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Rank for Children

by George Mattson

In this month’s Wado Newsletter, editor Ray Hughes wrote a very interesting article on children’s rank that addresses important isues involving traditional martial arts. It is a subject that doesn’t get much publicity, but should be discussed in order to understand what rank means and how it should be awarded in a traditional dojo. Published with Sensei Hughes’ permission. G.E.M.

Part I Children’s Rank

George Mattson teaching children at his Florida Dojo.

From time to time families move into the area and want to enroll their 6 to 8 year old black belt kids into my school. It is also not that uncommon to come across the 24 year old practitioner who is a 5th or 6th degree black belt. I am not here to say when a child should be awarded what particular rank or what age an adult should be to reach a certain dan (black belt) rank, but maturity needs to be considered as it relates to rank, both for kids and adult black belts.

In part one I will discuss the maturity relationship between rank and age in children and in part two, I’ll discuss the same issue, with a slightly different twist, with the adult black belt rank. I think you’ll find it interesting that there are areas of similar concepts that should be considered in each case. I will share how I award rank only as an example of my big picture thinking and not to suggest how and when a rank should be awarded.

We must keep in mind we are talking about martial arts and not soccer or any other sport. When we talk about black belt, whether it’s with kids or adults, it is understood there is a certain level of self-defense skills and technical expertise that have been acquired.

I have been taught and strongly believe that the ability to effectively defend one’s self depends on the close relationship of the individual’s mind and physical skill set. When these two areas progress together the individual’s ability to defend one’s self improves. These two areas need time to develop. Physical development requires quality instruction with thousands of repetitions and mental development needs maturity and critical thinking with proper instruction over a long period of time.

In addition to developing self-defense skills, most martial art instructors want to improve their own wisdom and that of their students. Most would agree that time, education and experience is what makes a person wise. So we traditional martial art school owners want to develop wise students that can adequately defend themselves. The beautiful thing is it takes the same formula to develop wisdom as it does self-defense proficiency. That formula is “time” and “education”. Time is experience, which can’t be taught and education is the physical development of skill and the advancement of sound philosophy and common sense thinking.

With this foundation, let’s look at what point should rank, belt colors including black, be awarded to kids.

The first thing we need to do is define what a kid “black belt” is and then work backwards through the colors to white belt. This is difficult; it is like trying to describe the indescribable. To do this I have overly simplified this argument for presentation purposes only. Though I personally believe in the old school philosophy that a black belt should be awarded at 18 years of age, I understand and agree there is a need for a junior black belt.

So what is a junior black belt? It needs to be a kid with the same technical skill set as an adult black belt while possessing a minimum maturity level. It is this maturity issue that has been taken out of the consideration process by many schools when awarding kid’s ranks. I believe that in most traditional schools it is not the question that maturity should be a part of the decision making process when awarding black belts to kids, the question is what level should that be?

I give out junior black belts to kids 13 to 17 years of age. These kids generally start training around 4 to 7 years of age and will possess a sound level of proficiency and maturity. My reasoning for awarding black belts to these kids is because they have trained consistently for 6 to 8 years, have achieved a certain level of proficiency and have reached the minimum age of 13, which in many countries and religions is the beginning age of adult maturity. It is this general world consensus of maturity and my personal experience that 13 seems to be the youngest a person can be to reach black belt in my school.

Again, I am not saying 13 is the correct age for junior black belt; this is just what I use. What I am saying is there needs to be a minimum age that includes the technical skills we all agree should be considered for black and a minimum maturity level.

Working back from junior black belt through the colors to white belt, I have minimum age requirements for the different color belts in our system. I am not a psychologist, but I have taught children of all ages for over 35 years and there are distinct levels of maturity between the ages of four and 13. To me there are distinct levels at 4, 7, 9, 11, and thirteen. There are of course some gray in these ages and there are exceptions. There are topics and discussions that can be discussed at one maturity level and not another. The maturity age should have a distinct impact of the rank level of a child. Again, we are talking about martial arts and not tennis. Self-defense is an important part of our art. Death and danger are by-products of self-defense training and can only be discussed when a child is mature enough to understand them.

It seems to me there should be a gradual transition of rank (color belts) in relationship to maturity and body development; from a young child with no rank, little maturity and fragile body to higher rank, stronger body with a higher level of maturity. In other words, when you are talking about kids, physical development and maturity need to have a direct relationship to rank.

In addition, a high priority of most traditional martial art schools is the education of life skills and character development in its kid’s programs. Life skills and character development can only be taught successfully over many maturity levels. Life skills are taught as the student experiences life. This is a time issue. It cannot be shortened or condensed. Experience is time and age.

In summary, a black belt must have a certain level of technical understanding, physical development and mental maturity. Shouldn’t all color ranks have this same understanding but at lower benchmarks?

So when I see a parent bring in their 6 year old black belt child into my school, I just shake my head. Of course I say how impressed I am and then guide them to a school that holds those standards. I always feel bad because that child will have more difficulty learning life’s skills and developing philosophical understandings than they would have if they took the natural learning process that takes time and experience. In addition to this, that child’s martial arts career will probably never fully recover from this early rapid rank advancement.

The sad thing is most parents understand this child development process. There is no need to move a child rapidly through the ranks. The parents simply need to be informed of this process you are taking their child through and then continually reminded them of it. The majority of parents get it.

Next month I will discuss the importance of maturity as it relates to adult dan ranks.

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