I remember being captivated by the Martial Arts from an early age. Some of my earliest school memories are trips to the school’s library to check out whatever books they had on the shelves having to do with Karate, Judo, Kung-fu, or anything that passed for Martial Arts. I would bring the books home and practice what I saw in the pictures. I cannot say my parents were as fascinated as I was with these unfamiliar practices from cultures not like ours. My Mother’s first impression was that it was a rough practice, that promoted fighting, and she abhorred violence. When I persisted, a family friend came to my aid and told my Mom that she practiced the Korean Martial Art of TaeKwon-Do and there was a lot more to the practice than fighting. On that friend’s advice, my Mother decided to take a closer look at whether Martial Arts can be an appropriate, even beneficial, activity for children. Needless to say, my parents changed their minds about whether Martial Arts were for kids.
After forty years of practicing the Martial Arts and nearly thirty years teaching it, when parents ask me now whether they should allow their child to participate in Martial Arts, I tell them it depends on the child, depends on the instructor, and it certainly depends on the curriculum that will be taught. I try to keep three things in mind when answering this question:
- HEALTH & FITNESS
I think that we all can agree that children should be physically active (throughout the day), and parents and caregivers should encourage both organized and spontaneous play. An active lifestyle promotes good health at any age and children learn a lot during play. Specifically, the CDC recommend that school age children spend at least 1 hour a day doing moderate to vigorous physical activity, and organized play is recommended 2 to 3 times per week. I recommend fostering and feeding whatever seems to interest the child, provided it is an “age appropriate” activity. The CDC points out that a three-year-old is quite different from a 10-year-old child. The Martial Arts can typically be a good source of fun and physical activity for children as young as three or four years old and up.
I think a lot about whether an activity is “age appropriate” when talking about self-defense for kids. When a parent asks me about self-defense for their child, I very often hear next how their child is being bullied and struggling with some degree of anxiety and/or depression. Parents naturally want to protect and build their child’s self-esteem and look for ways to instill a strong sense of self-worth. Bullying victimization is a global public health issue. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, one in five students in this country report being bullied and half of those students are fearful that they will be bullied again. Instances of bullying can include negative social peer pressure, being the subject of rumors, being excluded from peer activities, and being intimidated and/or physically assaulted.
I believe that every life is worth defending and individuals have an inherent, natural right to defend themselves. That said, I am sure there is not a single school principal who would say that a punch in the face is the appropriate answer to feeling bullied. I think it is a nearly universal school policy these days to have a total prohibition on acts of physical violence, regardless of… who started it. This is where I start to part ways with many of my Martial Art instructor peers and associates. I say that grappling based (i.e, Judo and Jiu-jitsu), rather than striking based (i.e, Karate, Muay Thai Kickboxing, and TaeKwon-Do), Martial Arts are more age appropriate for children. I do not permit children under thirteen years old to participate in my kickboxing or striking based classes. I have a four-step plan that teach my Mat Monkeys, my youngest Martial Art curriculum for children four to nine years-of-age:
- Try to defuse the situation, but always tell (a grown-up).
- If you are unable to defuse the situation, or get help, close the distance quickly and tightly “hug” your attacker/bully, pulling them to the ground.
- Once on the ground, control the position and stay safe from their punches and kicks.
- Finally, negotiate an end to the alteration before letting them up. Then tell (a grown-up).
My Mat Monkeys program consists of 15 lessons that cover some of the most effective ways a smaller person can subdue and control a bigger person. The program also has a hefty dose of stranger-danger wisdom and life-lessons on the benefits of good moral character. I believe my program develops positive self-esteem that builds fit, healthy kids.
Finally, my Mat Monkeys Martial Arts for Kids program is intended to promote healthy bodies, minds, and spirits, and is not intended to prepare children to compete in contests of grappling skill or acumen. Granted, there is a lot of value to athletics and competition, in general, and there are many Martial Art businesses that make their competition records the prized feature of their programs. On the other hand, there has been a lot of recent study and data that suggests too much emphasis on competition may not be all that beneficial, especially for kids. In fact, author and social scientist Alfie Kohn has said, “The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that competition is destructive, particularly, but not exclusively, for children.” He urges educators and parents to examine more closely traditional beliefs about the value of competition in child development.
If a child comes and ask to compete, consider it, but I do not typically introduce competition into my kid’s Martial Art curriculum until between the ages of ten and twelve. There are always exceptions to consider. For instance, I could hardly keep my younger son from competing when his older brother started to participate in tournaments. He felt strongly about not wanting to be excluded because of his age, so I acquiesced and let him compete. But I also feel strongly that parents should not pressure their children to compete. It should be the child’s desire, rather than the parents.
A long time has passed since I was that kid bugging my parents to let me take Karate. Now I am asked to give advice to parents on whether Martial Arts are the right activity for their child. As a Martial Artist, I want to promote the value that Martial Arts has added to my life. As a parent, however, we must think about what is best for the child. If your child is asking you for Karate lessons, listen. This could be an excellent opportunity to instill a passion to pursue a healthy lifestyle full of fitness and self-empowerment. But be sure to ask lots of questions of the instructor you are considering and examine their curriculum carefully to determine if their kids’ program is “age-appropriate” and a good fit for your child and family.