Tough Love


In 1948 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that "education has a two-fold function to perform... one is utility and the other is culture." At ICS we refer to these functions as knowledge and socio-emotional learning  On the wall outside the music room our children see that King warned us that "intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education."

This advice came to mind when my younger daughter took a Tae Kwan Do belt test in Friday night. Apart from the physical benefits that come from martial arts, Tae Kwan Do also seeks to inculcate character values similar to ours at ICS: courtesy, integrity, perseverance and self-control, among them.

Before the test began, her teacher, Master Kwok asked the students if they were living up to the Tae Kwan Do values. “Did any of you greet your teacher when you entered the room?”

Silence. A lot of staring at feet.

“Do you think I should proceed with the best test if you have not even learned the first value? What does it mean to be courteous?"

A parent sitting near me could not hear what was going on and asked “Why does he seem so mad?”


I explained that apart from the forms and strength, Master Kwok expected them to learn values that would reflect well on themselves, and on him as their teacher. 

The tension continued as he asked more questions. He turned to the assistant teacher, asking what this situation suggested. She seemed uncomfortable.

After a few more comments, he agreed to start the test. The children acquitted themselves well, demonstrating precise forms and strong kicks. But afterwards as he handed out the belts he warned them that living the values of his studio was as important to him as their technical knowledge. “You can ask [name of kid]. He was a red belt with three black stripes and I dropped him back to white. He had to earn everything again.”

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Greater appreciation for and acceptance of diversity is a positive aspect of our society in the past 60 years. Writing this post on a Saturday morning from a coffee shop at the corner of 87th St and 4th Ave in Bay Ridge, I see Arab moms in headscarves, Chinese grandparents pushing shopping carts, and white kids in Rangers tee-shirts. Thomas Jefferson wrote said it was ‘self-evident’ that all men were created equal but we have long struggled to live up to this ideal.

As we become more open and accepting, the challenge is to simultaneously remain committed to common values that bind us together. When we hesitate to impose these values, for fear we are shaming or excluding, we tell kids these values are not really important to us. 


The Family Organization adult book club is reading David Brook’s The Road to Character.  Whether you can join them for the discussion (Tuesday May 1st) or not, the book offers yet another variant on this universal lesson and rewards your effort.  

It’s no fun setting your alarm to wake up 15 minutes earlier, or enduring the whining of a child to whom you have to say “No, it’s a school night.” I’ve got three of my own, and I wish I could tell you they become courteous and full of perseverance right at the end of 5th grade. 

But as Shakespeare wrote, sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind. Even at 8:02 in the morning.