kirk

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Ha, ha, good one, Dragon, and thanks for taking time to comment.
      Not so different from the points I was making, although stated more provocatively.
      It occurs to me that the military does hand out ranks, ribbons and medals, and boxers have rankings and titles. And people do pay attention to what they mean – or what they believe they mean. So I could imagine cases where it would be worth educating the public about the meaning.
      There would have to be a reason why one cared what the public believed. I doubt it would be about proving warrior prowess; more likely about what children and adults are really learning & practicing in the martial arts, or maybe in one school versus another.
      And btw, Capt. Kirk is better. 😉

      • Dragon slayer Says:

        I love your attitude! I teach adults and children. I use belts to mark progress. It means more to the kids than to the adults. Most adults prefer short term self-defense classes without belt ranks.

        I have practiced a variety of Martial Arts since 10 (40 years) and only have 1 Black Belt (1st Dan) to show for it. I am also a 21 year veteran with combat experience as an infantry squad leader. I respect anyone who has trained for a period of time and earned a black belt. Regardless of age.

        Thanks for your blog. I have added it to my must read list

  14. Frank Winter Says:

    Honorable sensei, you describe exactly my feelings in “judging” such cases. Although I know there is no right to judge otherones methods and judging disgraces the nijukun (shotokan) sometimes it comes up. Well, in this cases I remind myself that I am on a way, havn`t reached the end, still being human so I allow it for myself keeping my opinion inside of me. As you said, it is up to us to show up what martial ARTS (!) means to us, a philosophy of life that you can appreciate with growing maturity, and it is questionable, how mature a 8-year old child can be. Please take my deep respect, sincerely, Oss. Frank Winter

  15. It’s a tough call to tell an 8-year-old or any other age that they don’t deserve a black belt because they’re too young. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to disappoint a child who may very well feel as though he or she worked hard to reach that goal. However, a black belt is not something to hand out lightly. Even an 8-year-old has to be held up to the same standards as adults who test for black.
    Unfortunately, it’s not fair to hold a child to that level. They can’t be expected to spar with an adult of equal rank. They can’t be expected to teach lower ranks. They can’t represent the sport the way that physically mature adults can. Maybe there should be an age minimum, such as age 12 or even 16.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Hmmm… Not a tough call at all, IMO. Martial arts isn’t playtime, and isn’t about pleasing or disappointing young children. …Other points I might make in reply have already been made earlier in the discussion.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  16. […] One blogger points out that many schools put out child-aged black belts as a system of “black belt mills” and that while these children are innocent participants and have certainly worked hard, their belt does not truly count the same way more “legitimate” schools’ do. You can read his blog here. […]

  17. I pulled my children out of a “black belt mill” school to make sure they found the true meaning of being a black belt. That school has now given belts to students that have been training for only 3 years while mine have been training for 5 and know why they should still be under belts. My own children (and the students at our new school) spar with the old school and consistently score very highly over them at tournaments. What bothers me is the false sense of achievement those other children now have. One of them (16 year old black belt earned after only 3 years) even goes to school bragging to people of her rank while my child (4 years under belt) stands by shaking her head knowing full well that is the wrong thing to do. I also watched a child the same age as my son being given a black belt when my son stayed an under belt and practically murdered him in tournament. Those people are still our friends and it makes me sad they don’t see what we see. They just want their kids to have that darn belt. Where is the mentality of a martial artist? Where is the lifestyle, the peaceful projection these children are not ready to promote? Why don’t people expect more from their children than knowing how to bow and throw a spinning roundhouse? My son is learning to teach the form and reason for katas and sparring techniques, but we do not expect him to have a black belt at only 11 years old. He can’t even stop his 15 year old sister although he’s one higher rank. Kids just are not ready. Period. 16 should be the minimum. Puberty is hard enough.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. You are doing the right thing, IMO, and as frustrating as it is to see others on a different [misguided] path, perhaps the best you can do is simply, politely, and respectfully share your viewpoint and reasoning with others as often as you can.

  18. In some schools, belts are warded very quickly. In my 6 years of training i have passed through 6 belts. For some other schools, black belts are awarded in 6 months. A true black belt promotion is supposed to be a very proud day that acknowledges hard work and effort. Just realize that the other blackbelt does not know as much and did not train as hard.

  19. Don Parker Says:

    I fully agree.. The giving of a black belt to a child is ridiculous … I am 36 and have been in martial arts only 6 Sensei would never give someone of that age a black belt.they don’t have the maturity to make appropriate decisions do to lack of life experiences.If a child wants to quit the school because he’s not getting his belt soon enough .. That action alone is proof that this practice is not a correct way to reward a student

  20. Hi! ^_^, I’ve trained at an ITA school for a good while, and when I was about eleven I received my first Black Belt. Now I’m fifteen, and I’m training at an ATA school. I’m a 1st degree LV2(according to ITA). They’re are kids at this new school that aren’t passed 4th grade yet, that are 2nd degrees. This one girl is a 3rd and is only a rank below the instructors. Let me know what you guys think about this. Am I at a good school? Is it good that I’m heavily outranked by kids a lot younger than me?

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks for stopping by & commenting, Ethan.
      As to your question – I think what you should ask yourself is whether you enjoy training at your new school, whether you respect your instructors and gain something from the workout. In general, I would caution against worrying over questions of who outranks you and what you think of them; that might be more about ego than about the quality of your new school. It’s always tough to change schools. Clearly, though, ‘black belt’ means something different here, the requirements are different, and you’ll need to fulfill whatever the new requirements are to match the rank a student of your age and years of training would normally be expected to have in that school. Whether it’s a “good school” or not – that has to be answered by the former questions, though – do you find the training worthwhile and satisfying, is it making you stronger, a better martial artist, are you gaining worthwhile skills. I cannot pass judgment on either of your schools. No one in my school reaches black belt by age eleven, either; the demands are simply too high.

  21. […] thoughts! Consider the full article. More thoughts, and that promised movie, in the next post. See you on the […]

  22. Too many black belt mills. I was a white belt at a Shotokan karate studio a few years back and easily charged the blue belts off the mat. All you need is ONE street fighter in a school or competition and all those colored belts collapse instantly. I’d rather be a perpetual white belt with technique and skill than a colored belt that can’t truly fight.

  23. The issue here is that we are all too willing to take on these Junior Students (and take the money from the Parents), enforce that they have to be at class for a minimum of two classes per week, enter tournaments (to promote our schools) yet when it comes to the crunch, we don’t want to let them grade to Balck Belt??? Guys, don’t be fooled to think that because your student ‘wins’ at a tournament, that they are true Black Belts? What do we do, make the Student ‘hang around’ class for another few years until we deem them old enough to test??? Remember, just a few decades ago we never taught kids Martial Arts! Times change and so should our way of thinking!

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