No More Black Belts For Kids!

Following is a selection from Dave Lowry’s essay collection, The Karate Way.

The Karate Way: Discovering The Spirit of Practice

We have to admit that the popular image of the black belt is inextricably woven into the general perception of these arts we follow. While we may have a more comprehensive view of the belt, we need to see that in the population outside the dojo, in the world at large, it usually means something else. When a black belt is conferred upon a karateka, that has implications in the popular imagination. And we should consider some ramifications that perception and those implications have upon what people think about karate-do.

Most readers will know that the belt system (dan-i) was created entirely by judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano. If has no ancient, feudal, or samurai connections. Belts in black or any other color were not a part of martial arts practice before the twilight of the feudal period in Japan, which ended in 1867. Kano awarded the fight black belts around the turn of the last century. Karate-do and other Japanese arts adopted the system, and later on so did most Korean combat arts.

Nearly all classical martial arts of the feudal period used some variation of the menkyo ranking system, and those extant today continue to use it. A series of licenses and sometimes accompanying scrolls were given to the student at various periods in their education, and their message was usually clear: the recipient is officially recognized in some capacity by the headmaster of that school. It is relatively easy to determine what this capacity is in the wording of the document. What exactly the black belt signifies in the modern dojo is another question entirely.

The public sees a child with a black belt and they assume that training is literally kid’s stuff.

In Japan, it is not uncommon to see sixteen- or seventeen-year-old children with black belts. No one in Japan would regard them as anything like a “master,” of course, just because they were wearing a black belt. It would be nice if we had a similar understanding of what a black belt means here, but we do not.

I can remember in the 1960s when some people seriously believed that in order to get a black belt, you had to kill a person. Or that you had to open-handedly chop through a requisite number of boards successfully. The general public has become a little more sophisticated now, but that’s not to say they don’t still have some odd ideas.

This morning’s paper contains a story about a “black belt” in a local karate school. He has been training for about two years and has completed successfully in several tournaments. He was recently promoted to a black belt rank. He is nine years old.

From a Western perspective, there is nothing good that comes from awarding a black belt to a child. For better of worse, the perception of the black belt is different here than in Japan. The public sees a child with a black belt and they assume that, in this dojo at least, training is literally kid’s stuff. They expect some level of competence and skill in a black belt that they know no child that age has or could have. Since Karate is inextricably linked with personal defense, they wonder too how the kid would do against a serious threat by an adult attacker.

While you could try to explain that this is a special junior rank…it all sounds like rationalization to the public. You are giving the kid a black belt because you want to encourage more children to enroll and thus pay the bills, or because it has to do with some other profit-motivated scheme, or because you just do not take your art seriously. That is going to be the assumption.

Come on. If a child can get a black belt in your art, how much is a black belt worth? Or for that matter, how much can your art itself be worth?

37 comments on “No More Black Belts For Kids!”

  1. I’ve have never awarded a kid a black belt. I remember watching Chuck Norris on one of the TV shows with a kid black belt. I remembering telling myself I would not have done that no matter if the kid met every other requirement. A black belt ought to be able to handle him or herself in most situations (including fighting adults)… A kid would not rise to that benchmark in my opinion.

  2. In my tae kwon do outfit they would not generally award a black belt until the kid reached the age of 16. Up until then you just wait. Though the masters could vote if there was someone exceptional.

    At my Kung fu school they have a kids program and an adult program. In the adult program there is no belts, sashes, etc. You just move from basic to intermediate and on to advanced. To keep the kids interested they do award colored sashes though I think there are only three or four colors.

    How about camouflaged belts? I kid you not. At a TKD tournament we once saw a school that had a few of their students in camouflaged belts. My instructor about came out of his skin when he saw it.

    🙂

  3. I’ve solved this problem in my kung-fu school. I give out any color of belt the students want.
    For performances some students choose blue, some yellow, some red, some black, some don’t care for belts and choose a head band or arm band instead.
    The best solution to this problem is to dilute the expectations of what a black belt means.
    Confucius said, “True merit is its own reward.”

  4. A friend of mine has a child who has his black belt. He earned it at 11 years old. He cried – literally cried – to his mom the other day when a kid took his hand held video game and would not give it back. I have seen his kicks & kata and although he is good for his age, he is NOT black belt material by a long shot. Needless to say, the dojo he was attending was a McDojo and the “Master” there runs a church out of the same space and encourages his students and their families to give to his church. This guy also has his own picture on the back of all their gi’s and in his yellow pages ad, posters, etc. Talk about full of himself.

  5. “What good is a belt? It holds your pants up.”

    Although I too have some romantic notions associated with the belt system (it does seem pretty cool to say you have a black belt), I’ve just about given up on worrying about it. I figure I should focus on improving my skills, not fretting about a ranking system.

  6. When I see a kid with a black belt I assume it is a “junior” black belt, not the same as the belt an adult would wear. Giving a kid a full black belt is just ridiculous. What kind of understanding would a kid have of their art? Would they even be aware that they are practicing an art? Could they defend themselves against an adult? There are so many reasons not to go down this road. It smacks of commercialism to me – give them what they want and take their parents money. Lulling kids into a false sense of security like this is doing them no favors in the long run.

  7. There is no way any kid could honestly earn a blackbelt at a proper school!
    blackbelts do stand for knowing lots of techniques, knowing the proper way to use them AND being able to control the technique as well as the outcome of it.
    To be able to achieve these skills requires YEARS of training, thus even if you start your training as a child you’ll probably be an adult before you manage to attain blackbelt status.

    I’ve heard some schools just hand out a new belt if someone wins a tournament or did a great demo (probably the case with your example), these schools are only in it for the money and do not deserve to be teaching at all in my opinion

    I’ve been training Karate for over 9 years now, and I’m up to 4th kyu.. and damn proud of it

    I did switch school (and style) recently and do notice that this school requires less perfection but still my opinion remains the same.

  8. A black belt is worth as much as the effort you put in. It’s not a comparison tool. I hear stories about young children grading to 2nd and 3rd dan. I try not to let it bother me, and make sure I get back to my own training quickly. So long as these black belt children don’t come breaking into my home in the dead of the night, they’ll not need to worry about the likes of me.

    Colin

  9. I would agree that the belt is only worth the effort you spent to earn it. But, when anyone can earn one somewhere (even if not in your dojo) it still can have the effect of cheapening the meaning of it for everyone who did truly EARN it. But, then again, when all is said and done…it is just a strip of cloth. What it truly means is inside you. But, like I said on a personal level I would like to see it mean something more than what it is being reduced to.

  10. I think the main thing to understand is that a 1 st degree Black Belt is only a sign that you have achieved a BASIC understanding of your style. You can do the required forms, break and spar reasonably well, NOT that you have become a Master! No style is so complicated that it should take you 6-7 years to earn a Black Belt. If a child follows the exact curriculum as an adult and that adult is awarded a Black Belt for their efforts and the child is not awarded at least something, you are telling that child that all their hard work was for nothing. As you progress through the ranks of Black Belt a deeper understanding is required and a greater appreciation of the art is gained. I heard someone say that the first five ranks of black belt are what the student got from karate, the other five are what they gave back.

  11. I have two kids at age 7 and 11, the master want them to go for the black belt, however i think that it is just for the money I dont see how these kids could have a black belt at there age, who will they fight when they are 17 and 21 if they are in a realy fight, giving kids under 16 a black belt is just to get money out of the parents, go to the kids class and see what they are teaching your kids does it worth your black belt money

  12. The belt system is very useful so that in sport competition or simply in competition of skills you do not have an extreme difference in ability… but the lack of a fix standard damages the credibility of the system.

    If one meets the level of proficiency of a given belt a child can be awarded the same. This is not to say that the child can face an adult in close combat. He can’t. There are issues of body mass that are impossible to overcome other than with strikes to vital points… and that is the problem.

    The mental attitude and responsibility required to strike at vital points that might permanently damaged the attacker is not in a 10 year old mind… specially if the attacker is a “little” school bully. So I am not sure about the usefulness of any Karate including taekwondo on the most likely situations a child will experience in real life… the art could be counterproductive in those occassion.

    But I have seen a video of a small girl in Florida that avoided an abduction from shopping mall by kicking the abductor… she was taking taekwondo and those kicks where enough to dissuade the abductor from continuing… so that part is possible.

    But no doubt that a consistent test standard is needed and no doubt that sub-par school will avoid it.

  13. If you want to be a warrior join the Marines or the Army. If you want to learn to fight join a gang. Neither of these will grant a black belt. If you want to engage in an enjoyable sport that awards rank based on subjective merits join a martial arts school. BTW your “adult” black belt will probably not be accepted outside of your system.

  14. In my art when someone recieves a black belt they are Shodan which means beginning level. Not a master of anything. Just someone that has a basic understanding of the art. This takes 4 or 5 years. Then maybe 4 to 5 levels to be considered a Master which takes another, lets say 15 yrs. And we give belts that are black to kids but give then title of Shodan-ho, so they have another step to shodan and that step could take another 2,3,4 years. Jr. black belt is made up here in the USA. I’ve seen Jr black belt test fees as high as $150 dollars. *Mo Money Mo Money*,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  15. I am going to have to agree that many kid black belts under the age of 14 are not really ready to become a black belt. I will have to say that most adults are not as well. Most black belt adults can not execute a simple techniques with any true technique or power. Most look just awful. That being said, my son received his black belt just before the age of 10. He was the youngest to earn it every it hi karate school and deserved it 110%. He satarted karate just before the age of 4 and practices approximately 15 hours a week. He was the 10 and under national champion in forms, weapons, and sparring. Is very proficient at brazilian jujitsu and at the age of 12 is now one of the top wrestlers in the state. He helps teach karate at his school and routinely wins grand championships in forms and weapons against adult competition. So yes, many kids and aduts do not deserve to receive their black belts but we cannot make a blanket statement that all kids do not. I have seen many kids on the national and wrold circuits that would run circles around many adults. I think it comes down to their ability to execute the techniques effectively, teach, and apply it apprpriately. Martial arts alone is not going to win a fight if the situation arises. It is the understadning of many disciplines which mixed martial arts has proven.

  16. I wish to start off by saying I have been training for 9 years. I have gone to two different school and seen two completely different styles of training. My first school was strict and very disciplined and I was a blue belt when he closed down. So I was forced to go to another school that just “hands out” belts. Although he is an exceptional martial artist himself being a 7th degree his school is run poorly. However you can get past this and still succeed. You just have to be able to learn from the instructor himself and take from what he gives you and earn your belt. So what if he would have given you a belt whether you earned it or not. What matters is that I did earn it. I was young when I earned my black belt being only 12. But I was good, very good. I had also been training for 6 years. I am proud to say I am a black belt and have earned it. Most of his students have not, but a few have and that is because we have the discipline to know that we have to earn our belts. But I do agree most students at a young age should not be a black belt. I hope I am one of the exceptions. But everyone is entitled to their opinion.

  17. I saw a child aged 10 get recognition at school for achieving his black belt the other day. Nice boy, I am sure he tried hard. However – I saw my son get his black belt a few years ago, he was around 20. NO CHILD could have got that belt!!!! simple as! It was a two hour grading during which he was expected (among other things) to defend himself from a dozen other martial artists with knives… black belt at 10??? I dont think so!

  18. A belt only keeps a pants up.A black belt means nothing.In my art.It’s a sense of commitment for doing it for say 6 years.It takes a life time to really learn a art.A few belt I know develop a false sense of the abilities.To an extent where they can get themselves killed.

  19. My 5 year old has been in taekwondo for 3 years this spring and although there have been many benefits, both with her behavior and health, and there is a true sense of family at her dojo, I am having some serious doubts about the grading system. I am proud of my girl and her achievements but she did not earn her last belt. She has never been denied a belt. She started in a “toddler” ranking system and has now switched to level 1. She just isn’t mentally there yet and the at home practice required is demanding for her age. I think it would have done her good to withhold the belt and remind her to practice her forms. There are several child black belts at the school. I can only think of 1 under 16 who has earned based on what I have seen. Thank you for all your comments, it has given me some food for thought.

  20. I think it is definetly possible to earn your black belt as a kid. I know a girl who is 8 and is working towards her black belt (nearly there) and anyone could tell she puts a lot of commitment into it and definetly would be able to defend herself against been attacked by adults.

  21. I take karate as a kid, and in my school black belts are awarded to kids no younger that 14 years old, and rarely to kids under 16. A kid at my school told me that he was a first degree black belt in karate. I immediately did not believe him. Black belts are to be awarded when someone is ready, and I am not embarrassed to admit that kids are not ready for black belts, sometimes not physically, and defiantly not mentally. If I was given the opportunity to pick any colored belt, I would choose purple belt, as it is the belt I currently have (although I am hoping to get my blue belt at the next belt test) and do not wish to have a black belt until I earn it. I have a coach that is a first degree black belt. It is really hard to imagine a 13 year old with that same rank. I thought it might be interesting to hear a kids point of view on the matter of young people with black belts.

  22. Great article. In my humble opinion, black belt is just to come of age. I think would be better an intermediate belt, maybe something like black and read, white and red, or something like this, in another words, a junior graduation until the kid come of age appropriate.

  23. My son is 8 and will be getting his Junior black in couple of weeks.
    As someone said in the comments that a kid can never be as good as an adult — well, for sure he is not worse if not better in all his techniques than any 16 year old in his karate school.
    His test for 1st degree brown lasted 4 hours (not just 2 like some comment said above) and this one is supposed to be longer.
    He knows all the forms and remembers all at any moment.
    his intensity and memory really surprises me.
    Can he fight an adult? No. But can an adult fight someone three times his/hers size? — I don’t think so.
    They do sparring one against 3/4 people and typically older kids (he is the youngest of his rank in his school).
    He got blooded many times, he has struggle going there.
    But he fights off all that fear and tries to be better.
    Isn’t that what counts?
    I hate all that talk that a kid who tries his best, goes to his training, competes, fights his fears, as much as any of the adults in his school — that he does not deserve a recognition for his hard work and accomplishment.
    Why 16 year old who goes through the same testing as my son should be awarded a black belt and my son not?
    Yes, maybe mentally my son is not a Black Belt — well, that is why there is a Junior Black Belt, which means that he completed his training to deserve it, but there is a lot of growing up to do and much more training for 1st Degree Black Belt.
    Have some faith in your kids.
    They can do it sometimes better and deserve it more than any of the adults 🙂

  24. I am a 14 year old mixed martial artist, When i was 8 I started in taekwondo but it felt odd, after learning the basic kicks and hand strikes i quit, i remember telling my mom “it just doesn’t feel like real martial arts” when she asked why i quit. only now do I do i realize that the dojo i joined was a Mcdojo, after a while I trained in Boxing for a while, then trained in muay thai, sanshou and jujitsu, aswell as learning some techniques from wing chun. after 2 years of cross training and conditioning.
    after a few months into first year middle school I checked back with some of the friends I made in taekwondo, i asked them fora little sparring tournament, they agreed and when we meet up, most of them had black belts, i asked why they had them so quikly, they answer “We won several tournaments ” so i began to doubt them,
    In our sparring, we agreed, no groin hits, no biting, eye gouging and submissions or joint holds. so the first black belt i fought threw some sort of punch, so my muay thai kicked in when i grabbed his arm and spun around slamming him with an elbow to the back,he fell down in pain and surrendered,

    Some of the other black belts grabbed him and gave him medical aid. I the wondered why a black belt would go down so easy, the second one i fought started by throwing a barrage of kicks, but when i got hit, i barely felt anything, when he stopped due to exhaustion i stomped on his lead foot, and slipped through his defense with a wing chun barrage, after 8 hits i let him go, he then ran at me with a flying kick, i swayed and he missed me, as soon as he landed i wailed at him with muay thai combos,then when he tried a counter attack, i threw a side kick that landed on his chest, i pushed him back and then grabbed his leg (dangerous, I know) and did a single leg take down, he landed flat on his back and screamed out in pain.

    after that fight, they had to go to the hospital to get medical treatment, those who stayed ran away, yelling “demon” when i asked for a match,.

    I then investigated their back rounds and found that all of them specialized in “points combat” and had no real experience fighting .

    I posted this story to prove that most, if not all, Mcdojo blackbelts, wouldn’t satand a chances against a well rounded fighter who actually train in order to gain skill and not to pay for your level.

  25. My kids attended a school where we saw 7 year olds awarded black belts. All the black belts were called sensei. Needless to say, we don’t go there anymore. Schools like this cheapen the great traditions of the martial arts.

  26. I have been following my art for 12 years and have obtained the rank I aimed to get. What I’m trying to get at is even though children might get trained to their level, they don’t really have the maturity that an adult has and they really should not be given their black belt until they exhibit the proper mental capacity to withhold the knowledge that they have a level of mastery in their art. Long story short I don’t think children should have their first black belt until they exhibit the maturity. Another example is one friend of mine when he was little he wanted his black belt just so he could beat people up and I gained my black belt before him because I exhibited the maturity required by my sensei

  27. I think the real question is what does your black belt measure ? If it measures only kata, kihon and kumite, then anyone can earn one. If there is some measure that a kid cannot obtain without a particular age, then they cannot earn one.

    A black belt in my dojo also measures maturity, grace under extreme pressure and perseverance against being exhausted, overwhelmed and outnumbered. We have not had a black belt younger than 17, and that was an unusual case. We do offer a junior black belt, and re-test (we do not charge for testing)

  28. When I was about 11, (I had been doing Taekwondo for about 4 years so yeah) I was awarded a black belt, but, I also had to spar all of the other black belts and get so many points without getting points against me, and all the other black belts were adults… at least my school did it right. (I guess) 10 years later and here I am 5th degree.

  29. I have been training for 8 years and recently got awarded my candidate black belt and in maybe another 2 years will hope to get my black belt. My dojo doesn’t just give out belts, that’s for sure. Kids don’t get their black belts until 16 years old. We have a few candidate black belts that have been at that rank for many years. Sensei won’t bend on that and I respect him for it. Needless to say, the harder I worked to get to my level, the more I appreciated it. We are taught strong defense, strong character, strong morals and fighting even when tired. My son is 10 and has been training for six years and has his brown stripe belt. I knew other kids at other dojos that started as the same age as my son and now have their black belts. I won’t judge other dojos but I know its about the money and staying in business. I would rather my son wait until he is 16 before getting his black belt because that will help teach him more patience.

    Just my 2 cents.

  30. I always hated the belt system. I see belts just s a tool to hold my gi closed and a way to keep business. At the end of the day all I want to do is train.

  31. I started training in my early 40s. Two of my instructors began training very young and earned their first degree black belts when very young. When I began learning from them, one was 17 and 3rd degree, the other was 23 and 4th degree. I would put either of those two young men up against the best anyone can offer of equal rank, any age. They were wise, mature, skilled, and knowledgeable BECAUSE of their martial arts training, years beyond their physical age in every respect.

    That is, after all, the point of doing this.

    And if the ability to defend yourself against an adult attacker is the ultimate measure for your black belt, then they were ranked too low.

    But then again, that’s not really the point of doing this.

  32. I am 13 and I have my black belt. I have been in real fights with adults, many including knives. Saying a kid could never actually deserve to be a black belt is an OPINION. I have fought, and beat, a black belt master. But, as you say, Im ONLY a KID, UNDESERVING of a black belt. I am a teacher at a large studio near my home, and guess what! I am called MASTER. Even in Japan

  33. A good school will not just give out black belts, it will require that kids earn them and push themselves as individuals. Parents should simply research multiple schools and see what they expect.

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