When Paul Prendergast first opened his martial arts institute in Brick, one of the first relationships he wanted to develop in the community was with the police department. After earning the trust of the chief and other township officials, as well as offering women’s self-defense classes for the community, the police chief and public officials came to the school to give Prendergast an award and show off the department’s drug-sniffing K9.
“The police officer had his dog and held up a bag of marijuana and he asks the kids who were between 4 and 7 years old, ‘does anyone know what this is?” Prendergast recalls. “Little Johnnie says: ‘it’s weed.’ The officer asks how he knew it. The kid goes: ‘my dad grows it in the backyard.’”
Embarrassment in front of long out-of-office public servant aside, Prendergast has been exposed to parenting at its best and its worst at his school, which began in Brick and now operates a second location in Toms River. There were parents who had affairs with other students’ parents, a mother who was so drunk that she urinated on herself while waiting to pick up her child, and a another mother who pulled her child out of the school after a friendly competition for a candy cane at Christmas resulted in her child being on the losing team.
The book isn’t just a list of parental screw-ups. It’s also a wake-up call to parents, co-written by psychologist Carol Davis. Titled “Stop Painful Parenting: Tales from Our Side of the Mat,” Prendergast offers examples of poor parental behavior and channels his martial-arts principles to tackle them one-by-one, with help from David.
“I always wanted to write the book – I always said nobody would believe these stories, but they’re all true,” Prendergast told Shorebeat.
Prendergast’s dedication to his own daughter has been evident throughout his life, but took on a deeper meaning after his wife died suddenly seven years ago, suffering a stroke and receiving what Prendergast explains was a less-than-urgent response from emergency services.
“I was thrust into being a single parent,” he explained. “But even before that tragedy took place, nothing was more important than being a parent to me. I left the school every day at six o’clock because no matter what, we were going to eat dinner together.”
Seeing so much good and so much bad in the 28 years running his martial arts schools, Prendergast said he needed to shed light on a rarely-discussed issue: that poor parenting hasn’t seemed to change over the years – it’s been one vicious cycle.
“The names change, the face change, but people keep repeating the mistakes that they’re doing,” he said. “My hope is that people read it and and think, ‘my God, what are we doing here?’”
“I thought, if I can do it – a guy who has two businesses, 500 students, a house, 12 employees and two dogs – if I can do it and make my kid a priority, you can do it too,” he said.
“There are takeaways from the therapist about what damage is being done to children,” Prendergast, a sixth degree black belt and chief master of the schools, explained. “If you’re doing X, Y and Z and not realizing it, this is why your child might act in a certain way.”
Setting a good example is the book’s primary message on raising children to high standards, and the anecdotes of poor behavior – some humorous, and some sad – are examples of how some parents might be able to expect more from both themselves and their children.
“Thousands of kids and parents have come through my doors,” he said. “This school has been something of a laboratory for behavioral science, and I’m not a therapist. But every kid is different and you have to treat them differently. I’ve learned what’s right, what’s wrong and what gets the best results. You see a lot. The people who are successful with raising children have one common denominator: they’re setting a good example.”
Prendergast admits he’s not a psychologist, but thousands of parents have turned to him to help instill discipline, self-confidence and respect in their children. Prendergast said before he ever took a martial arts class, he struggled in school. He thought about becoming a chef, but had to take remedial classes at Ocean County College before even being accepted to a two-year culinary program.
“Martial arts was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
Through martial arts, Prendergast has achieved the American dream – a successful business, a meaningful service to his community, and a daughter who is on her way to graduate school after four successful years at college.
“I think parents, in general, have to be what you want for your child,” he explained. “Like Gandhi said: ‘be the change that you want to see.’
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