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The martial arts aren't for everybody
                  Dianna Gordon

Children in Martial Arts

On this page:
Your Child in Martial Arts | To sign or not to sign | How old | Hidden Costs | Parental involvement

It is finally the big day. The day she's been waiting for. Today, she'll take her first step toward becoming a "real" Power Ranger ... Susie is going to join a local karate school. Everyone is excited, but ...

Have Susie and her parents done their homework?

As visions of Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dance in their heads, it's hard to realize that real martial arts classes can be just plain old hard work and at times incredibly boring. So the first step kids and parents should take is to investigate the options available.

There are two avenues to explore before enrolling a child in a martial arts school. With the work required, it really should be more than a spur of the moment whim. First, do some research. There are books on the various martial arts in the library or at bookstores. (Books such as Martial Arts for Dummies and Idiot's Guide to Martial Arts are excellent introductions to a rich, varied and complex subject). And the Internet is a vast treasure trove of fact, fiction, marketing and advertising. But knowledge can be gleaned there. Trust the college and university sites, which generally have valuable information without the hidden agenda of trying to recruit new, young students. Various martial arts organization sites also can offer information on a particular style, as well as schools in the area that teach it.

Martial arts come in many different 'flavors.' Would a soft style, such as Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Aikido or similar arts, fit Susie's personality and physiology better than the harder styles of karate, as seen in Shotokan karate, Tae Kwon Do (TKD) or Kenpo karate? Would a stricter, more formal and codified system that emphasizes proper conduct and self-discipline be better or would a far more athletic, gymnastic and graceful style (such as capoeria) better suit your child? Or, would you as a parent be more comfortable with your child knowing a wrestling and grappling art (such a judo, jujistsu, danzan ryu, chi na)? Not all martial arts styles and schools teach the same thing, so before you go shopping you need to know what you are in the market for.

After investigating the arts, it's time to get in the car and visit local schools. Schools should be more than willing to let parents and potential students observe their classes. If they discourage visitors and observation, bypass them quickly. You should also be wary of schools that try to get you to sign up after watching only one class -- especially when long-term contracts are involved. As a parent, you need to visit a potential school several times before deciding to enroll you child. Watch how the classes are presented, especially children's classes (if those are offered separately). Pay attention to how instructors interact with students. What is being taught? And how is it taught? School instructors should be more than willing to take a few minutes to discuss the style, the rules and their expectations when asked. Prepare your questions in advance after you do your research on martial arts styles.

You, Your Child: What Are Your Goals?
Seriously consider your children's goals? Does she just want to have fun? A tournament-oriented school may be the answer. Tournaments are fun since children win trophies or medals for point sparring or kata performance. Tournament schools put an emphasis on such competitions and generally channel their students into the safer ones. If you notice one- and two-foot trophies adorning walls and trophy cases, you've probably walked into a school that gears students for these competitions. Self-defense? See below.

And what are your goals for your child?

Self-defense? A competent martial arts instructor will be well aware of the zero tolerance policies in force in most public and private schools. He or she will teach "playground safe" tactics that allow the child to disengage and seek help from the adults in authority. Avoid like the plague any school that shows a small child stepping into a "fighting stance" against a mature adult. That's hype and so far from reality as to be laughable. Pay particular attention to curricula that emphasize awareness and avoidance. A kid will never, pound for pound, be able to fight off an adult. To believe so or allow a child to believe so is ridiculous. Children don't need to be taught how to "fight" (except for points and the joys of tourneys); they need to be taught to be aware of the surroundings, how to avoid or escape and where to go for help. Self-defense is vastly different than fighting, and both are very different than martial arts.

Discipline? That will happen in the course of any martial arts training. No good instructor can afford to have 20 kids kicking and punching at the same time in one room without the necessary discipline to keep children from being hurt. Discipline will range from the more laid back, American methods of "it's there, but not taken to an extreme" with questions and comments encouraged and welcomed; to the Asian traditional styles where discipline and ceremony are hard and fast, the master is the god of the dojo (training hall) and there is minimal interaction of students questioning the master's methods. The study of martial arts must be disciplined in order to keep participants from hurting each other or themselves. The degree of pomp and ceremony will vary among schools.(1)

Self-control? Yes. Again, it's vital to the safety of all students in the dojo. Watch the high belts (blue and above, generally) and how they interact with others. The proof of the pudding lies within the discipline, self-control and courtesy long-time students exhibit toward their instructors, peers and new students. Look into the corners and see how students behave off the matt. If a school claims to teach something it should be consistent throughout and from top to bottom.

Focus? Again, good martial arts teachers will generally recognize and help young students learn to sharpen their focus. In the 20-plus years we've taught traditional martial arts, there has never been a class session without one or more students diagnosed as ADD and ADHD. There are particular tricks of the trade we use to engage and keep the interest of these students. And parents have attested, time and again, that the martial arts classes have improved the attention span and focus of those students. Most experts on ADD/ADHD encourage martial arts training for kids with the condition. Simply stated martial arts require the physical and mental multi-tasking that ADDers are not only capable of, but are arguably designed for(2).

Memorization? Check and see if the school teaches traditional kata (martial arts forms of movements that must be made in a specific order; a choreographed one-person display of the martial arts techniques being taught and put into a fluid display). Kata is wonderful for memorization, as well as aerobic exercise, balance and coordination -- just as any sport is valuable. In this, however, a student only competes against himself. Martial arts is an individual endeavor, which many students prefer over the teamwork emphasized in other organized sports. She will succeed or fail on her own merits and hard work.

Self-discipline? Yes. In most reputable schools students will not advance (move up in belt colors) without the discipline of practice and more practice. This is where the hard work comes in, plus the fact that outside the dojo students must practice religiously on their own to gain any advancement. When we've had children enrolled by parents specifically because those parents want the discipline of a martial arts school, we usually encourage them to keep the kids enrolled until green belt. This way kids know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, no need to slug it out for years to the coveted black belt rank. By green belt, they've been required to focus, memorize, show courtesy and respect to fellow students and teachers, and work hard to attain the belt. The self-discipline comes with each belt rank they achieve.

Other aspects of martial arts that will be emphasized in a good school are courtesy, integrity, perseverance and indomitable spirit, to name a few.

And it all boils down to some hard work on the part of the student, as well as the instructor. Martial arts is not for everyone. And many will not want to offer the commitment required to do them well. Others will take to martial arts training like fish to water; it simply suits them and their needs. Return to top of page

To Sign or Not to Sign?
So after considering goals, doing the research and visiting area schools, you finally settle on the one that seems to best fulfill your needs and goals. The next question: To sign or not to sign?

Many commercial martial arts schools require parents to sign a contract for a specific length of time their child will be enrolled to ensure payment each month. In a business, this is the only way to guarantee a constant flow of income into the school. But contracts are a double-edged sword. They ensure the income to keep the doors open. If too much emphasis is put on contracts and students renewing contracts, however, there can be a decrease in quality as standards are relaxed to keep parents signing those contracts.

So just because you'd be paying a lot of money doesn't mean your child would be getting good training. In many commercial schools contracts have come hand-in-hand with regular testing, accelerated rank advancement and lowering of standards. Martial arts have traditionally been a life-long path. One of personal development and refinement. Those are the goals we discussed in the previous section and they are life skills. But in contract driven schools, achieving rank has eclipsed those goals. But rank isn't what you think it is. To begin with, the ranking system was only developed in the last century, and only because of mass instruction(3). But it has been interpreted as the goal by achievement oriented Westerners. For many a black belt has become a cloth trophy rather than an indicator of skill and understanding. This is where the double edged sword of contracts comes in. When you sell a contract, people expect results. Figuring that they are paying fees, parents often pressure MA schools to regularly test and advance their children. In turn, schools lower the standards so the child will be automatically advanced every 1 to 6 months -- regardless of the child's actual skill, performance level or amount of practice. Therefore many schools have become what are known as "belt factories." (Also known as MacKarate, MacDojos  and stripmall dojos) These large -- and often franchised -- schools are in the business of selling black belts. There are schools that will guarantee your child a black belt inside two years. That's right "guarantee." Ranking from these schools are like a fake Rolex watch, they look like something that impresses people who don't know any better. They are not however, indicators of ability or understanding.

At this point, we will say emphatically that we do not believe in awarding black belts to children. In our opinion, a person who wears a black belt is required to have a certain level of maturity. And part of the black belt requirements are to teach. It is very hard from what we've observed to leave children in authority over a class of other children of their own age or older. Our students remain at red belt black stripe (we use the old TKD ranking system) until they show the maturity, dedication and commitment we require of all black belts. Not to be discouraging, but the last two students who made black belt in our system began with us in middle school and were awarded black belts when they were in college. We don't choose to use the martial arts as a path to immediate gratification. And it's not our day job. We can afford to set and maintain a specific set of standards.

This and other reasons are why you need to seriously think before signing a contract with a commercial school. Remember what you want your child to get out of martial arts training. That, not a promise of a fast black belt, should determine where -- and if -- you sign your child up. With this in mind, we'd also like to point out you are not only limited to commercial schools. Community rec centers, local churches, YMCAs, cultural centers, colleges and universities often have excellent martial arts programs and clubs and for much cheaper. These programs do not normally require a contract and are on a month-by-month basis. So if your child gets bored, you're not stuck in a contract.

It's simply a matter of visiting several schools and comparing the quality and actions of "high" and black belts to help make a choice. It's also important to note if a school offers "kiddy classes" specifically geared for young children. These can range from "fun" activities that give children a smattering of martial arts knowledge (a glorified babysitting service) to a logical beginning for a martial arts career that will culminate in a black belt and the role of  teacher in the future.

Most schools not only offer the chance for unlimited observation, but a free class. Take advantage of this offer. Designed to draw new students, these classes generally involve the child, one-on-one, with an instructor. The session will be fun-filled and the instructor enthusiastic. Just be sure to carefully observe the other classes to get more of a taste as to what will be taught and expected during regular sessions. Return to top of page

How Old?
How old should a child be?

Our standard answer to that query is at least 6. In our classes, we cordially invite parents to bring their children and observe as many classes as they wish. We then offer them a class free of charge so the child has some hands-on experience. That class is geared just as if the child was a brand new white belt. There is no deviation from the standard schedule curriculum. We don't want a child to sign up only to be disappointed by the work we require a few weeks down the line. In our school, there is no difference in the curriculum we teach, whether child or adult. We simply know children will take longer to test for rank and the method of teaching will be different than an adult. We have had students with razor focus at 6 and who generally pay better attention than some adults. But this is rare. Students of all ages tend to run the gamut, but we try to teach to the child, recognizing his needs and the type of teaching geared especially to him

Other schools however take a different approach. Often these programs have radically different curriculum from the adult programs. In fact, many of them are basic playground activities overlaid with a thin veneer of martial arts. These programs allow for small children to run, jump, yell and scream in a safe and organized setting (if a room full of 7 year olds can ever be called "organized") under adult supervision. Quite frankly, these programs excel at siphoning off excessive energy. Little kids love to jump, and these programs are filled with lots of jumping and kicking. So your tiny tiger or little dragon is going to be plum tuckered out when you get him or her home. While these programs provide extremely useful services to the parents and are great exercise for the children, they really aren't martial arts.

Furthermore, many commercial schools have "junior" programs for older children. Again these programs tend to be martial arts lite. Simply stated a child does not have the physical acuity of an adult. Childhood is the time that this develops. We will be the first to admit that martial arts is a fabulous tool for developing kinesetic awareness and physical acuity. But we must draw the line at the idea of "junior black belts." In contract driven schools it is not unusual to see "black belts" as young as eight. While what these children are doing is impressive for an eight year old it is lacking the sophistication, control and motor nerve control of a 20 year old black belt. And it has nothing on what an adult who has studied the martial arts for ten to fifteen years is doing. Even though they all "technically" hold the same rank. Often the transition from a junior black belt into the school's full curriculum proves to be too much and the child will drop out.

This is why you need to ask if a school has a specific kid's program instead of just kid's classes. Because quite frankly if you want your children to achieve certain goals through the martial arts, you need to be paying for martial arts lessons instead of a babysitting service.

Even though kids programs are commercial school's bread and butter, when it comes to young children in the martial arts, it is really important to look into alternative instruction (such as a recreation center, church or YMCA kid's program). these programs are usually month-to-month. This is especially true for trying it out for the first time. If a child tires of the class or decides martial arts is not his cup of tea, he simply leaves. There is no contract left to be paid whether the child attends or not.

Another factor to consider when it comes to age is classes can range between forty five minutes up to an hour-and-a-half. That's why there needs to be an emphasis on observing and taking a class. Generally, longer classes are too rigid a requirement for a very young child to pay attention for.
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Hidden Costs
Once enrolled, prepare to pay more than class fees.

In most commercial schools, a uniform will be required. Some schools offer this "free" uniform with the first free class. Children, however, tend to grow, so it will be an ongoing cost. Usually you will have to buy the school's uniform. If the school offers point sparring, headgear, foot and hand pads, groin protection for boys and mouth guards will be mandatory. And, again, as kids grow gear will have to be replaced.

Check the local used sporting goods store or if parents are allowed to put notices in the school of uniforms and pads for sale their children have outgrown. If not that, e-bay is your friend. There is an incredible mark up for martial arts equipment. Items that wholesale for two to three dollars are routinely sold for eight to nine dollars. Therefore a "discount" of seven isn't that much of a deal.

If children want to enter tournaments be prepared for fees and travel expenses, as well as food and beverages.

In many schools the studying weapons can start as early as yellow belt. There is the added cost of these weapons. In addition often at each belt level there is an additional weapon that must be purchased. Along with the item itself there is carrying cases, gear bags.

And, of course, let us not forget all the super-cool,  extra little "ninja" gadgets that kids so love and are inconveniently on sale at the school -- even though they aren't part of the curriculum. Return to top of page

Parental Involvement
Many times, I encourage at least one parent to join class with a child if possible. Since both are studying the same system with the same requirements, it's great when Mom or Dad master their set of requirements and spend time helping Jimmy attain his belt ranking. Whether a parent joins or not, instructors should be willing, between classes, to go over what has been taught and what should be practiced at home with interested parents.

All in all, martial arts is a fun and rewarding endeavor for kids, but there are certain things of which the adults in their lives need to be aware. And kids should be aware you just don't become a Power Ranger without some hard work.

That said, we close with the words we use to end every martial arts class: Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

For further information or to ask a question, e-mail

Take a look at Commercial schools for an overview of what to look for in a martial art school. Take a look at Martial Arts Business for a behind the scenes look at the business of martial arts and why a Rec center or church group might be a better idea for martial arts training.

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1) You should also know that the degree of pomp and ceremony in doesn't reflect the quality of the school. In fact, many inferior schools hide the fact by over-emphasizing exotic, but supposedly "traditional," protocols that are odd to the Western perspective. Something you really need to look closely at is a white instructor insisting his students conduct themselves according to oriental traditions and cultural standards. Many people, not knowing much about oriental cultures themselves, are impressed when a martial arts instructor starts talking about reaching generalized benefits (such as control, self-discipline etc) through vague eastern teachings. In fact, this is often used as a cover for not doing what they say they are doing. A good instructor should be able to explain to you how things work in easy to understand nuts-and-bolts terms -- not in airy-fairy gobblygook. And, at a glance you should be able to see that what the students are doing on the floor matches that explanation. Return to text

2) Thom Hartmann in his book Attention Deficit Disorder: A different perception argues that ADD is not a disorder so much as an evolutionary design. His contention is that people with ADD are genetically designed "hunters." The attributes of ADD are what prehistoric hunters would need. The combination of scattered attention (where your attention is constantly bouncing to different aspects of your surroundings),  intuitive and imaginative leaps and hyper-focus (total concentration) are what are necessary when you are both the hunter and the hunted. Hartmann's contention is that these hunter's traits do not easily work within current educational practices and job requirements. Simply stated, these protocols are more "farmer" oriented and are not enough of a challenge for the ADDer. That's why they get bored. Whereas martial arts,  requires coordinating mental and physical aspects. For someone designed to be a hunter martial arts is enough of a multi-tasking challenge to make them want to focus. Return to Text

3) Until the end of the 20th century, the "black belt was not widespread in the martial arts. In fact, it is only because of the public's misconceptions that it has become so popular. While there have always been indicators of skill level among MA practitioners, the concept of a "black belt" is a relatively recent invention, dating to the early 20th century. The black belt's origin is not only purely Japanese, but specific to Judo -- NOT karate (which was Okinawan in origin, but adopted by the Japanese pre-WWII). After Judo was approved by the Japanese government for mass instruction, Jigoro Kano (Judo's founder) needed some way to track the progression of large numbers of students. He came up with the belt system. Although it quickly developed into a status symbol, the belt system was originally a record-keeping system. At a glance, an instructor could tell where someone was in the system's curriculum -- even if the instructor couldn't remember the student's name. In time, the ranking system was adopted by other Japanese styles. When the martial arts were brought to the West, market pressure from the public forced many non-Japanese systems to adopt the belt system (or a sash variation). If people understood "black belt" as a symbol of advanced rank, then you simply confirmed their belief by adopting a belt system and urging them to achieve the coveted symbol of black. Return to text

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