The building of character is the forging of our person from the inside. This forging is central to Budo training. Character is what allows us to remain still when others scatter; it is what allows us to continue straightaway when others turn; what allows us to move forward when others retreat. Character is everything for the Way of the Warrior. This is especially so when it comes to children that are cultivating themselves through Budo. That is to say, Budo training for children is primarily about character development, because it can hardly be, and should not be, about self-defense.
Across time, across cultures, because Man is a social animal, the following virtues have always been understood to be the marks of good character, and thus they have always been understood as the signs of great potential in children. These are the universal virtues of character: trustworthiness, integrity, courage, honesty, truth, sincerity, honor, loyalty, respectfulness, valuing all persons, living by the golden rule, honoring the dignity of difference and the freedom of others, being polite, responsibility, doing one's duty, being accountable, doing one's best by pursuing excellence, exercising self-control, fairness, being just, being consistent towards others, listening and open to differing viewpoints, compassionate, kind, considerate, charitable, unselfish, and self-sacrificing.
Before we show concern for our child's lap time in swimming, their athletic endurance in running, their talent at music, their genius for math, etc., our concern as adult budoka, or as parents of child budoka, should be with their character. As such, we must first set up the expectation that character must be demonstrated in everything our children do, say, and think. We should expect our children to always be in line with the virtues listed above, never acting, speaking, or thinking contrarily to them. If our children utter racial or homophobic slurs, or demonstrate a tendency for violence in play or as solutions to disagreements, for example, we cannot and should not see such instances as "boys being boys," or as "silly kid games," but rather as full departures from the virtues we wish to cultivate, and should be cultivating, in them. That is to say, such speech and such action, and the ideas behind it, demonstrate not a variety of childhood ignorance but rather already several years in the cultivation of fear over courage, an incapacity to live by the golden rule, an unwillingness to value all people, an incapacity for maintaining respect at all times, an incapacity at honoring the dignity of difference, a lack of manners, a belief that one is not accountable for his/her behavior, a lack of self-control, no sense of justice, a lack of compassion, a propensity for inconsideration and selfishness, etc. Because it is the lack of character that is at issue in such cases, and not childhood ignorance, and because all of the virtues marking good character are interdependent, children that act thusly will also demonstrate many or all of the following throughout any given time period: superficial charm, self-centeredness, an inflated sense of self-importance, a proneness to boredom, deceptive behavior and lying, a tendency to blame others for their actions, conning and being manipulative, a lack of remorse or guilt, shallow emotional responses, and poor self-control. As they enter the teen years and/or young adulthood, should the lack of character development continue, they are prime for a life of promiscuous sexual behavior and/or a restriction toward superficial relationships, a lack of realistic long-term goals, an impulsive lifestyle, irresponsible behavior, and a tendency to cause suffering in those around them or (ultimately) a proneness toward varied criminal activity. As you can see, this is very much a departure from the Warrior's Way.
As we set up expectations for our children, we must be prepared to hold them ourselves. This means more than simply having us live by own standards. It also means that we cannot vary in our expectations according to our time constraints, our fatigue levels, and/or the childhood hang-ups we have yet to reconcile. Additionally, we must look to place our children only in those locations where others present share our own expectations on good character. Finally, and most importantly, we must not "enforce" our own character expectations from acts that fall outside of them. In other words, for example, we must not strike our children to "teach" them that they should not hit people.
The dojo, as one of the places where children of parents who have the expectation of good character can look to have this expectation upheld, sees nothing outside of the Way of the Warrior. As such, for example, should a child lie to his/her instructor, or should a child be unable to follow his/her instructor's directions, such behavior is never understood solely at the surface level, where things have a greater tendency to be accepted and/or excused, where the expectations we wish to uphold are more easily discarded. That is to say, lying to an instructor is not a misunderstanding, an act of nervousness, or a little game; rather it is purely a lack of virtue. It is an absence of trustworthiness. It is many years of cultivating an incapacity for respect, integrity, honor, responsibility, and accountability. Being unable to follow the directions given by an instructor is not silliness, a jovial matter; rather it is the continuing practice of superficial charm, self-centeredness, an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of remorse or guilt, and poor self-control.
Now the thing with cultivating virtue is that most folks like the idea while they really hate the implied notion that they have room for improvement in such matters. Understandably, this is an even more intense gut-reaction when it comes to our children. However, this does not serve us well. If we are unable to look to the cultivation of our children's virtue for the mere fact that we cannot imagine them to be lacking in virtue, then we are going to have to admit that we are incapable of upholding the expectation their character is so dependent upon. As Budoka, and/or as parents of budoka, we really have to find our way beyond this hang-up. One solution I propose is to look to participate as fully as we can in the actual cultivation of our child's virtue. This will allow us to focus our energy on the positive side of character cultivation. In relation to the dojo, such as ours for example, this is quite easy to do. One is always welcome on the mat, to build and to foster a virtuous relationship between parent and offspring according to the advantages of good character. Additionally, or if one cannot participate in the former suggestion, one must look to reinforce every lesson on virtue and on character their child was exposed to during training that day. This is very important, so I will say it again: One must look to reinforce every lesson on virtue and on character that their child was exposed to during training that day.
Reinforcing class should never entail a punishment or a scolding, as no such things are ever necessary. After all, mistakes in character have to be allowed for, as they are the primary means, if not the only means, of cultivating character. Additionally, the expectation works, and becomes more potent as a means of transformation, the more "common" it remains. In other words, a simple talk, reviewing and repeating the circumstances, as well as mentioning possible solutions and/or alternatives of good character that the child could practice in the future, is all that is needed. For any parent wishing their child to receive the blessings and benefits of full Aikido training, the reinforcing of the dojo's expectations regarding character is a must. It is by reinforcing the lessons that are practiced in the dojo that a parent takes his/her child's training out of the ordinary and into the profound. When this is coupled with regular/consistent training, a child's character cannot but be cultivated and thus filled with virtue; a child's life cannot but be graced with the blessing of having the capacity to bring goodness into the lives of everyone they will ever come into contact with.
By David M. Valadez
"The Grindstone" is a collaborative column written by these authors.