In the Spring of 2007, my two boys (then almost 5 and six and a half) decided to take on the challenge of Tae Kwon Do.  What started as curiosity turned into over three years of ups and downs, highs and near lows, but most of all, lessons for us all (as anyone who follows my blog or podcast has certainly heard about).  But as the old saying goes, you don’t know what you have til it is gone.

The boys’ interest in Tae Kwon Do began with a birthday party they attended at the Tae Kwon Do school.  They had attended one a year or so earlier but my youngest was deemed too young and my oldest didn’t show much interest.  With the second introduction, they both got into it much more. They started out with uniforms and white belts and attended classes of kids who were also beginners.  The instruction was excellent and we really saw promise in them, not so much from a Tae Kwon Do perspective but more in the focus and listening categories.

As an incentive I told them if they stuck with it for the three month trial period (which happened to line up with the Summer) I would sign up to join them.  This seemed to work as they reminded me several times that I too would be going to class with them before long.  I actually began to look forward to it as a source of exercise and something we could participate in together.

The Summer passed quickly and they tested for their yellow belts.  With the completion of their goal, and the urging of the instructors, I signed up and we began to attend the Family class- a mixture of parents and kids.  Instruction was very similar to the kids class, lively and encouraging, with the occasional “Don’t hurt yourself Daddy”, but supportive all the while.  The boys seemed to enjoy the fact that we were doing it together although they were reluctant to help me along as they wanted to stay ahead of me in belts.

Belt testing was scheduled for once a month and during one of our early belts, the boys were ready to test but we had a conflict on the Saturday of testing- we were planning to be out of town for a tour of the White House, not something you turn down.  As such, the boys missed their window to test that month and I was able to catch up to them in belt color.  It was a long month where they were fairly bored repeating the things they already knew and I was working hard to make sure I was ready to test with them.

Once we were at the same belt color it became more fun for me to work with them but frustrating too.  I was often the designated leader of our group when it came to “get with your color belts and practice [whatever]”, mainly because I was usually the oldest, and me being the lead caused some friction with the boys.  As can often be the case, the kids seemed to react better to instruction from the teachers rather than from their parent.  And I was not able to shrug off their resistance as well as the instructors, typically letting my emotional connection cloud my reaction to them not giving it their all.

After our first year of class we had to either quit or renew for another 2 years, which according to the schedule would have us ready for our black belts.  I asked the boys if they wanted to continue and they said yes.  So we signed up for another 2 years of commitment, and the associated costs, and pressed on.  We progressed on schedule with visions of black belts in our heads.

Then in our last year, things began to slow down.  At times the boys became disinterested with going to class.  Sometimes this escalated to a full blown tirade.  They were reminded about the commitment they made, the financial commitment we were making every month, but still expressed their want to stop going.  Reasons varied.  Sometimes they were tired, especially for Friday night classes.  Sometimes they wanted some down time between school and daycare to just sit at home for a while, something we can all probably appreciate.  We made deals (“If I get to skip tonight I will go the next 2, 3 or 4 times”), we made contracts (after some of the deals were “forgotten”), we bribed, threatened and begged.  Sometimes they would be crying by the time we got in the car to go but typically they would be fine by the time we got there.

My youngest took a couple of “breaks” where he wouldn’t go at all for a week or two.  My oldest came along with some coercing and/or pushing (he was not as adept at deal making and made offers he regretted later, like skip one go to the next 14!).  But for the most part we were able to stick together in our belt levels as the instructors would let my youngest catch up when he fell behind.  This made my oldest question why his younger brother kept sliding through when he went more often and felt he worked harder.  It was tough for me to explain and I tried to hide my own feelings that it wasn’t fair to my oldest.  I think this eventually contributed to some of his negativity toward going.

Eventually my oldest and I got ahead of my youngest.  As much as I wanted to stick together, I thought this might actually work out for the best as he would be able to train with others and not have the friction of learning from his Dad.  Unfortunately he began training with others that he was less comfortable with and didn’t enjoy it as much as the “Dad  friction” arrangement.  As we entered our final year of our commitment, the drive to go became less intense and the deals and excuses more so.  We took a hiatus a couple of times and soon got out of the schedule to be black belt ready by the end of 3 years.

Getting the boys to go became more of a struggle and a drain on me emotionally.  And when they did go they picked at each other, lacked the respect and discipline that I expected of them and became more of a distraction than a joy to have around.  I spent most of my time during warm-ups watching them, giving them the eye and wondering why I was still putting us through this.   As our commitment came to a close, they were relieved and began counting down the number of classes we planned to attend before it was over.  Over at least for them.

I decided to press on.  I had committed in my mind, and to the instructors, to obtain my goal of a black belt.  I still wanted to achieve that goal, even if the boys were done with it.  I signed up for another year and was assured that if I could attend regularly, I could attain this in a few months.  I thought about the lack of distractions, the change to the adult class that would get a little more intense and looked forward to the challenge.

Unfortunately shortly after renewing I injured my back.  It kept me from doing nearly anything for a while and once I was feeling a little better I focused on an 8k event that I had registered for with my wife and let Tae Kwon Do sit on the sidelines for fear of injuring myself further.  Once the race was done, and after a few visits to the Chiropractor, I tried to get back into going to class.  I was able to attend a few but business travel and the holidays wreaked havoc with my schedule.

With the first of the year came a new devotion to attend class.  I went and was amazed at how different it was.  Not in a good way though.  I had anticipated my freedom from the boys’ picking on one another and me parenting during class to be a relief, and it was, but I also realized I had lost my inspiration.  I was less inclined to do my best to lead by example.  I was less inspired to get up and go, to break free from the distractions and get some exercise.  I felt bad leaving my family two evenings a week to attend class.  I was miserable.

It wasn’t until I forced myself to attend class for a couple of weeks that I got over this feeling.  I began to get inspired again about accomplishments, learning and exercise.  I established a schedule that felt less taxing on family time and realized by continuing to go I was still being the example to the kids, even if they weren’t going with me.  They could see my tenacity and accomplishment and one day that would sink in and mean more to them.

So in essence I didn’t really lose my inspiration but it took a major shift.  I realized that being self driven can take on many forms and also that I am still an example to them, even if they aren’t there directly to see it.  Granted, I still miss being able to attend class with the boys from the aspect of doing something together, but I don’t miss the friction and emotional toll that it took on us all.  So I guess there are limits to togetherness where you can do too much, and I think we may have had a glimpse into that.  For that life lesson I am thankful.

As for the message in all of this, I guess the best lesson learned is don’t underestimate the power of inspiration with parenting.  It surprised me how much I relied on it, how much it drove me.  Being the leader of the pack really is an inspiration all by itself and leading by example can help you do things you wouldn’t normally accept as easily.  Think of a fear you have (needles come to mind for me) and how you might react if your kids are watching.  You don’t want to show the fear to them so you suck it up and act like it is no big deal.

Also, don’t be single focused on your inspiration.  Sure, the most direct means of inspiration may be easy to see but try to look around that, past that, get creative, and see how inspiring the not so obvious can be.  And lastly (and most difficult to say for me), don’t over do it with togetherness.  Most stories speak to a father needing to be more engaged with their family because they lack that togetherness, but issues can arise from doing too much too (aka, helicopter parenting).  Although I would always want to err on the side of over doing too much and back down rather than leaving a gap to fill.