If black belts are as easy as a Happy Meal, do they really mean anything?

A while back I was working at a studio and a boy approached me, pointed to me, and said, “Ha, ha!  I’m a higher belt than you.  I’m a black belt.  You’re only a red belt.”  The boy was 7, and as it happens, a 2nd degree black belt.  His 6 year old sister was about to test for her black belt later that spring.

Of course, I congratulated the little guy on his accomplishment, and encouraged him to keep working hard.  A ‘red belt,’ in our school, is someone training to become an instructor who had not yet earned his/her black belt.  In this little guy’s world, he was just pointing out facts as he saw them.  But I have to admit, the conversation left me shaking my head.

A black belt is an accomplishment, no matter what style of martial arts you study.  But speaking as a black belt, an experienced educator, and a parent, we are doing a serious disservice to young people when we make adult Black Belts available to kids in Kindergarten, and then tell them it’s the same as what the grown-ups do.  I’ve taught young students the martial arts, and I’ve taught them to brush their teeth.  There is a significant difference between the two.

Certainly it is possible for young children to earn advanced ranks in the martial arts.  But a Black Belt needs to mean more than learning a curriculum, attending a prescribed number of classes, or executing certain moves.   It needs to signify a level of competency, a commitment to the ideals and beliefs of a system, and a commitment to giving back to the school and the art.  Black belts become “Elders” in the system; a martial arts older sibling if you will.  At the same time, black belts must demonstrate humility and the attitude of a lifelong learner.  They are the living embodiment of the art itself.  These are broad concepts and mature understandings.  It makes absolutely no sense to ascribe this to a seven-year-old.  In doing so, we miss the significance of the art, and worse, the beauty and innocence of the child.

A good martial arts program will give a child the opportunity to build self-confidence and self-discipline through genuine accomplishment.  Each belt should be something the child earns, and represents a milestone of self-discipline and self-confidence, growth and empowerment.


John is the Chief Instructor at Steve DeMasco’s Shaolin Studios of Fairfield, and has 20 years experience in public education.